Sometimes it’s possible to tell a big story in few words - as evidenced by an episode earlier this week that nicely illustrates this president’s addiction to infauxmation (via Fox News) and blatant lying (via Twitter).
Basically, it’s a closed loop. Fox News pumps bilge into his brain, and he spews it out through his fingers. Here’s how it works:
At 6:12 a.m. Tuesday, Trump was watching cable, as he is wont to do, and he saw this breaking news on Fox: “A win in the war on terror. The Trump administration just killed a former Guantanamo Bay detainee released by Barack Obama. Yasir al-Silmi, once considered the worst of the worst, killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen. He had been released back in 2009 even though the Department of Defense recommended that he stay behind bars. One hundred twenty-two prisoners released from Gitmo have returned to the battlefield.”
It was a classic Fox pseudo-story, and it got Trump’s full attention - no surprise, given his current heightened obsession with President Obama. It’s true that Yasir al-Silmi was released by Obama; it’s true that he was a recidivist who’d returned to terrorism. But when Fox said that 122 prisoners released from Gitmo have returned to terrorism, it left the impression - without explicitly saying so - that Obama had freed them all.
So Trump thumbed his phone and explicitly decreed on Twitter that Obama had freed them all.
Trump didn’t bother to run a fact-check, even though presidents have unparalleled access to data and stats. Nah, he just tweeted on impulse and animus:
“122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!”
According to facts that are readily available in the real world - facts attributed to the U.S. director of national intelligence - 113 of those 122 Gitmo prisoners, “confirmed of re-engaging in terrorist activity,” were actually released from Gitmo by ... George W. Bush.
And of the 86 Gitmo prisoners who are “suspected on re-engaging in terrorist activity,” 75 were released by George W. Bush.
I suppose this is not a surprise, given Trump’s obsession with spewing fake news about Obama - ranging from his multi-year falsehoods about Obama’s place of birth to his evidence-free contention that Obama illegally wiretapped his Manhattan tower - but it’s instructive nonetheless to track Tuesday’s episode from Fox News’ insinuation to Trump’s outright concoction.
This is the world we now live in, and I almost feel sorry for Sean Spicer (almost), because it’s his job to mop up for his boss’ BS. At a press briefing a few hours after Trump’s big little lie, Spicer was asked: “Will the president offer a correction to his tweet this morning that states that 122 prisoners were released from Gitmo by the Obama administration and then returned to the battlefield?”
Spicer’s reply:”Yes, I mean, obviously the president meant in totality the number that had been released on the battlefield - that have been released from Gitmo since - individuals have been released. So that is correct.”
If you can fork your way through that word salad, you’ll discover that Spicer did two contradictory things: He basically acknowledged that Trump had lied, but he also appeared to insist that Trump’s lie had been inadvertent, because “obviously the president meant in totality the number.”
Whatever. The bottom line is that we’re stuck with a president whose habit is to pollute the information stream by taking stuff from Fox News and conflating it into fake news. In recent years numerous studies have concluded that Fox devotees are less well-informed than those who get most of their news from other outlets.
It’s our national tragedy, and an assault on truth itself, that a Fox superfan is occupying the White House.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com.