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Where will Trump’s aides draw the line on lies?

Matt Bai
Yahoo News
Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus (Photos: Cheriss May, Win McNamee (2)/Getty Images)

Let’s start this week with a little bit of ancient history. On a Saturday in the fall of 1973, President Nixon called his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, and ordered him to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into Watergate. Cox had issued a subpoena for the transcripts of Nixon’s taped conversations, and Nixon, out of options, was punching the panic button.

Richardson refused, and then he resigned. So Nixon turned to William Ruckelshaus, Richardson’s deputy, and told him to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus too stepped down.

Undeterred, Nixon then ordered Robert Bork, the solicitor general, to get rid of Cox. Bork was all too happy to comply; he would later reveal, without any apparent shame, that a grateful Nixon promised him a seat on the Supreme Court.

It turned out to be an empty gesture, because in nine months’ time Nixon was gone, too. Richardson and Ruckelshaus are remembered as principled public servants. Bork, whose later nomination to the high court was rejected by the Senate, is remembered as a verb; to be “borked” in Washington is to see your reputation destroyed.

I revisit all this now, just six tumultuous days into the Trump presidency, because not since Nixon, perhaps, have White House aides found themselves so plainly caught between loyalty to a boss on one hand and personal integrity on the other. And the questions I have are the same ones they should be asking themselves.

Who here will refuse to keep saying things they know aren’t true? And will anyone tell the boss what he doesn’t want to know?

Let’s face it: Trump’s not someone who puts a ton of value on the truth. That’s always been his way, and it’s worked for him.

This is a guy, don’t forget, who used to regularly impersonate his own fictitious spokesman, whom he rather unimaginatively named “John Miller,” so he could vouch for his own success with women to reporters over the phone. I mean, either he’s a very comfortable liar, or he’s like the dude with 23 personalities in that new M. Night Shyamalan movie.

John, this is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We’d like to talk to the president now. Is he in there? Can you put him on the phone?

Trump’s approach to reality is probably a lot like the ethos in Hollywood when they tell you something is “based on a true story.” It’s true as long as it’s believable. It’s a lie only if it isn’t plausible.

But that’s Trump. Until this week, we didn’t know that everyone who worked for the president in senior roles was going to feel compelled to emulate him.

First the president’s new press secretary, Sean Spicer, made a disastrous debut at the podium, in which he berated the media and offered up a series of data points — most of them demonstrably false — to back up Trump’s claim that his inauguration was the most watched thing in the history of the human eyeball.

Then Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers, went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and defended Spicer for offering “alternative facts.” Hearing her use that phrase, poor Chuck Todd looked as if he’d just walked in on the March Hare and the Mad Hatter having tea.

(This isn’t an entirely new idea in Trumpworld, mind you. Back in December, a Trump surrogate named Scottie Nell Hughes told NPR’s Diane Rehm that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”)

A few days later, after Trump felt inexplicably compelled to renew his allegations of massive voter fraud in the election, Spicer took to the podium again to squander what was left of his credibility. This time he cited studies to support the president’s claim, except that none of them actually did.

The word I heard a lot in Washington this week was “Orwellian,” but in fact that’s not what this is. What George Orwell explored, in both “Politics and the English Language” and “1984,” was the kind of vague, statist language with which repressive regimes might disguise their intentions and lull the populace.

This is something even Orwell didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating — the official voice of the government citing highly specific figures and sources that seem to have been completely invented or, at best, purposely misconstrued. This is our government saying: “Go ahead and disprove it. Nobody will listen, anyway.”

To be clear, as I’ve written many times, we in the media bear a lot of the responsibility here. For decades now, since the advent of cable news, we’ve embraced triviality and partisanship, turning political coverage into a mix of soap opera and shouting match. The public trusts us less today than ever before, and it’s hard to blame them.

And so it was probably inevitable that some Barnum-esque figure would come along to exploit that mistrust, to effectively say it’s his word against ours, knowing that our word as an industry isn’t worth a bunch of bitcoins.

But maybe someone should remind Conway and Spicer — well, OK, I’ll do it — that they don’t actually work for the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization anymore. They work for us. Their jobs exist to serve the public that pays them, and creating “alternative facts” for the sole purpose of validating the president’s insecurities isn’t in the job description.

Even leaving aside those ethical concerns for a moment, there’s something profoundly unsettling about the serial misdirection of this past week.

By any objective measure, Trump lacks the governing experience one would like to have in the Oval Office; even a lot of the people who voted for him acknowledged that. In exit polls from Election Day, only about a third of the voters thought him qualified to hold the office, and about an equal number thought he had the right temperament.

What you heard repeatedly from voters and surrogates, though, is this idea that Trump knew how to surround himself with all the right people. Businessmen, generals, old hands and family members — all of them were supposed to be Trump’s ballast, presenting him with the right options and keeping him focused on the hard realities of governance.

But you have to wonder, after this first week, who’s really influencing whom. If neither Conway nor Spicer — nor, presumably, the chief of staff, Reince Priebus — have the steel to tell Trump that his facts are fabricated and they’re not going to sully their own reputations by defending them, then it seems fair to ask: Who around here does?

If Trump decides next week that Copernicus was an idiot and that the sun actually revolves around us (“Earth first!”), is the new CIA director going to march out there and show us made-up satellite photos to prove the case? When Trump decides to lock away a bunch of these journalists whom he calls “some of the worst people on the planet,” is the attorney general going to ask how high the fence should be?

That was the kind of moral dilemma that a few loyal and politically savvy public servants found themselves navigating on a Saturday night 43 years ago. And if we’re not at an existential moment like that now, I’m betting we will be soon.

So all these senior aides and Cabinet officials should look in the mirror and ask themselves a serious question.

When the time comes, are you going to be a Richardson or Ruckelshaus? Or would you rather be Bork?

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