The Hill: In Washington, the Truth has Refugee Status

The Hill

In Washington, the truth has refugee status

“Truth isn’t truth,” declared Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney, on Meet the Press on Sunday. Giuliani’s comment — the weirdest absolution yet proffered for Trump — is the “Trump era’s epitaph,” according to a Washington Post columnist. But truth really is defined differently inside the Beltway.

Trump could face a “perjury trap” from Special Counsel Robert Mueller because of the unique way that the FBI defines reality — and the truth. The FBI rarely records interviews and instead relies on written summaries (known as Form 302s) which “are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations,” the New York Times noted last year. Though defense attorneys routinely debunk the accuracy and credibility of 302s, prosecutors continue touting FBI interview summaries as the voice of God. Even if Trump made factually correct comments to Mueller, he could still face legal peril if his statements failed to harmonize with FBI “trust me on what I heard” memos containing contrary assertions.

Though other federal agencies cannot play the 302 game, they have plenty of options for editing the public record. Inside the Beltway, “plausible deniability” (a phrase first publicly used by CIA chief Allen Dulles in the 1950s) is “close enough for government work” to truth. Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 to boost self-government by entitling Americans to learn what Washington did in their name. But FOIA is derided nowadays as a “Freedom From Information Act” that begets merely a mirage of transparency. Last year, individuals who filed FOIA requests “received censored files or nothing in 78 percent” of the time, according to the Associated Press. Federal agencies with the most power — such as the FBIDepartment of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department — are among the worst FOIA abusers.

Federal agencies also maximize their discretion in defining truth via almost 50 million decisions to classify information each year. And the Justice Department can totally suppress embarrassing facts on the most contentious issues (such as torture or assassinations) by invoking the “state secrets” doctrine. The George W. Bush administration routinely invoked “state secrets” to seek “blanket dismissal of every case challenging the constitutionality of specific, ongoing government programs,” according to a study by the Constitution Project. A federal appeals court slammed the Obama administration’s use of “state secrets”: “According to the government’s theory, the judiciary should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and the limits of the law.” Government’s sway over damning information is boundless — at least until some scofflaw like Edward Snowden obliterates federal credibility.

If one is seeking Shakespearian-level creativity, official claims regarding U.S. military and foreign policy rarely disappoint. (But seriously, the Taliban are finally on the run.) How much has changed since 1965, when Pentagon assistant secretary Arthur Sylvester hectored Vietnam war correspondents: “Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that? Stupid”? Sylvester’s slapdown has not deterred the media from continuing to play stenographer for the vast majority of government assertions.

Lamentably, the Oval Office has never been an oasis of candor inside the District of Columbia. Calvin Coolidge may have been the last man who appeared more honest at the end of his presidency than at the start. While every president in the last quarter century has shredded their credibility, Trump is reportedly shattering the bogus benchmark (the Washington Post asserts he has made more than 2000 false or misleading claims).

But wild-eyed tweeting is not a federal offense, and it is unclear whether the president has said anything specifically that places him in legal peril. Trump is guilty of wacky hiring decisions, as shown by his lawyer Giuliani’s “talent for putting defense arguments as unconvincingly, unappealingly, and suspiciously as possible,” as attorney Ken “Popehat” White quipped.

Perhaps the biggest whopper in Washington nowadays is the assumption that the government and the political class will automatically be trustworthy once the Trump era ends. Even if Trump is toppled by impeachment, there will still be a thousand precedents for federal coverups and duplicity. And neither political party nor the bureaucracy has shown any itch to cease deceiving the American people.

James Bovard is the author of “Public Policy Hooligan” (Kindle version 2012), “Attention Deficit Democracy” (St. Martin’s/Palgrave, 2006), and eight other books.


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