One thing that Donald Trump’s supporters intuited very early on is that his lies are, generally speaking, unimportant. Attempts — like this one — to catalogue them seem quixotic at best and at worst moronic. There are several reasons for this, the most important of which is that many of these are only “lies” in the sense that stand-up comedians or motivational speakers are “lying.” (This is not a problem unique to Trump: I defy the reader to identify any propositions in a speech about "values" that could even be evaluated as true or false without making a kind of category mistake.)
Even when there is some meaningful content that can be investigated the effort is rarely worth making. Have the numberless occasions on which Trump has been economical with the actualité made any difference — to his friends or his enemies? The former do not care; the latter are overwhelmed by the sheer volume.
But it would be foolish to think that there can be no exceptions to this rule. There must be things about which not even Trump could lie — clearly and demonstrably lie, I mean, not say something of doubtful or unverifiable authority — with impunity. The circumstances surrounding the rescue of Otto Warmbier, the American who died soon after being released from a North Korean prison last year, are, I think obviously one of these.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump had charged an American envoy with agreeing to pay a ransom of some $2 million in order to secure Warmbier’s release. The president denied this the next day:
No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else. This is not the Obama Administration that paid 1.8 Billion Dollars for four hostages, or gave five terroist hostages plus, who soon went back to battle, for traitor Sgt. Bergdahl!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2019
He followed this on Friday morning with another tweet in which he quoted the authority of one “Cheif [sic] Hostage Negotiator, USA”:
“President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.” Cheif Hostage Negotiator, USA!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2019
Just who is this Cheif, I wonder? A cousin of John Barron? He doesn’t pass the smell test. It does not necessarily follow from the fact that Trump made up a dubious-sounding quote to support his position that his underlying claim is false. It may very well be that he invented the Cheif in order to shore up a true claim that he cannot prove immediately or conveniently. But there are really only two meaningful possibilities here: Either the Post has totally botched this story or the president is lying through his teeth. At present it is impossible to know for certain which is the case.
But suppose for a moment that Trump is not telling the truth. I believe that this would be a lie with more potential to harm both his relationship with what is ostensibly his own party and his fortunes in next year’s presidential election than any falsehood he has unburdened himself of since being elected president.
This is the case because it would differ both in degree and in kind from his other lies. It would be different in degree because it would involve not a mere arbitrary denial of some discreditable event but the invention of a false one — the presentation of a totally different picture of how negotiations between the United States and North Korea proceeded.
More important, though, it would be different in kind because it would really be a lie about national security and the norms governing our response to the imprisonment of Americans by despotic regimes. If it really is the case that we will offer $2 million for the release of our citizens, any number of questions present themselves. Where did the $2 million figure come from? Was it negotiated up by the North Koreans, or down by the president or his representatives? Is that the most we are willing to pay? Are there special circumstances that made the release of Warmbier a priority — Trump's ongoing attempts to bring Kim Jong Un's nuclear ambitions under control, say — or is this a standing offer to any of our enemies? Should hostile governments around the world be taking notes? These are all hugely important questions.
Then there is the issue of how it would play out at home. This would be a lie concerning a subject about which most Americans have strong views — i.e., the lives of their fellow citizens in the hands of our enemies. I cannot imagine even Mitch McConnell defending Trump's attempt to cover up something as sordid as a ransom paid secretly in order to secure an outcome that was later passed off as the work of a heroic and skilled diplomat. It would be the opening that Republican critics of the president such as Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse and others who have long been on the fence — Lindsey Graham comes to mind — have been waiting for to declare open war.
It would be hell in an election year. Nothing would play more into, say, Joe Biden's hand than a real example of Trump cowering in front of America's enemies and then lying about it. It would not even matter if Trump responded that his predecessors had done similar things in the past. It would become almost impossible for the president to pose as a tough, shrewd negotiator who defends the lives and liberties of Americans at home and abroad.
It is worth saying again that we have no way of knowing whether the scenario I have just discussed will ever play out. It would certainly be unremarkable if it turned out that the Post’s reporting was false. The last two years of reporting on the Trump administration are a graveyard of sloppy journalism. But if they are right about this and their claims can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, Trump may find that he has told one lie that very few of us are willing to ignore.