Politics

Republicans Embrace Fake News to Cover for Trump

Trump’s racist attacks on Democratic congresswomen are indefensible. So Republicans are defending them with lies.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a press conference at the Capitol on July 15..
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is absolutely, positively not a racist. That’s the message Republican leaders have delivered since July 14, when Trump told four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries from which their families came. Trump’s real beef, according to Republicans, is that these congresswomen keep praising al-Qaida, condemning Jews, and calling America garbage. “They’re wrong when they espouse … vile anti-Semitism,” Rep. Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference, declared at a press conference on July 16. “Our opposition to our colleagues’ beliefs has absolutely nothing to do with race or gender or religion.”

It’s an odd defense, because the principal allegations against the four congresswomen are lies. Some are pure fabrications. Others are inversions of what they said. The lies were fact-checked and debunked more than a week ago, but Republicans continue to repeat them. That’s because the GOP is desperate to mask Trump’s bigotry and, emboldened by his successful use of disinformation as a political strategy, has lost all compunction about making things up.

Trump’s “go back” tweets, posted on July 14, didn’t specify any offensive statements by the congresswomen. He accused them of only two things: coming from “broken and crime infested” countries and “telling the people of the United States … how our government is to be run.” His argument was naked: If you’re a minority immigrant or a child of minority immigrants, don’t meddle in “our” country.

The racism of the tweets was too overt for Republican leaders. So they concocted a more palatable story. According to a Washington Post account drawn from interviews with more than two dozen “White House aides, advisers, lawmakers and others,” Republican politicians and operatives “urged Trump to reframe away from the racist notion at the core of the tweets … Advisers wrote new talking points and handed him reams of opposition research on the four congresswomen.” The new script was that “the four congresswomen hated America.” On July 15, the Republican National Committee posted the opposition research on one of its Twitter accounts. At a Cabinet meeting on July 16, Trump gestured to papers in front of him. “I have a list of things here said by the congresswomen that is so bad,” he told reporters. “They hate our country.” Two days later, Trump added, “I could go page over page over page—many, many statements … I’ve seen statements that they made with such hatred toward our country.”

And what were those statements? At a July 15 White House event, Trump pulled a sheet of talking points from his jacket and began to read them. He claimed that one of the four congresswomen, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, had said, “When I think of al-Qaida, I can hold my chest out.” He accused Omar of “speaking about how wonderful al-Qaida is” and “talking about how great al-Qaida is.” Twice, he claimed that Omar “hates Jews.” Trump also denounced Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, for daring to “call our country and our people ‘garbage.’ ” He added that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had “said, ‘Make America white again.’ … That’s a very racist statement.”

None of this is true. What Pelosi had actually written, in rebuttal to Trump’s “go back” tweets, was that “his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again.” She was accusing the president of racism.

Trump’s talking points also twisted Omar’s words. In a 2013 interview, Omar condemned Islamic terrorists, drawing a distinction between “normal people” like herself and “the people that are carrying on the evil acts—because it is an evil act.” She denounced Al-Shabab, a violent Islamist group, for “terrorizing” her country of birth, Somalia. In the interview, Omar also mocked a professor for lifting his shoulders and raising his intensity when speaking the words al-Qaida. Trump took her mockery of the professor and perverted it into a fake, first-person statement of pride.

The president also lied about Ocasio-Cortez. In an interview four months ago, she was asked about the difficulty of getting politicians to support ambitious changes like “Medicare for All” and a $15 minimum wage. She replied that progressives shouldn’t settle for “10 percent better from garbage.” She was criticizing incrementalism, and by “garbage,” she was referring to policies she deemed inadequate. The full transcript of her remarks shows no basis to claim, as Trump does, that she was disparaging “our country and our people.”

Three major media outlets—CNN, ABC News, and the New York Times—debunked Trump’s slanders on July 15. Over the next three days, other outlets—PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, the Post, the Associated Press, USA Today, and NBC News—published further evidence that the charges were false. But on July 19, Trump repeated the same smears. He claimed six times that the congresswomen had called “our country and our people ‘garbage.’ ”

There’s nothing new about Trump telling lies. What’s new is the boldness with which the rest of Trump’s party is embracing his practice of complete fabrication. On Sunday, Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign, went on ABC News to denounce “the chants of ‘the Squad,’ the … anti-Semitic chants that they push forward.” There are no such chants. On Fox News Sunday, when senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller repeated Trump’s false allegations, Chris Wallace showed viewers the Ocasio-Cortez “garbage” quote and explained its meaning: “She didn’t say the country was garbage. She said some of the policies she opposes are garbage.” Miller refused to back down. “It’s literally impossible to read the quote that way,” Miller insisted. “She’s saying that America in her view, right now, is garbage.”

Congressional leaders and GOP officials have joined the smear campaign. At the press conference with Cheney on July 16, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed that Omar had questioned whether “somebody of the Jewish faith could support America.” (That’s false.) Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel asserted that another congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, “says she gets a ‘calming feeling’ when she thinks about the Holocaust” (a complete misrepresentation). On Sunday, long after the “garbage” quote had been debunked, Cheney again accused Ocasio-Cortez of “talking about the nation as garbage.”

The most avid liar has been Vice President Mike Pence. In a CBS News interview that aired on Sunday, Pence claimed that Ocasio-Cortez “said this country was garbage” and was “referring to our country as garbage.” He also accused Omar of vicious statements “about the Jewish people in this country”—specifically, a “reference to evil Jews.” Trump made the same allegation on July 19 at the White House: “They can’t talk about ‘evil Jews,’ which is what they say: ‘evil Jews.’ ”

That’s pure fiction. Omar has never used the phrase “evil Jews.” She has never said anything bad about Judaism or Jewish people. She has criticized some Israeli policies but has always taken care, in her words, “to distinguish between criticizing a military action by a government and attacking a particular people of faith.” She has consistently argued that no one should be targeted or disparaged on the basis of religion. Trump, Pence, and the RNC have ignored these statements. They have stuffed the words evil Jews in her mouth.

This is vile. It’s different from spin, which is based on dueling interpretations of facts. It’s also different from the political falsehoods of the past, which were surrendered in the face of evidence. When President George W. Bush found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he admitted he was wrong. That ethic is gone. Trump has installed an authoritarian culture of raw disinformation, and his party has bought into it. Republicans are fabricating quotes, ignoring corrections, and disregarding the whole idea of truth.

In this case, it’s worth asking why they have to lie so hard—and why they’ve chosen these particular lies. The answers are telling. Republicans had to invent fake quotes because in real life, nothing the congresswomen have said or done justifies Trump’s tweets. And Republicans chose these particular fictions—bashing “evil Jews,” glorifying al-Qaida, dismissing America as garbage—because those are the smears they thought they could pin on people named Omar and Ocasio-Cortez. In covering for Trump’s racism, his apologists have exposed their own.