National Commentary

No Questions, No Lies

The release of the Mueller Report was like turning over one of those rocks that you almost wish you hadn’t. Crawling, creeping, wiggling, slinking, purely gross aspects of Mom Nature’s underbelly are exposed to the sunlight, and they don’t like it any better than you do.

A difference is that media reports and eyewitness accounts already retailed well ahead of time most of what the report exposed. It turns out that almost all the accounts, the independent investigations by the media and Congress, turned out to be spot-on. Yes, it is every bit as bad, and unsavory, as we’d been led to believe.

Some aspects stand out. First, there is no repudiation of any aspect of the Steele Dossier, that special report by a British spy hired to research what the Russians had been up to respecting their support for Trump. The report detailed Putin’s courtship of Jill Stein, the presidential candidate of the Green Party, in particular, and, of course, the scandalous accounts of Trump being “compromised” in a Moscow hotel room with Russian hookers. The two-year Mueller investigation found no grounds for denying or discrediting any of that.

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Another important revelation had to do with Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ admission to the Mueller investigators that she had knowingly lied to the press on more than one occasion. They were not “slips of the tongue” or “in the heat of the moment” as this liar contended when confronted with the accounts. One was read from a prepared statement at the White House press briefing room podium.

She is a liar, and her public unwillingness to admit it makes her a liar twice over. Her response to the revelation has been to go a record 43 days without holding a White House press briefing. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” is an idiom attributed to an 18th century Irish playwright, but Sanders can borrow it for her own sad story.

Lies have become so commonplace in this White House that the public is downright immune anymore, and that is a matter for great concern. Lying is the essential enemy of democracy and a free press. If leaders lie and get away with it, then the freedom of the public is fundamentally compromised. Cynics argue that it happens all the time, so don’t get exercised about it. But it is the very essence of the role of a free press and core democratic institutions to stand against lies, to stand against untruths, first of all, but conscious lies most emphatically.

I was a White House correspondent back in 1989 when, according to his memoir, “Call the Briefing! Reagan and Bush, Sam and Helen: A Decade With Presidents and the Press,” then White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater confessed to the only conscious lie, he said, he ever uttered from the podium.

I can believe that, because he was known by all the press corps for his candor and easy-going interaction with the media, a sharp contrast to his predecessor, the much more combative Larry Speakes.

Fitzwater recounted how serious the accusation of a press secretary telling a “lie” was. “Every statement,” he said, “Must pass the media honesty test,” he wrote, and he was accused of lying only once in six years.

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Well, the accusation came from me. Fitzwater described me in his book as “middle-aged, mild-mannered, slightly tweedy” and working for an offbeat organization. Fitzwater recounted that when I quoted from a Wall Street Journal account of an administration action in Panama, and asked, “Were you aware that these were lies,” he wrote, “There it was, the ‘lie’ word. My nerves froze.”

Notwithstanding a lot of details around the Panamanian operation being discussed in that briefing not germane to this, Fitzwater’s tortured recounting of the accusation that a lie was involved underscores the relevant point. Lying was considered by everybody the worst thing a press secretary could do, something that would destroy the credibility of that person and of the White House the minute it became known.

This incident took place only 30 years ago, after Reagan’s eight years and with a Republican in the White House.

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