Mitchell: Presidential lies have a deep history in the U.S.

Date Published: 
March 24, 2017

Two weeks ago, President Trump tweeted on a Saturday morning that former President Obama had ordered a wiretap of his phones in Trump Tower during the campaign. Congressional leaders — both Republicans and Democrats — have said there is no proof of Trump’s charge. FBI Director Comey has testified before Congress that he has “no information” on President Trump’s declaration that former president Obama had wiretapped him.

The Trump White House, however, continues to assert that wiretapping happened.

Trump’s claim of wiretapping is now a bold-faced lie, but many will say that they already knew that.

Perhaps Machiavelli’s “The Prince” provides us with an understanding how and why politicians do lie. He argued that a prince places political expediency above morality and needs to lie to maintain his power and authority. Certainly many presidents have unwittingly or intentionally followed this guidance in “The Prince.”

Presidential lying has a long history. President Richard Nixon probably was the most egregious example of presidential lying. Nixon’s cover-up brought us to a constitutional crisis, and the public at that point became thoroughly disgusted with Nixon. His approval rating had fallen to a record low.

Ronald Reagan brought us the Iran-Contra scandal, which was built on a mountain of lies. Israel would ship missiles to Iran, and the U. S. would replace the missiles. Iranian cash would be diverted to Nicaragua to fund the Contras, whom Reagan favored. When discovered, Reagan lied, saying that arms were not traded to Iran for hostages. Reagan was not impeached, but a few of his White House staff were convicted and went to prison.

A presidential lie that cost 60, 000 lives was President Johnson’s lie over the Gulf of Tonkin attack on our destroyers. That lie began the Vietnam War, which was a sorry time in our history. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which effectively transferred congressional power to the president. The unpopular war led to his withdrawal from the presidential race in 1968.

A lie on the par with Johnson’ lie was George W. Bush’s lies that Saddam Hussein had a massive stockpile of biological weapons. Thus, we had to invade Iraq to stop this madman from using them. Later we found that he did not have any WMD, but after many American lives had been lost and upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East.

Presidents have used their commander-in-chief powers to start wars, but presidents have had to use lies to make their case for war, as President Johnson did in the Vietnam War. President Polk, for example, sent troops to the disputed Mexican border, and a fired shot began the Mexican war. Polk went to Congress asking for a declaration of war, lying that Mexico had invaded the United States.

Presidential lies are often used to protect the secrecy of covert operations, like the Iran-Contra operation was. President John Kennedy was forced to lie to protect the Bay of Pigs when he said “that the United States plans no military intervention in Cuba.” The Cuban nationals, nevertheless, were met by Castro’s forces on the Bay of Pigs’ beach, and it became a disaster.

The most concerning part of this Trump narrative is that the continuing lie can, later on, place Trump or his administration in a dangerous mode of obstructing justice. Of course, there has to be grand jury or FBI investigation for the obstruction to occur.

Comey, moreover, announced that there was an investigation of the coordination of people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russians. So it is official that there is an FBI investigation. Comey also said that FBI would assess if any crimes were committed. It is not unreasonable to believe that there may be a grand jury that could be empaneled down the road.

The continued lying mentality in the White House could lead to obstruction-of-justice charges. We have the history of Watergate — how the cover up became the crime and how that effort became the obstruction of justice, which led to the impeachment of the president and his subsequent resignation.

Will President Trump and his White House staff pay heed to history?

Perry J. Mitchell is a retired professor of political science living in Ocean View who has taught international relations for 35 years.