There are many matters that might absorb the attention of the president of the United States right now: the hurricane nearing the East Coast and the devastation it visited on a neighboring commonwealth, the shaky global economy, the near-collapse of the government of the nation’s closest ally, missile tests in North Korea, the quality of Debra Messing’s dramatic output—you know, those sorts of national-security matters.
Yet no single subject has transfixed the president so consistently over the past week as attempting to prove that, at some point in the past, Hurricane Dorian was headed to Alabama. The Washington Post calculates that Trump has told more than 12,000 lies since becoming president, but this might be the most pointless of them all.
The groundwork was laid on Sunday, when during a briefing about the storm, Trump said, “It may get a little piece of a great place: It’s called Alabama. And Alabama could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be. This just came up, unfortunately. It’s the size of—the storm that we’re talking about. So, for Alabama, just please be careful also.”
The only problem here is that this was patently untrue—so untrue, in fact, that the National Weather Service’s office in Birmingham hastened to correct it: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.” News reports also pointed out that the president said something false, though that hardly qualifies as news anymore.
Yet Trump has raged about it in tweets over four days, most recently Thursday morning. In the most bizarre moment, Trump displayed a chart at the White House on Wednesday in which someone—it is not clear who—appears to have graffitied a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chart with a Sharpie, in order to suggest that the storm might have been headed toward Alabama. Asked about the alteration, Trump said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” using much the same tone that a toddler uses when asked who broke the lamp.
How was this futile? Let us count the ways. First, the scribble on the map fooled absolutely no one, bearing no resemblance to the high-detail rendering around it. Second, the predictions about Dorian’s path have changed dramatically since Trump’s initial statement about Alabama, rendering the entire controversy moot. Third, the chart he displayed was from last Thursday, three days before he offered a warning based on information that “just came up”; by the time Trump spoke on Sunday, the five-day forecast showed the storm curving out into the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina. Fourth, there’s no reason to believe that Trump’s comments on Sunday were anything more than his typical bullshitting: He knew the storm was going to hit the South, he knows Alabama is a southern state, and it’s important to him electorally, so he rambled on. While there’s no reason to believe the initial statement was anything other than an unintentional error, it’s unclear at this point whether Trump now believes his own lie or recognizes it and just won’t let go. It’s also unclear which would be worse.
Trump has no reputation for probity to maintain, and he could easily drop the matter. But he won’t, pursuing ever more absurd protestations and excuses. He has tweeted out an old spaghetti plot that purports to show the path of the hurricane going over Alabama, even though (1) none of the government’s models actually predicted it would, (2) the chart was out of date by Trump’s Sunday briefing, and (3) once again, the NWS said it was untrue. If reality doesn’t conform to the president’s words, reality must be adjusted with a Sharpie.
One fears belaboring the point. Trump’s lies about Alabama here are so silly as to forfeit close consideration, yet so bizarre as to invite puzzled scrutiny. (It is refreshing to know that he can still say something so outrageously, blatantly untrue that it shocks.)
Telling entirely unconvincing lies has been a hallmark of the Trump administration, but this one sticks out for its pointlessness. When the president sent then–Press Secretary Sean Spicer to claim, against all evidence, that his inauguration crowd was larger than Barack Obama’s, it was easy to see his self-aggrandizing motive. When he said his son hadn’t met with Russians at Trump Tower, it was easy to see why the cover-up was politically beneficial. When Trump said that Obama had wiretapped him—another case where Trump kept up his insistence, even as the executive branch admitted it wasn’t true—the political motive was clear. By contrast, the Alabama howler has no apparent benefit.
A certain school of thought holds Trump to be a political genius—either an evil or a divine one, depending on one’s partisan outlook—and might hold that Trump has intentionally created a sideshow. I’m skeptical. The president has a shaky grasp on facts and a tendency to riff mindlessly, and there’s every indication that’s how this started.
Not since “covfefe,” a similarly absurdist episode, has Trump stuck so insistently to a pointless lie, though even that moment was over faster. Yet the lie’s pointlessness does not make it harmless. Trump has turned the whole thing into yet another bogus attack on “the Fake News,” who had the temerity to report what he said and point out that it was untrue. By undermining the authority of the nation’s hurricane forecasters, Trump makes storms more dangerous. But the danger is broader and more abstract, too. Most people may see the Alabama lie for what it is, but with his insistence that what’s in plain sight is false, and that history can be altered with a Sharpie, Trump cuts into any shared basis of fact and reality—which is the bedrock of functioning democratic society.