Imagine you were charged with choosing an artifact to put in a time capsule so that future Americans could understand the current government shutdown. This is an unrealistic scenario, of course. No single item can explain the current moment, and moreover, there’s no reason to believe that the shutdown is actually going to end.
But playing along with the game, your best bet would be this Donald Trump tweet from Friday morning:
Border rancher: “We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal.” Washington Examiner People coming across the Southern Border from many countries, some of which would be a big surprise.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2019
It offers a succinct window into the president’s mind and his approach to the shutdown: an obsession with border security. A dubious anonymous source. Assertions that are unproven at best and likely bogus. A reliance on right-wing media. Anti-Muslim sentiments. Xenophobia. It is the total package; it’s just that the package is a booby trap.
The story to which Trump refers, but does not link, was published in the Washington Examiner on Wednesday. Even by the standards of what the president is willing to employ for political purposes, the article is shockingly thin. The reporter Anna Giaritelli—who previously served as a spokeswoman for the hard-line immigration-policy group Federation for American Immigration Reform—traveled to Lordsburg, New Mexico, where she spoke to a rancher about illegal immigration.
Who knows who the rancher is, though, or whether there’s any reason to believe that she is reliable. The Examiner grants her anonymity “for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals.” But given how vague and unconvincing the allegations she airs are, one wonders why the cartels would even care.
“There’s a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico,” the rancher tells Giaritelli. “People, the general public, just don’t get the terrorist threats of that. That’s what’s really scary. You don’t know what’s coming across. We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal. It’s not just Mexican nationals that are coming across.”
As the rancher admits, she has never seen any Middle Easterners, though she insists that she has seen prayer rugs. She’s just heard tell from Border Patrol officials that Middle Easterners have come through—“several agents that I trust. There’s not a lot that I do trust, but the ones I do trust, I talk to them.”
Her own account is suspect, too. The claim of abandoned prayer rugs, presumably left by nefarious Muslim terrorists sneaking into the United States over the Rio Grande to do dirty deeds, has long floated around conservative circles. In 2014, PolitiFact awarded then–Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst a pants-on-fire rating for claiming that prayer rugs had been found in the Lone Star State. The fact-checking group noted recurrences of the meme at least as far back as 2005, but concluded,“We find his statement incorrect and ridiculous.” More recently, video footage has indeed emerged of prayer rugs at the border—but the problem is, it was from the Hollywood action flick Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
The anonymous rancher also told the Examiner, “What Border Patrol classifies as OTMs [other than Mexicans] has really increased in the last couple years, but drastically within the last six months. Chinese, Germans, Russians, a lot of Middle Easterners, those Czechoslovakians they caught over on our neighbor’s just last summer.”
This is truly a remarkable piece of information because if it’s true, the Czechoslovakians are slipping not only over national borders but also through the bounds of the space-time continuum, since Czechoslovakia ceased to exist on January 1, 1993.
To sum up: The Examiner has a single unnamed source, with no obvious qualification beyond proximity to the border, passing along second- and third-hand information, some of which seems recycled from debunked memes.
It’s doubtful that Trump checked any of this out. The president has demonstrated a long-running inability to sort truth from fiction, and he often shares bogus claims, even though he has the full power of the executive branch available to him to determine what is real. He appears not to read, and certainly not with any kind of rigor, which may make it harder for him to spot the many holes in the Examiner piece.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine that it would bother Trump even if he did know how flimsy the story he’s passing along is. Perhaps he omitted a link to it accidentally, or perhaps he’s just as glad not to make the original source material easily available. His aim is simply to score political points in the shutdown. Throughout the crisis, his actions have been driven by conservative media, which bullied him into shutting down the government when he was on the verge of compromising in late December. The Examiner story buttresses his insistence that the border needs more security, and it preys on xenophobia and on anti-Muslim sentiment in particular.
This is all quite helpful for his political messaging. Trump’s attitude toward the shutdown appears to be that it is better to be victorious than to be correct. His problem is that he is neither at this moment.