Former French President Charles de Gaulle once said, “Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word.”
This week, no one is more surprised than President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' Sinema reignites 2024 primary chatter amid filibuster fight Why not a Manchin-DeSantis ticket for 2024? MORE and Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head David Weil: Wrong man, wrong place, wrong time Biden's voting rights gamble prompts second-guessing MORE. Trump has succeeded in turning an innocent mistake about the weather into a giant lie and then, after days of determined effort, into a full fledged scandal. Biden succeeded in denying his own words in support of the Iraq War. Falsely describing the path of a hurricane can be a serious matter, if not corrected. However, lying about hurricanes does not cause more hurricanes. Lying about wars is one reason we have so many of them.
Tragically, American voters are used to politicians avoiding responsibility for their embarrassing or costly errors. Yet, Trump has taken that tendency to a truly pathological level with the debacle over Hurricane Dorian. He incorrectly said that Alabama was in its path. Instead of simply correcting his mistake, he dug in deeper to avoid admitting it, producing a map with a juvenile alteration made with a sharpie to make Hurricane Dorian appear bound for Alabama. As ridicule mounted, he refused to drop the matter and continued to tweet for days about Alabama being in the path.
Now, the Washington Post reports that White House advisers confirm Trump made the alteration to the map, which is something that he has denied. The controversy expanded to the point that Merriam Webster Dictionary tweeting the meaning of “mumpsimus,” or a “stubborn person who insists on making an error in spite of being shown that it is wrong.”
Voters can easily conclude that all politicians are mumpsimuses, or some more so than others. But this ignores the gravity of lying about certain subjects such as war. Both Republicans and Democrats have long lied about wars. The Framers knew politicians would often take the nation into wars for stupid or shortsighted reasons. They also knew few politicians would own up to their roles in costly wars. For that reason, under Article I of the Constitution, the Framers expressly required a declaration of war from Congress. Before politicians could send sons and daughters off to war, possibly to die, they would have to do so with binding clarity.
During the Pennsylvania ratification convention, James Wilson explained the need for approval from Congress as a guarantee that no one will “hurry us into war it is calculated to guard against it.” Politicians are not very big on personal responsibility, of course, at least not in their own conduct. For that reason, nearly all of our wars have been undeclared and, as the Framers expected, politicians repeatedly misrepresent their roles.
Democratic candidate John Kerry gave perhaps the most mind numbing example of this. During the primary in 2004, Kerry portrayed himself as against the Iraq War even though he voted for it. Then, in the general election against President Bush, he pivoted when asked about his vote against spending $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, declaring that he “actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.”
Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNYT columnist floats Biden-Cheney ticket in 2024 Centrist Democrats urge progressives to tamp down rhetoric Stacey Abrams's shocking snub of Biden, Harris signals possible 2024 aspirations MORE engaged in the same kind of historical revisionism on war. She was a reliable hawk on military interventions, including the disastrous intervention in Libya, without even a resolution, and regarding Iraq, she jumped on the popular bandwagon for war. When it became less popular, however, she claimed to have been misled, even though she and her colleagues ignored those of us opposing the original war resolution.
Ultimately, that war would claim an estimated 655,000 lives, including 4,500 Americans with another 47,500 Americans wounded. It would cost this country more than $1 trillion. It initially was popular to send our troops to war and, when it eventually became unpopular, politicians simply denied responsibility. This is why lying about wars is not just another spin by the shameless. People died because Republican and Democratic leaders did not have the courage to stand against the drumroll for war.
In the case of Biden, he attempted to take a sharpie to the entire war and black out his name, insisting that he had voted to invade Iraq before “immediately opposing it” because, he said, he had been misled. He claimed that Bush “looked me in the eye in the Oval Office. He said he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors into Iraq to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program. He got them in and, before you know it, we had shock and awe.”
The Bush administration staff denies such an exchange ever occurred. More importantly, Biden said that he supported the war and continued to do so while it was popular. Now, he insists, “That moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.” Biden is repeatedly shown on videotape supporting the war. He said before the invasion that it was important for the United States not to stop with “covert action,” if that failed, but to move to overwhelming “overt action” because “we cannot afford to miss.” Then, months after the invasion, Biden said in a television interview, “I, for one, thought we should have gone in Iraq.” Still later, he said at a hearing, “I voted to go into Iraq, and I would vote to do it again.”
Even after this, Biden expressly said that “we have always known” about the war in Iraq, namely that troops “would have to stay there in large numbers for a long period of time.” He stated publicly after the invasion that “contrary to what some in my party might think, Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with sooner rather than later. So I commend the president. He was right to enforce the solemn commitments made by Saddam. If they were not enforced, what good would they be?”
It should not be a surprise that politicians who vote casually to send others to war would not be particularly troubled about denying their own responsibility in such decisions. The problem is that undeclared wars often are not just measured by the lies, but also by the lives left behind.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.