Lawmakers are learning to shrug off President Donald Trump’s penchant for embracing and repeating incorrect information — and not apologizing for it — even as his comments rattle the rest of the world.
In Washington, where politicians and their spokespeople often stonewall and mislead, Trump’s unconventional information flow once unnerved Capitol Hill leadership, rank-and-file legislators, and even some of the most jaundiced watchers of his campaign. He has repeatedly talked about millions of fraudulent votes and shared questionable tales of voter fraud. He and his aides have made false statements about his inauguration crowd size. He has incorrectly stated the size of his Electoral College victory, and the nation’s murder rate, among others, with the presidential seal backing him up.
Now, when Trump makes public declarations that aren’t true or clash with what his Cabinet secretaries say, Republicans barely look up, aides and members say. Even some Democrats are now trying to assess if pointing out a misstatement will get any traction.
“The president is in danger of people on Capitol Hill simply tuning him out because of the flood of misinformation that comes out of the White House,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat.
Trent Lott, the Republican former majority leader of the Senate who keeps in close contact with members, said people are “learning to disregard more of the things he says and tweets.”
His comments still send shockwaves across the globe. For example, Swedish officials rushed to correct the record when Trump suggested during a Florida rally last weekend that an immigrant-related terrorist attack had happened in Sweden the night before. Days later, officials including Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven were still fixated on the comment, with Lofven mocking Trump’s loose grasp on statistics.
Trump also appeared to muck up a trip his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his homeland security secretary, John Kelly, took to Mexico to try to repair relations by calling the U.S. deportation plans a “military operation.” Kelly, standing by Mexican officials later in the day, emphatically stated “No — repeat — no use of military force in immigration operations. None.”
But in Washington, most everyone shrugged. GOP aides on Capitol Hill shook their heads at the “military operation” and Sweden comments, with their bosses privately ranging from laughing it off to nonchalant bemusement to frustration over another statement of questionable origin, according to several of them. “What are you supposed to say? Nothing happened in Sweden,” one senior GOP aide said.
Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said past administrations have been quite careful to present a consistent message because they know the president’s words greatly matter. “This is not that presidency,” Rozell said. “Now, we wonder: ‘Who do we take seriously? Who speaks for the administration?’ We just have to ask those questions every time now.”
But GOP lawmakers are starting to get desensitized, even if they don’t like his misstatements. Last week, after saying he was not a fan of the “daily tweets” and the president’s off-message fights, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he didn’t expect Trump to listen. At an overseas conference last week, Sen. John McCain helpfully encouraged foreign officials to simply follow the president’s actions because he said Trump often contradicts himself.
Republicans now prepare for questions with non-answers to deflect and move on. They back-channel with top Trump aides who they trust. For example, they were assuaged soon after his conflicting comments on the timing of repealing the Affordable Care Act that the administration’s plan of getting it done this year hasn’t changed. After some of his Twitter posts, they have been reassured that it would die down — or that it didn’t matter. White House aides have even shrugged off some of his comments to them, several GOP Capitol Hill sources say.
“He says some crazy shit sometimes,” one senior GOP aide said. “We are getting used to handling it.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
His fact-challenged remarks come from a wide spread of sources – New York friends he talks to late at night on the phone, people he meets at parties and events, television segments he consumes every night, blogs that are printed out and given to him, videos he is shown on his computer, and aides and advisers, who compete for his ear. He is not interested in lengthy briefings or long meetings where issue experts pass along information about the world’s problems. He likes to ask questions and soaks it in. “If you’re talking to him the most, you can control the information,” one longtime adviser said.
“He is a sponge,” another longtime friend said. This person said Trump will take information of dubious value and believe it is true “if it conforms with what he already believes.” This person said Trump is less likely to believe information if it contrasts with what he thinks, and that some aides feed into his worst impulses by giving him questionable information that meshes with his worldview. He has repeated cable news chyrons word-for-word on Twitter, and repeated dubious broadcast reports, as he did with the claims of the terrorist attack in Sweden.
“That the president regularly sits in the White House and watches television and sees a story that intrigues him and decides to make that executive branch policy is a frightening prospect,” Jeffries said.
Still, bashing Trump isn’t a useful exercise for Republicans. As one senior GOP aide said, attacking him would hurt their chances to get him to sign what they want for tax reform and the replacement of the Affordable Care Act. They don’t want him to grow angry with their bosses. Attacking him would only create more fights and negative storylines for the party. And they’re not sure if he’s even speaking what he believes or about what the administration will ultimately do.
There’s also the fact that many voters give Trump the benefit of the doubt. Republican and Republican-leaning voters are more likely to side with Trump over Republican leaders if there is a disagreement, a Pew poll last week showed. Some 52 percent would trust Trump, while only 34 percent are likely to trust Republican members of Congress, the poll shows. Others said they were unsure.
“The feedback I get is that he does no wrong and can do no wrong among his supporters,” said Rep. Chris Collins, a Trump ally. “If something is not 100 percent accurate, who cares. If you want to nitpick the details, his supporters are extraordinarily forgiving and not hung up on the details.”
Collins said he wasn’t concerned that Trump referred to his win as bigger than President Barack Obama’s. When told he was incorrect last week about the Electoral College tally, Trump simply said: “I was given that information.”
“Barack Obama got more Electoral College votes. Truly, who cares. We know what he’s referring to, and it was a bigger win than anyone expected,” Collins said. On the size of the inauguration crowd, Collins also shrugged. “He portrayed it as he portrayed it.”
Even more, they are broadly happy with his Supreme Court pick, his tougher line on immigration, his Cabinet choices and his aggressive executive orders, said Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of the Iowa Republican Party. Kaufmann said his misstatements seem trivial compared to what he’s done, and he gets “wiggle room and forgiveness.”
“All politicians stretch the truth sometimes,” Kaufmann said. “Remember ‘read my lips, no new taxes,’ or ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’”
Trump’s remark last Saturday on the supposed terrorist attack in Sweden led to widespread puzzlement overseas, thousands of internet jokes and questions from the Swedish Embassy, which wanted clarification on whether something may have happened in their country because the U.S. president indicated as such. His voter fraud allegations have led to foreign officials wondering if the U.S. president truly believes the election was rigged, even when he won.
Trump has continued to repeat the voter fraud allegations. At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Trump said a crowd stretched six blocks outside to see him speak, even though pictures showed that was not true. He also doubled down on his claim of a terrorist attack in Sweden.
“Take a look at what’s happening in Europe. I took a lot of heat on Sweden,” Trump said at CPAC. “And then a day later, I said, has anybody reported what’s going on? And it turned out that they didn’t, not too many of them did. Take a look at what happened in Sweden.”
He received loud cheers throughout.