Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on a week of disturbing false statements from the two leading presidential candidates for 2020. Both stories should give voters pause. Indeed, this week has also seen candidates like Kamala Harris challenged on not one but two statements on her record and, in a way, her selective hearing. Yet, despite Donald Trump’s bizarre conduct in the Hurricane Dorian controversy, the more serious (and less covered) falsehood was Joe Biden’s statement about his claimed opposition to the Iraq War. As someone who opposed the Iraq War, it is frustrating to see former and current senators falsely claiming to have been duped or being opposed to the war. At the time, neither Democratic nor Republicans senators wanted to even hear from those of us who opposed the resolution. Indeed, the key hearing held was absurd with neither party calling opponents to the war. What is striking however is how little press was given to Biden’s false claim in comparison to the Hurricane controversy.
Here is the column:
Former French President Charles de Gaulle once explained that “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 Trump and Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump succeeded in turning an innocent mistake about the weather into a blatant misrepresentation and then, after days of determined effort, into a subject of worldwide ridicule. Biden succeeded in denying his own words in support of the Iraq War — splitting television screens of himself saying diametrically opposing things with the equal vehemence. 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 accustomed 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 Alabama was in the hurricane’s path. Then, instead of simply correcting his mistake, he dug in deeper to avoid admitting it. Ultimately, he produced a hurricane-path map with a juvenile alteration made with a Sharpie to make Dorian appear Alabama-bound. 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 — something he has denied. The controversy grew to the point that the normally apolitical Merriam-Webster Dictionary tweeted out the meaning of “mumpsimus,” or a “stubborn person who insists on making an error in spite of being shown that it is wrong.”
Voters could easily conclude that all politicians are mumpsimuses, or some more so than others. That, however, would ignore the gravity of lying about certain subjects — like war. Both Republicans and Democrats have long lied about wars. The Framers knew politicians would often take the nation into wars for stupid, self-serving 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 the nation’s 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 congressional approval as a guarantee that no one “will … hurry us into war [since] it is calculated to guard against it.” Of course, politicians are not big on personal responsibility, at least not in their own conduct. For that reason, virtually all of our wars have been undeclared and, as the Framers expected, politicians routinely misrepresent their roles.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry gave perhaps the most mind-numbing example of this. During his party’s primaries in 2004, Kerry portrayed himself as against the Iraq War even though he voted for it. Then, in the general election against President George W. Bush, he pivoted when confronted about his vote against spending $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, declaring, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.”
Hillary Clinton engaged in the same kind of historical revisionism. She was a reliable hawk on military interventions, including the disastrous intervention in Libya, without even a resolution. On 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 and refused to take the time to fully investigate the matter.
Ultimately, that war would claim an estimated 655,000 lives, including 4,500 Americans with another 47,500 American wounded. It would cost this country more than a trillion dollars. It initially was popular to send our troops to war — and, when it 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 Biden’s case, he attempted to take a Sharpie to the entire war and black-out his name. In a Kerry-like moment, Biden insisted in an NPR interview that he voted for the war before “immediately opposing it” because, he said, he had been misled. He claimed, “[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.’”
Bush’s staff denies such an exchange ever occurred. More importantly, Biden himself said repeatedly that he supported the war and continued to do so … while it was popular. Although he now insists otherwise — “That moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment” — he is repeatedly shown on videotape supporting the war. He said publicly before the invasion that it was important for the U.S. not to stop with “covert action,” if that failed, but to move to overwhelming “overt action” because “we can’t afford to miss.” Then, months after the invasion, Biden told CNN: “I, for one, thought we should have gone in Iraq.” Still later, he said at a Senate hearing, “I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again.”
Still later, he expressly said “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 — again, 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. 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.