Over the weekend, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney tried to explain President Donald Trump’s fanciful claim that other presidents told him they should have built a border wall. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence took a shot.
It went poorly.
After Jimmy Carter became the fourth of four living ex-presidents to deny saying this to Trump, NBC News’s Hallie Jackson asked Pence to account for the claim:
Jackson: “We’re just about out of time. Before I let you go, which former president told President Trump, as he said, that he should’ve built a wall? All of their representatives have denied that that was the case.”
Pence: “Well, you — you — you — I — I know the president has said that that was his impression from previous administrations, previous presidents. I know — I know I’ve seen clips of previous presidents talking about the importance of border security, the importance of addressing the issue of illegal immigration. And look .. .”
Jackson: “That’s different from telling the president, though, right?”
Pence: “But look, you know, honestly the American people — the American people want us to address this issue. It is a matter of national security. It is — it is a matter of addressing human trafficking, the flow of narcotics into our country.”
And it goes on from there.
To be clear, Trump said explicitly that other presidents told him directly that they should have built the border wall. “This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me,” he said Friday. “And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.” That is a very specific claim involving personal conversations — multiple ones. And Trump was clearly talking about the border wall, because he referenced the specific amount he’s seeking for it in the shutdown debate ($5.6 billion).
Pence downgrades the claim severely by saying Trump merely got this “impression.” But Bill Clinton’s spokesman has said that the former president hasn’t spoken to Trump since the inauguration. Barack Obama’s has said he hasn’t done so except for a brief exchange at George H.W. Bush’s funeral. And George W. Bush’s and Carter’s aides have said those two former presidents hadn’t even discussed the broader topic with Trump. Not only are they denying telling Trump that they support a border wall, they’re saying there was really no conversation in which Trump could have gotten such an “impression.”
Then Pence suggests maybe this is merely about seeing “clips of previous presidents talking about the importance of border security, the importance of addressing the issue of illegal immigration.” So the argument has shifted from “These presidents told Trump they want a border wall” to “These presidents spoke broadly about the need to combat illegal immigration” — not even specifically a border wall.
It’s probably not worth dwelling on this claim too much. It was pretty ridiculous when it was uttered, and everyone knew it. The fact that it hasn’t been substantiated shows that. But it is worth looking at just how powerful people around Trump — such as Pence and Mulvaney — strain to square Trump’s version of reality with actual reality.
And for all the debate about whether we should call Trump’s many falsehoods “lies,” it’s worth processing that Pence just floated an arguably worse alternative: that Trump is divorced from the reality of his communications (real or imagined) with previous presidents.