Part of the problem with Donald Trump’s presidency is his profound ignorance of history. This tends to get him into trouble because, when Trump does something he’s proud of, he boasts that he’s the first president to do it – largely because he has no idea what his predecessors did and didn’t do during their tenures.After his recent trip to Puerto Rico, for example, the president bragged, “I guess it’s one of the few times anybody has done this. From what I am hearing it’s the first time that a sitting president has done something like this.” And while it’s true presidential travel was limited before airplanes were invented, in recent decades, plenty of presidents have traveled to areas affected by natural disasters. Lobbing paper towels at people may have been a presidential first, but the trip itself was routine.
Today, something similar happened. Nearly two weeks ago, four American soldiers were killed in Niger, and before this afternoon, Trump had said literally nothing about it. Asked about his silence at a White House event, the president said he had not yet contacted the fallen Americans’ families because he wanted “a little time to pass.” He added that he’s written letters to those families, but they haven’t been sent yet.
Let’s note for context that since the ambush that claimed those four servicemen’s lives, Trump has golfed five times.
The president then decided to brag about how awesome he thinks he is as compared to his predecessors.
“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls,” he said. “I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”
Even by Trump standards, this was a breathtaking lie. In fact, Alyssa Mastromonaco, a deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House, quickly explained that Obama (and other previous presidents) often called the families of Americans killed in action. Disgusted by Trump’s smear, Mastromonaco went on to describe Trump as “a deranged animal.”
But then something interesting happened: the president was fact-checked in real-time, and Trump was forced to backpedal.
Trump’s allegation that Obama hadn’t made calls was the subject of another question later in the news conference. “How can you make that claim?” NBC News’s Peter Alexander asked about Trump’s phone-call assertion.
The president admitted that Obama may very well have made calls after all.
“I don’t know if he did. No no no. I was told that he didn’t often,” Trump replied. “A lot of presidents don’t; they write letters. I do a combination of both. Sometimes – it’s a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. President Obama I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some presidents didn’t do anything. But I like, I like the combination of – I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter.”
Notice the shifts. First, Obama didn’t call the families, then Obama didn’t call them “often.” Initially, Trump said he had the facts about what previous presidents did, then Trump said he didn’t have the facts and it’s the generals’ fault if he claims were wrong.
Regardless, this was a rare example of Trump being pressed on one of his lies at the same event in which he told the lie. And confronted with reality, the president folded almost immediately.