Earlier this year, Donald Trump told reporters that "some" of his presidential predecessors had told him they wish they'd built a wall along the United States' southern border. It was, of course, an impossible claim to take seriously, which was made worse when each of the living former presidents issued statements debunking Trump's claim.
There was a moral to the story: when Trump describes made-up conversations -- something he does with alarming frequency -- he needs to avoid references to real people who can expose his nonsense.
As we discussed at the time, the president tends to understand this fairly well, which is why he frequently quotes "anonymous validators": mysterious unnamed people, whom the president swears exist, who we're supposed to believe secretly tell Trump how right he is about the major issues of the day. It's impossible to definitely prove that all of these people are fictional, which creates a rhetorical safe harbor for the Republican.
Occasionally, however, Trump forgets the rule. Take, for example, his comments to Fox News yesterday about NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
"Secretary Stoltenberg has been maybe Trump's biggest fan, to be honest with you. He goes around -- he made a speech the other day, he said, 'Without Donald Trump maybe there would be no NATO.'"
If Trump had said, "A prominent international said the other day, 'Without Donald Trump maybe there would be no NATO,'" there might at least be some wiggle room. We'd know it was false, but it'd be difficult to prove.
But in this case, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg actually exists.
And as a Washington Post analysis noted, Trump "appears to have invented the quote out of thin air."
Stoltenberg appears to have said nothing of the sort. He and other NATO leaders have publicly praised Trump for pressuring other countries to contribute more to fund the alliance, but there is no record of him saying anything about Trump saving NATO.
The White House has not responded to a request for comment. Asked about Trump's claim, NATO declined to confirm it and instead referred to its online database of Stoltenberg's speeches and news conferences. Neither the quote nor a close facsimile appears in any of the recent transcripts.
The president frequently shares the details of conversations that only occurred in his mind. As unsettling as this is, once he starts sharing the details of speeches that are also imaginary, the larger problem is that much more alarming.