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When the White House lies about lying, there's a problem

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.
In his first formal meeting with congressional leaders this week, Donald Trump repeated one of his favorite lies: it may look like he won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, but he secretly won the popular vote -- because 3 million to 5 million "illegals" voted in the election for his opponent.By any sane measure, the claim is completely bonkers, and yet, the White House refuses to walk it back.

The White House doubled down on President Donald Trump's widely debunked claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, costing Trump the popular vote."The president does believe that," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday, just one day after pledging to tell the public "the facts as I know them." "He's stated that before, I think he has stated his concerns of voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign and continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence people have presented to him."

And what, pray tell, are those "studies and evidence"? The struggling press secretary, whose credibility is already badly damaged, told reporters, "I think there's been studies. There's one that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were non-citizens."That, too, is a claim that Trump World has repeatedly embraced, despite being completely wrong.What Americans are confronted with is a new president who is comfortable lying, backed up by White House aides who are equally comfortable lying about lying.There was some discussion yesterday about whether Trump's ridiculous claims about voter fraud actually constitute a "lie," as opposed to an outrageous falsehood. It's a fair question, but in this case, the president has been told repeatedly his claim is wrong; his own lawyers have acknowledged it's wrong; but Trump repeats it anyway.There was also some chatter yesterday that Trump's brazen dishonesty isn't as important as some of the White House's policy pronouncements from the last few days. I'm not unsympathetic to the point, but I'd caution against dismissing the story too quickly.First, it matters when the president of the United States lies about our democracy with claims that border on delusional. If Trump intends to govern by way of shameless dishonesty, and Americans can't be sure if their national leader can adequately tell the difference between fact and fiction, legitimate questions are inevitable about the president's fitness for office.Second, there is a policy component to voter-fraud lies. Republicans have spent several years attacking Americans' voting rights in ways unseen since the Jim Crow era. If the president is committed to the idea that millions of undocumented immigrants are casting illegal ballots, the push for new voter-suppression measures will continue with GOP officials controlling the levers of power.Third, governing lies are worse than campaigning lies. Trump and Sean Spicer aren't just partisans trying to persuade voters; they're public servants, whose salaries are paid by taxpayers, and who now help speak for a global superpower. When they reject reality from the West Wing, questioning the integrity and legitimacy of an election they won, Team Trump does so in ways that carry real consequences for all of us.And finally, it matters that most congressional Republicans know Trump tells bizarre and indefensible falsehoods, but most of them are prepared to simply look the other way.To his credit, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was a notable exception, and the South Carolina Republican urged the president to step up and do the right thing.

"To continue to suggest that the 2016 election was conducted in a fashion that millions of people voted illegally undermines faith in our democracy," Graham, of South Carolina, told reporters in a hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in D.C. "It's not coming from a candidate for the office, it's coming from the man who holds the office. So I am begging the president, share with us the information you have about this or please stop saying it."Graham, who along with Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., has been one of Trump's more outspoken Republican critics, said the new president needs to put this issue to rest — for his own good."As a matter of fact I'd like you to do more than stop saying it," he said. "I'd like you to come forward and say having looked at it I am confident the election was fair and accurate and people who voted legally. Cause if he doesn't do that, this is going to undermine his ability to govern this country."

That's true, but hasn't he already undermined his ability to govern by trashing his own credibility?