An event at the White House Thursday meant to promote prayer in public schools indicated that President Donald Trump is struggling to deal with the strain of his impeachment trial.
As Chief Justice John Roberts was being sworn in to oversee that affair, Trump was a few miles away, surrounded by a group of students and teachers who were there to praise him for waging war on secularism in schools. In front of him on the Resolute desk was a map that appeared to divide the country into a red/blue map based on the 2016 election results.
Trump, however, did nothing with the map. It just sat there in front of him, unmentioned, for the entire half-hour event. And while the map appeared to be very red — an emotionally reassuring symbol of his popularity — Twitter sleuths quickly determined it wasn’t entirely accurate. Some counties that went for Hillary Clinton were colored red.
For instance, this is Alaska by county pic.twitter.com/HwO9XmGIl8— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) January 17, 2020
As it turned out, exaggerating about his popularity was far from the only lie Trump pushed during a prayer event that also exposed the hollowness of his efforts to shore up his evangelical base.
Trump told a pack of lies and then lost it on Twitter
The purpose of the event was ostensibly to promote new federal guidance for prayer in public schools. It began with Trump lamenting the supposed inability of students to pray on football fields, and criticized the “growing totalitarian impulse on the far left” that he claims wants to “prohibit religious expression.”
At his White House prayer event, Trump laments that students are prevented from praying on the football field (what?), and then criticizes the "growing totalitarian impulse on the far left" that he claims wants to "prohibit religious expression." pic.twitter.com/URMDoRH9uO— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 16, 2020
Though those comments suggest otherwise, the actual text of the guidance is fairly boilerplate and explicitly says “Teachers and other public school officials ... may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities, nor may school officials use their authority to attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.” A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union characterized it as “nearly identical to the existing guidance issued in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush.”
Trump, however, reassured students who told brief stories about having expressions of their religion suppressed in schools that he wouldn’t stand for it. That sort of pandering stuff is pretty par for the course for Trump, who as president has tried to ban people from Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States while leaning into his support from Christians. Also typical for Trump was a quip he made a few minutes later about shredding the Constitution and serving more than two terms in office.
“So while I’m president — which will be hopefully for five years, and I dunno, maybe we’ll work with the media on a major extension of that — but we will not let anyone push God from the public square,” he said, while the students and teachers behind him chuckled.
Trump jokes about shredding the Constitution and serving more than 2 terms during the White House prayer event: "So while I'm president -- which will be hopefully for 5 years and I dunno, maybe we'll work with the media on a major extension of that." pic.twitter.com/bnusrVMuzu— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 16, 2020
After a number of testimonials from students and others, Trump took questions from reporters. The only one he took on a topic related to religion exposed how transactional his thinking is, even when it comes to matters of faith.
Asked why Catholics should vote for him later this year, Trump said, “I have a great relationship with Catholics. I’ve done so much for Catholics. You take a look at the abortion issue.” He made no mention of his own views or why he thinks faith is important in the first place — he just pointed to one position he has that the Catholic Church agrees with him on.
REPORTER: What's your message to the millions of Catholics in the United States? Why should they vote for you?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 16, 2020
TRUMP: "Well I have a great relationship with Catholics. I've done so much for Catholics. You take a look at the abortion issue."
That's it. Entirely transactional. pic.twitter.com/Dpi4pgPaLJ
But perhaps the most memorable thing about the event was the string of dubious claims Trump pushed as reporters asked him about impeachment. Asked about Lev Parnas, a former fixer for Rudy Giuliani who has deeply implicated him in the efforts to pervert Ukrainian diplomacy that resulted in his impeachment, Trump claimed 13 times over his two-minute response that he doesn’t know Parnas.
“I don’t know him. I don’t know Parnas other than I guess I had pictures taken” with him, Trump said. “I don’t know him at all.”
Here's Trump claiming he doesn't know Lev Parnas, who he posed for numerous photos with, thirteen (13) different times in a video clip that ends with him shushing a reporter pic.twitter.com/awwOqx343D— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 16, 2020
Parnas’s credibility is questionable — he’s under indictment for campaign finance crimes — but at the very least, the two men seem to have known each other in passing.
Moments after the event ended, Parnas’s attorney posted a video that appears to show Parnas and Trump partying together in December 2016 — which makes Trump’s claims to know nothing about the man hard to buy.
Here’s the “I don’t know him at all, don’t know what he’s about, don’t know where he comes from, know nothing about him” guy, w Lev Parnas & Roman Nasirov, former head of Ukrainian Fiscal Service, at Mar-a-Lago 12/16. @POTUS .@realDonaldTrump @Acosta #LevRemembers #LetLevSpeak pic.twitter.com/5B5QY2DJEg— Joseph A. Bondy (@josephabondy) January 16, 2020
Trump’s eyebrow-raising comments about Parnas reflected a broader lack of truthfulness about the facts surrounding the Ukraine scheme — one that included telling a series of easily fact-checkable lies about the timeline of the impeachment process.
He claimed a whistleblower who first sounded the alarm about his Ukraine dealings “wrote a report that bore no relationship to what was said” during his infamous July 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, even though the White House corroborated key aspects of it. He accused House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff of lying about his call with Zelensky, only to be set straight once the White House released a summary of the conversation, but in fact he had it backward — the paraphrasing Trump is mad about happened during a hearing held about the call summary’s release.
Trump pushes big lies— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 16, 2020
1) "You have a fake whistleblower that wrote a report that bore no relationship to what was said"- the report was accurate
2) "I released [transcript] after they had done these fraudulent acts"- it was released before the Schiff paraphrasing he's mad about pic.twitter.com/cApFy4toar
As soon as Trump wrapped up his lengthy and factually incorrect harangue about impeachment, one of his handlers started screaming at reporters to exit the event. Moments later, Trump posted an all-caps rage-tweet that simultaneously mischaracterized his phone call with Zelensky and didn’t reflect a prayerful attitude.
I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 16, 2020
Even though he never mentioned it, the map on Trump’s desk during the event alludes to his real defense of his conduct — to the winner go the spoils, and he won big in 2016 (never mind that land doesn’t vote, and that more voters supported Hillary Clinton).
It’s telling, however, that even when the truth will suffice, Trump seemingly can’t help but lie. And this lie, like many others Trump tells, is impervious to correction.
The inaccurate election map “has been a talisman [for Trump] since soon after [then-Attorney General Jeff] Sessions recused from the Russia probe,” New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted after the event. “He started handing them out to people shortly before [special counsel Robert] Mueller was named; aides got the first large one to frame the day after [FBI Director James] Comey was fired.”
Sessions recused from the Russia probe nearly three years ago. Yet in all that time, nobody around Trump has bothered to get him a map that doesn’t exaggerate his popularity in a way that erases the plurality of people who didn’t support him.