As reporters and fact checkers have exhaustively documented, President Trump’s relationship with the truth has been complicated during his tenure as chief executive. Usually, his questionable statements and outright falsehoods concern policy initiatives, such as his claim to having enacted the largest tax cut in history and winning approval of the biggest defense budget ever.
But at times, the president has also made assertions on Twitter or in other public forums about actions related to the management of government that are simply not true and that, in some instances, he must know to be false. Often, the claims are very specific in their incorrect or fictitious details.
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One example came last Christmas Eve, during the partial government shutdown that turned out to be the longest in American history. “I am in the Oval Office, & just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas,” Trump tweeted.
As the average federal procurement officer could tell you, that’s not how the system works. Setting aside the fact that, as many wags noted on Twitter, a “115 mile long contract” would amount to quite a lot of paper, the president doesn’t personally sign off on contract awards. And for him to unilaterally “give out” a federal contract would raise questions about whether rules regarding competition in contracting were followed.
The Associated Press attempted to determine what contract the president was referring to, but all its reporters could find were several contracts issued by Homeland Security Department agencies related to border barriers. None were granted in December, nor did any of them add up to 115 miles.
The president may have simply been engaging in a rhetorical flourish about ongoing efforts to repair border fencing. But he got progressively more specific about the “contract” as time went on. On Christmas Day, he told reporters, “Yesterday, I gave out 115 miles’ worth of wall, 115 miles in Texas. It’s going to be built, hopefully rapidly. I’m going there at the end of January for the start of construction.” Trump said he made the deal at a “great price.” When asked who received the contract, he said, “different people. Highly bid.”
The following day, during a session with reporters in the midst of a trip to Iraq to visit U.S. troops, Trump elaborated on plans to travel to Texas to kick off the wall project. “I’m going there—I assume you’re coming with me—on probably the end of January, a little bit before the State of the Union,” he said. “We’re going to be sort of having a long—we’ll have a long groundbreaking, because it covers a lot of territory. But we’re going to have a groundbreaking for the wall.”
Trump visited the Texas border in early January, but no groundbreaking took place.
Trump, though, continued to claim his administration was making progress on the wall. “Don’t forget, we are building and renovating big sections of Wall right now,” he tweeted on Jan. 20. “Moving quickly, and will cost far less than previous politicians thought possible. Building, after all, is what I do best, even when money is not readily available!”
Beginning work on a federal construction project “when money is not readily available” would be legally problematic.
President Trump has made other false claims about actions he’s taken as the nation’s chief executive. Notably, after the wildfires that ravaged California late last year, he announced that he had cut off federal disaster aid to the state. “Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” he tweeted. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
But the president had not in fact issued this order. “We never got any such directive," Brandi Richard, a FEMA spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News earlier this month. "That's evidenced by the fact that work is still being done and we continue to support wildfire survivors across the state."
The president has made other false claims as well, such as declaring last year that he had secured the first military pay increase in 10 years. Salaries for service members had in fact gone up every year in the previous decade. Trump may have meant to say it was the largest raise in 10 years, but that wasn’t true either. He also told U.S. troops during his visit to Iraq in December that he was giving them a 10 percent pay raise in 2019: “I got you a big one,” he said. The actual raise is 2.6 percent, which Trump himself authorized in September.
The president also has claimed support for his policies from the federal workforce in the absence of evidence of such backing. For example, on Jan. 6, he was asked about the impact of the ongoing shutdown on federal employees who weren’t being paid. He said “many of those people that won’t be receiving a paycheck . . . agree 100 percent with what I’m doing.”
He offered no proof to support this assertion. Two Government Executive surveys conducted during the shutdown showed that large majorities of federal workers opposed both the shutdown and President Trump’s proposal for a border wall.
The president has also made exaggerated claims about his efforts to hold federal employees accountable for their performance. He has frequently, for example, boasted about legislation he backed to make it easier to fire misbehaving employees at the Veterans Affairs Department. “You couldn’t fire anybody in the VA,” he said in July 2018. “They could be sadists. They could be late. They could be bad. They could have lots of problems. They could talk back to you. You couldn’t do a thing.”
In fact, the measure he referred to built on a law passed in 2014 that made it easier to fire VA employees, as the agency has continued to do by the thousands each year.
What’s ironic is that the Trump administration as a whole has a robust set of management initiatives that officials are pursuing on several fronts. The specific list of to-do items in the President’s Management Agenda range from workforce development to improved purchasing practices.
But the people working their way through the list are being led by a chief executive who is prone to misrepresenting both their and his efforts to improve the operations of government.