Trump's Hostage Lie Is Worse Than Most

(Bloomberg) -- Your Orwellian moment of the week:

Trump's Hostage Lie Is Worse Than Most
Donald J. Trump
As everybody is aware, the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North……

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The problem? “Of the three prisoners only one, Kim Dong-cheol, a South Korean-born American pastor, was detained during the previous Obama administration.” The other two were detained last spring when Donald Trump was in the White House.

Trump lies all the time. This one strikes me as unusually insidious, however. To begin with, there’s something concrete and specific about it. It’s one thing to say that the economy sprung to life after Trump took office, even if statistics say that there’s not much change since the late Barack Obama years; one can certainly make a case for it, even if it requires a little cherry-picking of the right indicators. It’s a little different and worse to say that Obama failed to win the release of “three hostages” when two of them weren’t detained until he left office. 

Perhaps the other thing that makes this one stand out is that winning the freedom of hostages is always a tricky thing when it comes to presidents. That is, if emancipating detained Americans is a safe, good-news story that any president would want, we then have to wonder whether it’s to a president’s advantage to always have some hostages available to rescue. A shortsighted, unscrupulous president and a foreign counterpart might find it a win-win: He gets the boost of publicity when the situation is resolved, and the foreign nation gets some form of ransom.

Fortunately, most “wag the dog” scenarios are too risky: As George H.W. Bush learned, winning a war quickly means that voters will have forgotten it by election time. And presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush have found out that prolonged, high-casualty wars are electoral poison, despite whatever patriotic fervor one might think they would unleash.

But repeated hostage releases? Perhaps those could work. The limit to the scam would be that before long, the president would be blamed for the repeating problem. But if he simply lies about it and blames his predecessor? That might eliminate the downside risk. 

Trump probably isn’t thinking things out that far. But even if he isn’t doing it deliberately and not just shooting his mouth off without any regard for the truth of what he’s saying, it’s worth calling him out on this one. It’s just that important to keep the proper incentives intact.

1. Rick Hasen on the legal jeopardy Trump finds himself in after Rudy Giuliani changed the president’s story about the Stormy Daniels hush money. While it seems extremely likely to me that Trump broke the law, I’m not sure how many voters will change their minds about Trump based on this. On the other hand, it may be the case that it requires a steady flow of these stories to keep some marginal voters from where they might naturally be given the fairly good news about the economy.  

2. Tricia Bacon and Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault at the Monkey Cage on the effects of the death of Osama bin Laden.

3. Also at the Monkey Cage: David Parker on why Trump’s attacks on Jon Tester over the Ronny Jackson fiasco may help Tester.

4. Very interesting from my Opinion colleague Albert Hunt on some of the experienced Washington hands from the Obama and Bill Clinton administrations seeking to return as members of the House. I’ve been wondering about the quality and experience of Democratic members of the House if they do win a majority; there’s been plenty of turnover since they last controlled the House, with quite a few senior and highly effective members leaving. Landslides in the House are guaranteed to bring in some weak politicians who wash out quickly; perhaps this one will also bring in more than the usual amount of policy and political expertise. Very much worth keeping an eye on for the rest of the election cycle. 

5. Harry Enten notes that election polls have been pretty accurate recently. 

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To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at

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