Check your facts, Congressman Smith

It’s hard to know what to make of Congressman Lamar Smith, one of three U.S. congressmen who split parts of Hays County.

By all accounts the congressman has worked well with the Hays County Commissioners Court. A staunch conservative, an outspoken critic of President Obama, he no doubt represents the feelings of many in his district, which stretches from suburban San Antonio through the precincts west of Buda and Kyle.

Indeed, from time to time he pays visits to this newspaper office to check in and stay in touch. We wish he would use his position as chairman of the science committee in the House to help the nation get ahead of the climate change issues that even Defense Department analysts believe threaten our security, or to be a leader on transportation issues in our district; but, even so, he typically comes across as friendly and reasonable, even to those who may disagree.

Then he goes on the floor of the House last week and says the only way to get real news is to get it from President Trump. His comments made national news (of the old-fashioned kind).

Whatever you think of Donald Trump’s policies, or his intention to shake up Washington – efforts that good people may disagree about – one thing is unassailably true: This president is not a reliable source for “news,” if by that we accept the common definition of news as useful information that is verifiably accurate and true.

Looking at just this past week, the President Trump said that Sweden has just suffered a terrorist attack “yesterday” (the implication was this happened because the country accepted refugees from Syria). No such attack took place.

He made a major issue of what he describes as his historic election victory, bragging that he won more electoral votes than any president since Ronald Reagan. Actually, not only did Reagan win more electoral votes than President Trump, so did George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton (twice), and Barack Obama (twice).  In fact, Trump’s total was not close to any of theirs.

In other words, far from being a landslide of Reaganesque proportions, President Trump’s electoral college victory was less than any recent president except George W. Bush — and President Trump lost the popular vote by the largest margin in history.

A close election shouldn’t be the judge of a president. Even Abraham Lincoln was elected with a minority of the popular vote (although, in his case, he did win more votes than anyone else in a four-way race).  What insecurity makes President Trump claim a landslide over and over again when it is so obviously untrue?

But he didn’t stop there. Earlier this week he also claimed that refugees were streaming into the country unvetted (just not true; the background checks take about two years). And he voiced support for a top aide who made ridiculous claims about widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire and elsewhere, claims that he himself has made in one form another over and over – and which have been discredited by impartial election observers, Republican governors and secretaries of state, local election officials, and reputable news organizations.

He said earlier this month that the murder rate is the highest “in 45-47 years.” In fact the national homicide rate peaked in the 1990s and the number of murders in the U.S. actually fell 42 percent between 1993 and 2014, according to the FBI, despite the fact that population rose 25 percent in the same period.

It happens that there are several non-partisan, public-service organizations that fact-check our leaders – one of the benefits of living in a free republic. FactCheck.org found six significant untrue statements in just one press conference Feb. 16. Another fact-checking site, PolitiFact, ranks statements on a scale ranging from “true” to “pants on fire.” In between are several layers of gray – a useful category since not all political statements are clearly, wholly true or false.

PolitiFact ranks just four percent – four percent! – of President Trump’s statements over the last few years as plainly, unconditionally true and accurate, without room for debate. Seventeen percent are rated “pants on fire” (in other words, outrageous whoppers) and another 33 percent plain old “false.”

Lest you say that all politicians (or all people) lie and exaggerate, let’s put that in perspective. Barack Obama scores 21 percent in the “true” beyond any doubt category and just two percent “pants on fire.”  Bernie Sanders 13 percent “true” and zero percent pants on fire.

PolitiFact’s not tilted to Democrats either. Republicans Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Jeb Bush score 17, 20, and 18 in the unquestionably true category and 0, 4, and 3 in the “pants on fire” department.

Heck, Politifact ranks Lamar Smith’s statements as 27 percent true, and 20 percent mostly true, with zero “pants on fire” and 33 percent “false,” with the rest in middle ground where partisans might argue either way, depending on how facts are interpreted. Not great perhaps, but decent enough for any human whose comments are constantly put to the test  – and downright saintly compared to Mr. Trump.

Congressman Smith’s constituents expect him to promote the Republican ideals upon which he was elected, even if we may wish that he would moderate one or two of them. His own conscience may demand that he support a president from his own party, especially on issues where they agree.

But the congressman should draw the line at assaults on common sense. No politician, no president, no person should be put on a pedestal where he or she gets to claim their own reality or dismiss plain facts as “fake news.”

The founders of this country knew better. So should our congressman.

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