There is no penalty for lying on television, as anyone who watches cable news already knows. It is considered normal today when Fox News personalities – to name one prominent group of habitual liars – repeat absurd falsehoods, even if the result is that people contract the coronavirus and die.
There is no penalty for lying on the radio, as everyone has known for decades. It is a highly lucrative daily routine for talk jocks such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage – among the most successful of their ilk – who are often exposed but never feel embarrassed.
There is no penalty for lying on the internet, where spreading the most implausible conspiracy theories, bogus rumors and fake videos is literally a billion-dollar industry and, in some countries such as Russia, a government function.
But sometimes, there’s a penalty for lying to a court or a federal law enforcement official. Which is why the mendacious claims about the presidential election now running unabated online and on air can suddenly turn to ashes in the mouths of President Donald Trump’s lawyers. So eager to proffer fraudulent claims of vote fraud, those loudmouths start mumbling when reminded that they are subject to statutory discipline.
More than once during the past few days, Trump attorneys who brought actions against election authorities in battleground states have lapsed into what the late Jimmy Breslin used to call “off-English.” In a Breslin column, “off-English” described words used to evade inconvenient truths.
The hard truth dodged by those Republican attorneys – and their client and his cult – is that Joe Biden soundly defeated the president by much larger margins than he achieved four years ago, and that there is simply no plausible evidence to diminish those totals. Outside the courthouses, on TV and online, those lawyers and their publicity apparatus, including the taxpayer-supported propagandists in the White House, say whatever Trump wants to hear, no matter how untrue.
They’re not quite so brazen when appearing before a judge, however.
In Philadelphia, the Trump brief insisted that Republicans weren’t being permitted to observe the counting of votes as required by law – a charge tweeted out by the president and repeated by Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and company. When Trump attorney Jerome Marcus went into federal court demanding a halt to vote tabulation, however, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond, appointed by former President George W. Bush, sharply reminded him of his obligation to be truthful.
Judge: “Are your observers in the counting room?”
Marcus [lapsing into off-English]: “There’s a non-zero number of people in the room.”
Judge: “I am asking you as a member of the bar of this court: Are people representing the plaintiffs in the room?”
Roughly the same humiliating scenario played out in a Montgomery County, PA, courthouse, where Trump lawyer Jonathan Goldstein presented vague insinuations of vote fraud.
Judge: “I am asking you a specific question, and I am looking for a specific answer. Are you claiming that there is any fraud in connection with these 592 disputed ballots?”
Goldstein: “To my knowledge at present, no.”
Judge: “Are you claiming that there is any undue or improper influence upon the elector with respect to these 592 ballots?”
Goldstein: “To my knowledge at present, no.”
In Michigan, a Detroit postal worker who gained a moment of internet fame by claiming that the postmaster had “backdated” ballots changed his story under questioning by federal investigators. He suddenly realized, according to a tape he surreptitiously recorded and then released, that he hadn’t actually heard any incriminating conversations and had simply signed an affidavit handed to him by right-wing provocateurs. [The same character then made a Facebook video recanting his recantation, but remember, there’s no penalty for lying online.]
Similar melodramas are occurring in courtrooms across the country, as judges dismiss the trumped-up assertions used by Trump’s legal minions to delay the inevitable. We’re learning that too many Republicans have no respect for democracy and will eagerly pervert its outcome – unless they face the prospect of punishment.
Happily, not every American requires a threat of legal sanctions to be truthful, even in this age of streaming deception. Republican election officials in Georgia and many other places; Republican legislators in Pennsylvania and Michigan; and even a handful of Republican senators in Washington are refusing to parrot Trump’s authoritarian nonsense.
When this is all over, let’s remember honest officials who stood up for truth, as well as those who failed the test of democratic integrity.