Upon returning from his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump held a campaign-style rally in Minnesota in which he reveled in his alleged success. Among other things, he told the crowd, “We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains, in fact today already 200 have been sent back.”
The date was June 20, and what Trump told America and the families of the fallen that day was a lie. It remains a lie even now. The actual total number of “great fallen heroes” returned to the United States and to their families was zero that day; almost a month later, it remains zero.
Think about that.
For no cause other than his own temporary self-aggrandizement, Trump flat-out invented that claim. It wasn’t a mistake. He knowingly played on the reverence, respect and patriotism of the American people for a cheap applause line, using the still-unrepatriated remains of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice as his stage.
In fact, just this week, North Korean officials failed to show up at a long-scheduled meeting with U.S. military officials on repatriation of remains, suggesting that progress on that front remains difficult if not impossible.
That’s troubling in its own right, to see an American president lie about and create false expectations about the remains of the fallen. At any other time in our history, under any other president, to fake such an announcement would be a major scandal. But under this president, we all know it to be part of a long-running pattern of behavior in which Trump claims credit for great success that in fact never materializes.
Immediately after the summit, for example, Trump made an even more far-reaching and consequential claim.
Thanks to him, the nuclear threat from North Korea had been ended, Trump claimed. Sleep well, America. In other statements, Trump went on to laud himself for achieving what no previous American president had been able to achieve. He, and he alone, had done this.
But once again, he hadn’t achieved a thing. U.S. intelligence has reported that since the summit, North Korea has accelerated, not reduced, its enrichment of nuclear material for military purposes. It has not destroyed missile test sites, as Trump claimed. Quite the contrary. As reported by the Wall Street Journal and other outlets, North Korea “is completing a major expansion of a key missile-manufacturing plant, ... the latest sign Pyongyang is pushing ahead with weapons programs even as the U.S. pressures it to abandon them.”
The same theme played out in Trump’s behavior at the NATO summit in Brussels this week. After suggesting if not threatening to abandon NATO, Trump called a dramatic last-minute press conference to announce that thanks to him, our NATO allies had agreed to raise defense spending well above the commitment of 2 percent of gross domestic product that they had reached in 2014.
“I told people that I’d be very unhappy if they did not up their commitments very substantially,” Trump said. “Everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment. They are going to up it at levels never thought of before.”
None of that was true. Like the repatriation of remains, like the ending of the North Korean nuclear threat, Trump made it up so that he could portray himself as the conquering hero, with our allies cast in the role of the conquered and submissive. It’s the narrative that Trump attempts to write in every interaction with every human being not named Vladimir Putin.
But these things have consequences. It matters when an American president claims to have solved the North Korean nuclear problem when in fact almost no progress has been made. It matters when he claims to have browbeat our allies into an agreement that in fact does not exist.
It matters when the leader of the world’s only superpower acts as if he has lost contact with reality and resides in a world of his own imagining, a world in which he is a Marvel superhero. At this point, we can only guess at the ultimate cost.