I had a classmate at the Naval Academy who once gave a less than honest reason for missing a class on the form they made us fill out whenever we missed a class at that institution. It was a few months from graduation and he had already completed the coursework required to graduate. They didn’t let him graduate with the class though. He didn’t get his commission as a Naval Officer. They sent him to the fleet to be an enlisted sailor.
Midshipmen are persons of integrity. They do not lie, cheat or steal.
When I was at Annapolis I thought the honor code was a bit hokey. I’m not a particularly dishonest person. I’m a lousy liar. And I never really saw anything worth so much that it was worth becoming a thief over. But I felt like the rigid adherence to the code was a bit much. And I felt like sometimes the punishment didn’t fit the crime. And that sometimes it resulted in a waste of talent and resources.
I’m not sure I feel entirely different about the procedural parts of the code today that allows for any act of dishonesty resulting in expulsion. I understand and appreciate quite a bit about what it did for my experience there though.
The honor code put a cost on dishonesty. A high one.
There was risk to a lie. Any lie. And we knew it. Lies mattered. And so they didn’t happen very often. For four years I lived in a world where you could mostly believe just about everything someone said as it related to anything official or professional. And people, for the most part, stayed away from doing things that they would have to lie to explain.
I’m not naive. I know there were plenty of instances where people lied and cheated and stole anyway. The point was to make them outliers. The default assumption was one of honesty. A culture of trust was the result.
In the decades since, the world has taught me quite a bit about the power of honesty. The times when I’ve failed to meet the standard are the greatest regrets of my life. That regret weighs on me every day and helps keeps me on a better path. I understand the cost of lying. And so I’ve learned to avoid the situations where only a lie will save someone or something from catastrophic outcomes.
When someone says they lied to protect the greater good, usually it means they made a bad decision some time ago. And the lie is the toxic outcome.
There are plenty of instances in our society where lying is a crime in the literal sense. We can’t lie to the police. We can’t lie in a court of law. When we lie in business or financial matters it’s called fraud. We’ve determined that for these deep societal obligations, the act of lying is so detrimental to the fiber of our society that we’ll lose our ability to act as free citizens if we do it.
These laws aren’t particularly controversial. Because most people agree that if we can’t trust some things, the whole thing falls down.
Last Thursday the Department of Justice released Robert Mueller’s report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and foreign agents. He also declared that he could not clear the president of obstruction of justice charges.
From the report…
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
The report continues…
“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
Mueller neither charged nor cleared President Trump from the same crime that sunk Nixon. He’s handed the decision on whether or not the President should be held accountable for his actions related to the investigation over to politics. No matter what the Mueller report declared, that was likely to be the case anyway. Nixon, after all, resigned. He was not impeached. He was not indicted, tried nor convicted. The end of his presidency was a political decision. As was his pardon.
And so it will be with President Trump. It may be up to congress. At a minimum, it will be up to us, the electorate, in 18 months.
The president did not lie to Robert Mueller’s team in his official statements to law enforcement. He stated 30 times he could not recall something. Some of his team lied though. Several have been charged and convicted of that offense. What is also clear is that the president directed his staff to lie to the American people with enough regularity for it to show up in multiple, unrelated events in the report.
Discussions of criminal activity aside, I can’t see a path forward for an American political system to operate effectively with any further erosion of social trust than we presently have. We are dangerously divided already. And now one side can reasonably claim that no one need believe anything the government tells the people they serve. Nothing hard will get solved in that environment.
And we’ve got hard things to solve.
The government of the United States of America wields enormous power over its citizens and the global community. The risk is clear and present.
We don’t hold our politicians accountable criminally for being honest and forthright with the people they serve. There are no laws on the books that force them to. The investigation laid bare the inconsistency of standards for honesty between when criminal charges are a consequence and when it’s simply public deception as an outcome.
By design, this only works if we hold the standard as an electorate. For me, lies matter. And so that’s the standard I’ll use with my vote.
Though we assume some level of dishonesty in politicians, this unfortunate standard doesn’t absolve us from the requirement to act once that dishonesty has been made clear and indisputable in the eyes of the electorate.
Jon Snow said it well. “When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers – only better and better lies.”
We can’t live off better and better lies. Not any longer.