The ‘Whimpering’ Terrorist Only Trump Seems to Have Heard

In the days since President Trump gave the world a graphic account of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s last minutes, no evidence has emerged to confirm it. The secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the regional commander who oversaw the operation that killed the leader of the Islamic State all say they have no idea what the president was talking about. Four other Defense Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share details of the raid, said they had seen no after-action reports, situation reports or other communications that support Mr. Trump’s claim. Nor did they have any indication that Mr. Trump spoke with any of the Delta Force commandos or ground commanders in the hours between the Saturday night raid and his Sunday morning televised announcement.

One American official who was deeply familiar with the operation dismissed the president’s version of events as mere grandstanding. Another senior official briefed extensively on the mission said, “I don’t know how he would know that. It sounds like something he made up.” The surveillance drone video Mr. Trump watched in the Situation Room had no live audio.

The White House, for its part, has provided neither corroboration nor explanation of the president’s account. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, dismissed “trying to pick apart the details of the death” of the leader of the Islamic State. “Is it not possible to just celebrate that a terrorist, murderer and rapist has been killed?” she asked in an email. Pressed on where Mr. Trump got the details he shared on national television, she said, “we are not going to get into any of the operational details of how the president receives information.” Asked if his account was true, she did not respond. That Mr. Trump seems to have made up the scene of a whimpering terrorist may be shocking on one level yet not all that surprising from a president who over the years has made a habit of inventing people who do not exist and events that did not happen. Mr. Trump’s flexibility with fact has become such an established feature of his presidency that polls show most Americans, including even many of his own supporters, do not, as a rule, take him at his word. What may be most telling about the episode is how little attention the disparity of details received. In the past, presidential words were scrutinized with forensic exactitude and any variance from the established record could do lasting political damage. In the era of Trumpian truth, misstatements and lies are washed away by the next story, prompting Pinocchios from fact checkers and scolding from Democrats and Never Trumpers while Republicans dismiss them with that’s-just-Trump-being-Trump weariness. “Donald Trump is not simply a serial liar; he is attempting to murder the very idea of truth, which is even worse,” said Peter Wehner, a former strategic adviser to President George W. Bush and an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump. “Because without truth, a free society cannot operate.” “In the days of reality television, humility is not enough,” said Mr. Updegrove, who is also president and chief executive of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation in Austin. Mr. Trump, the reality television veteran, “has to continue to add to the inherent drama of the moment, not only bragging about the despot being brought to justice but happening in the most humiliating way. He can’t help himself.” Mr. Trump’s account, aspects of which he repeated Friday evening at a rally in Tupelo, Miss., has left four-star generals in the awkward position of not confirming assertions they do not know to be true while trying not to contradict the president too overtly. Mr. Trump’s misadventures with the truth have been tabulated by The Washington Post, which has counted more than 13,000 false or misleading statements since he took office. The public is no longer surprised. In March, just 19 percent of Americans said Mr. Trump always tells the truth, according to a Reuters poll, while 40 percent said he tells the truth only sometimes and 41 percent said he never tells the truth.