PolitiFact Wins the “Golden Shovel” Award

Donald Trump:  “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”  — PolitiFact National on Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Disclosure: I’m not a big fan of President Trump’s tweets. I prefer my presidents to be more in the Abraham Lincoln mold. But, on the other hand, in this age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, maybe Trump is a more skillful communicator than he is given credit for. Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert, one of my favorite newspaper cartoons, has commented on this in a very insightful blog post titled, “Persuading Terrorist Cowards.” It’s worth reading.

PolitiFact’s Argument

This is my fourth look at a PolitiFact pants-on-fire claim against President Trump. And here is the exact tweet that PolitiFact takes issue with: “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”

PolitiFact rates this as a pants-on-fire lie for the following reasons:

  1. There is no evidence that General Pershing shot Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.
  2. Trump got the idea from a popular culture myth.
  3. In fact, President Trump got it wrong about the harshness of General Pershing’s tactics. Pershing put a lot of effort into ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the Muslim insurgents on Moro.
  4. It’s highly unlikely that any Muslim would be deterred by pig’s blood.
  5. After Pershing’s 4-year tour as governor of the mainly Muslim Moro province in the Philippines, the violence didn’t stop for the next 25 or 35 years as President Trump said. It remained a place of unrest. The violence there continued for some time after 1913, the year Pershing left.

My Opinion

  1. PolitiFact rated President Trump’s August 17, 2017 tweet as ‘pants-on-fire’ because they flat-out don’t believe his story about Muslim terrorists being executed by General Pershing with bullets dipped in pig blood, or that that practice brought peace to the land.
  2. As an alert reader, I’m sure you’ve already noticed that President Trump doesn’t mention pig’s blood or executions in his tweet. So where does PolitiFact get this from?
  3. For its argument, PolitiFact assumed President Trump was referencing something he said a year earlier on February 16, 2016, and to which comment PolitiFact had already attached its ‘pants-on-fire’ label. PolitiFact  
  4. We could discuss all day whether PolitiFact should be writing up duplicate ‘pants-on-fire’ claims for the same statement, and then double-counting them when they publish their aggregate number of pants-on-fire claims against President Trump. But let’s ignore that for the present.
  5. We could also discuss all day the ethics of PolitiFact ‘mind reading’ President Trump and presuming they knew exactly what he was referring to in his August 2017 tweet about General Pershing’s handling of terrorists in the Philippines. In his tweet, President Trump invited people ‘to study’ what General Pershing did. Maybe President Trump read PolitiFact’s 2016 pants-on-fire claim on the subject and has since studied up on the subject himself and learned something new. Maybe not. We don’t know, and neither does PolitiFact. But let’s also ignore that for the present.
  6. For the present, let’s go back to President Trump’s February 2016 statement about Muslim insurgents being deterred from terrorism by the fear of being executed by a bullet smeared with pig’s blood. Where in heck did President Trump get that from? PolitiFact thinks it’s a ridiculous urban legend with no basis in fact.
  7. In fact, the essence of the story was first told in 2002 by Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Is President Trump to be called a liar because he repeated a story told by the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee? Of course not. And if the terrorist/pig story is false, shouldn’t Democratic Senator Graham have been the target of PolitiFact’s accusations and not President Trump.
  8. To review:
    1. In August 2017, PolitiFact wrote an entire ‘pants-on-fire’ accusation against President Trump, not based on what he wrote in a tweet, but based on combining what he wrote in that tweet with something he’s said the year before and for which they had already labeled him a liar.
    2. The story in question was first told by the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2002. President Trump was simply repeating the story, albeit a somewhat exaggerated version.
  9. PolitiFact’s final point is a rather subjective one. They are positive that whatever General Pershing did in the Philippines, it certainly didn’t bring peace to the land for 35 years. Well, the history books say that the Muslim Moro province rebellion lasted from 1899 to 1913. In other words, the rebellion stopped in 1913, the year that Pershing left.

Here is where PolitiFact got its story wrong:

General Pershing did take extraordinary and controversial steps to control Islamic Terrorism when he was fighting Muslim insurgents during the Philippine war. And he believed those steps were effective.

Below, are a series of quotes. The first quote, strangely, comes from PolitiFact. It was used in the PolitiFact article to support their claim against President Trump, but it seems to me PolitiFact missed an important point in their own quote. Major Bell is offering his support to Pershing in maintaining a practice that Pershing already had been enforcing. From PolitiFact:

…the editor of the 2013 edition, John T. Greenwood, cited a letter about the incident from Maj. Gen. J. Franklin Bell, the commander of the Philippines Division, to Pershing: “Of course there is nothing to be done, but I understand it has long been a custom to bury (insurgents) with pigs when they kill Americans. I think this a good plan, for if anything will discourage the (insurgents) it is the prospect of going to hell instead of to heaven. You can rely on me to stand by you in maintaining this custom. It is the only possible thing we can do to discourage crazy fanatics. PolitiFact: Trump retells story

This next quote is from an August 17, 2017 article in the Washington Examiner:
“The story is highly controversial because it suggests that the government has used a deliberate form of religious discrimination as a successful anti-terror tactic. A 2009 biography of Pershing by Jim Lacey, a military analyst for the Institute for Defense Analyses, claimed to confirm that Pershing did use the tactic. Washington Examiner: Trump repeats story

“Until now the historical verdict is that this was a vicious rumor and while it may have happened in occasion, Pershing neither knew about it nor, given his humane outlook, would have condoned such an action. That verdict is wrong as Pershing’s own unpublished autobiography states,” Lacey wrote in Pershing: A Biography, published by PalGrave MacMillan.

The book then cites an unpublished letter by Pershing: “These juramentado attacks were materially reduced in number by a practice the Army had already adopted, one that the Mohammedans held in abhorrence: The bodies were publicly buried in the same grave with a dead pig. It was not pleasant to have to take such measures but the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven sometimes deterred the would-be assassins.”

Further, an August 17, 2017 New York Daily News articles quoted Lacey again:

There is evidence that he committed what we would call war crimes, chopping off heads and burying insurgents in pig skin, and that’s from his own autobiography,” told the Daily News. Lacey said that he discovered the admission, missing from other accounts of the general’s life, for work on his own biography of Pershing. He added that the story was out of character for the general, who he described as a model for the “nation-building” strategy in U.S. foreign military engagements.”

This final quote below shows that President Trump was not just repeating an urban legend. He was repeating a story told by the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.) cited as an example a dinner he attended last week with people who work on intelligence issues and have connections to the intelligence community. The dinner conversation ranged in part on how U.S. military commander “Black Jack” Pershing used Islam’s prohibition on pork to help crush an insurgency on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last century. In one instance, Graham explained in an interview, U.S. soldiers captured 12 Muslims. They killed six of them with “bullets dipped into the fat of pigs.” After that, Graham said, the U.S. soldiers wrapped the Muslim rebels in funeral shrouds made of pigskin and “buried them face down so they could not see Mecca. Then they poured the entrails of the pigs over them. The other six were forced to watch. And that was the end of the insurrection on Mindanao,” Graham noted.”   LA Times: Trump

Now let’s go back and judge the original PolitiFact pants on fire claims against President Trump:

  1. PolitiFact: There is no evidence that General Pershing’s men shot Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. My opinion: Agreed. They used pig’s fat not pig’s blood. Though truth be told, I’m not sure how you smear something with pig’s fat and not get a little blood mixed in there too. And let’s also not lose sight of the fact that President Trump’s 2017 tweet said nothing about shooting Muslim terrorists with bullets of any kind.
  2. PolitiFact: Trump got the idea from a popular culture myth. My opinion: False. The basic facts behind the story were told by Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
  3. PolitiFact: In fact, President Trump got it wrong about the harshness of General Pershing’s tactics. My opinion: False. Letters and Pershing’s own autobiography clearly show he used pig’s skins, and more, to discourage rebels.
  4. PolitiFact: It’s highly unlikely that any Muslim would be deterred by tactics involving pigs, etc. My opinion: False. Reports from ‘boots on the ground’ clearly show Pershing and other officers thought the method effective.
  5. PolitiFact: After Pershing’s 4-year tour as governor of the mainly Muslim Moro province in the Philippines, the violence didn’t stop for the next 25 or 35 years as President Trump said. It remained a place of unrest. The violence there continued for some time after 1913, the year Pershing left. My opinion: False. The war ended in 1913. However, according to the historical record, some minor violence did continue periodically in Moro province in the decades after Pershing. However, was there a recurrence of the Radical Islamic Terror that President Trump referred to? I honestly don’t know. I couldn’t find any reference to it in my research. And neither could PolitiFact. Certainly, Muslim combatants fighting for their independence is not the same as Radical Islamic Terror.

Conclusion

My ruling: For this ill-advised attempt to label President Trump a liar, I award PolitiFact the “Golden Shovel” award. Next time they need to dig deeper. When I research something all I have is Google. Surely, the PolitiFact reporters working for the Tampa Bay Times have access to more research databases than I have. How come I could find that additional information on Pershing and Senator Graham and they couldn’t?

Given the sheer number of ‘pants-on-fire’ statements PolitiFact has attributed to President Trump, there is no doubt that PolitiFact is ‘on a mission.’ But wow! Couldn’t they find ‘lies’ that were, well, actual lies. Apparently not. Or at least not so far. Four down, seventeen PolitiFact statements to go! Maybe PolitiFact will get the next one right.

In my next post, I will tackle PolitiFact’s assertion that President Trump lied when he said: Amazon has a “no-tax monopoly.”  on Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

 

 

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