During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump's go-to tactic for attacking President Obama's economic record was to simply assert that the numbers were all fake. The unemployment rate? It was “phony,” a “fiction,” “one of the biggest hoaxes in modern politics,” Trump suggested. In reality, he told voters, the job market was a disaster.
On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the first jobs report covering President Trump's time in office. It was solid—U.S. businesses added 235,000 workers to their payrolls. So, naturally, a reporter decided to ask press secretary Sean Spicer during his afternoon briefing that day whether, given his past statements, Trump thought this jobs report was “accurate and a fair way to measure the economy”—you know, whether it was still a sham.
Spicer was ready. “I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly,” the press secretary said, grinning like a 12-year-old about to win a spelling bee. “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
The whole room laughed. Loudly. Then the press conference moved on. It was almost a tender moment. Except the entire White House press corps was chuckling at the president's habit of spreading conspiracy theories about his political opponents—sometimes it’s wiretapping, more often it’s about unfriendly numbers—and then reversing himself once convenient. Apparently, pathological dishonesty is now a winking joke. That's our Trump!
The gag took another soul-crushing turn on Sunday, when White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney sat down for an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper. Since the White House was now trumpeting the formerly phony jobs report, Tapper asked whether the Bureau of Labor Statistics had changed its methodology. What followed was an awkward, factually inaccurate attempt at evasion, in which Mulvaney insisted that, while he didn't want to bore the viewers with specifics, the Obama administration was definitely up to something fishy and the Trump administration was most definitely not.
“We’ve thought for a long time—I did—that the Obama administration was manipulating the numbers in terms of the number of people in the work force to make the unemployment rate, that percentage rate, look smaller than it actually was,” Mulvaney said. “And we used to tell people back home, the only thing you should really look at, number of jobs created. And as long as that number is above $250,000 [Note: He seems to have meant above 250,000 jobs], then the economy is doing extraordinarily well. And that was the number we hit last week.”
Nothing in this garble was true, except perhaps for the fact that Mulvaney might believe his own nonsense. The economy did not add 250,000 jobs in February. More importantly, the Obama administration did not manipulate any percentages—there are different ways to calculate unemployment and underemployment, some of which are broader than others. The Obama administration reported the same ones as past presidents. The Trump administration is reporting the same exact numbers as Obama, tallied in the same way. The figures haven't even changed much since Trump took office—the official unemployment rate is still 4.7 percent, like it was in December.
In his follow-up question, Tapper almost got Mulvaney to admit so much, before dropping the subject, seemingly out of exhaustion.
Tapper: But just to—I don’t want to spend the whole interview talking about this.
Tapper: But just a point on it—you’re not the one that was attacking the numbers as phony. There’s nothing that changed that made them real today?
Mulvaney: Right. The BLS did not change the way they count. I don’t think. But you could have a long conversation, when you have got a numerator and a denominator, how to arrive at a percentage. But again, I don’t want to bore people.
Tapper: This isn't a claim that you made, so I'm not going to spend too much time on it.
And that was it. Lame as his bit about the complexities of long division may have been, Mulvaney was allowed to end on the utterly baseless note that, somehow, the Trump administration was doing something differently, the specifics of which were just too dull for a television audience. And Tapper, typically one of the most aggressive interrogators on television, was content to leave it there as if this is, somehow, a B-level story.
It's not. The idea that Obama was lying about the state of the economy is a keystone in Trump's claim that he is actually making the job market great again. It's a core part of the the administration's narrative. And yet, even good reporters like Tapper barely seem to have the heart to press them on it. The rest have just decided to laugh it off.
Update, March 13, 3:50 p.m.
During Monday's press briefing, a reporter asked Spicer to elaborate on Mulvaney's comments about the unemployment rate. As usual, Spicer's response consisted of barely comprehensible verbal gymnastics. Here they are in full:
Reporter: Director Mulvaney said yesterday that he felt the Obama administration had been manipulating the unemployment rate. I wonder if that’s a view that the president shares and what evidence is there of that.
Spicer: I think he was clearly referring to Obamacare. [Note: No, he wasn't] With the number of people, but I would refer you back to him and his comments with respect to how he characterized that. I think he can discuss the precise nature of what he meant on that.
Reporter: Does the president think that the Obama administration had been manipulating the unemployment rate.
Spicer: I think you know what the president’s view is. He’s made it very clear in the past what his comments were on how those numbers were, were articulated in the past. I think there’s a question between the total number of people that are employed. And the president’s comments in the past have reflected that his big concern was getting to the bottom of how many people are working in this country, and that the denominator, meaning that the percentage rate of the total number of people, is not the most accurate reflection of how many people are employed in this country. How many jobs we’re creating, how many people are getting back to work, how many companies are committing to hiring more people is a much more accurate assessment of where we’re heading as a country, where our employment is, where our economy is headed. But to look at a number and say we have 4.7 or 4.8 or 5.9 percent unemployment is not necessarily an accurate reflection of how many people are working, seeking work, or want to work, and if you know how they conduct those surveys, there’s a lot of time when a lot of people, whether they’re older or younger or because of how long they’ve been searching for work are not considered statistically viable anymore and they’re washed away. So I think how you look at the percentage of people working can sometimes be a manipulated number. The number of people that are added to the rolls every year, every month rather, is a much more accurate understanding of what’s happening in the economy.
This is obfuscatory nonsense. One can argue about whether the headline unemployment rate, which Trump has criticized, tells us anything useful about the health of the economy. For what it's worth, I think there are better, more informative stats out there. But the administration has not accused Obama of emphasizing the wrong number. It has accused him of manipulating the numbers, which is a lie. The facts here are simple: The Department of Labor is publishing the same exact statistics it reported under the last administration, tallied the exact same way. But Trump and his underlings refuse to admit that, because it would undercut their message about the economy.
Still, it's good to see that the White House press corps didn't let this issue drop today. Again, it isn't something that should be chuckled away.