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When the White House Lies About You

L’esprit de l’escalier: I plead guilty.

What I didn’t do is disclose the name of any covert officer — nor would I have, since I disagree with The Times’s decision to publish it. So it came as a bad surprise when, the following morning, Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, tweeted that I had.

“CIA Dir Pompeo calls out @NYTimes for publishing name of an UNDERCOVER CIA agent,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, adding, “Just as disgraceful? @BretStephensNYT REPEATS name 2x’s!” He also posted a brief clip of the exchange — but muted my voice when I mentioned Agee.

This was nasty, manipulated and false, but it wasn’t necessarily a lie. If Scavino had never heard of Agee, didn’t know the name of the C.I.A. officer whose name was published by The Times and didn’t bother to fact check before tweeting, he might have inferred from my reply that I had indeed done what he alleged. That’s a plausible surmise about a White House where the line between idiocy and malice isn’t always clear.

To give Scavino the benefit of the doubt, I asked the C.I.A. spokesman to set him straight. I also rebutted his claim on Twitter, emailed and left messages with him on his private number, and wrote the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, at his personal email address.

No acknowledgment. No response. The tweet has not been deleted. The C.I.A. has not publicly corrected the record. The White House is knowingly allowing Scavino’s falsehood to stand. That’s called lying — which, as Pompeo might say, is “unconscionable.”

So what’s new, you ask? Well, not much, at least if you’re comfortable with a political dispensation in which a senior White House official can stonewall without compunction and expect everyone else to yawn and shrug. Every administration has a few sulfuric personalities. This one bubbles over and erupts with them, like a fetid geyser at Yellowstone.

Nor is it new that Scavino’s attack is also part of a broader White House effort to demonize The New York Times. Also in Aspen, Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the Special Operations Command, alleged in an interview that an effort to kill the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi failed on account of a leak to “a prominent national newspaper” — no prizes for guessing the paper he had in mind.

The general’s claim was also dubious, at least as far as The Times was concerned. Taken with Pompeo’s outburst and Scavino’s lie, it raises the question of whether normally apolitical figures aren’t being conscripted into Trump’s war on the press. That’s a worrying thought for institutions, like the C.I.A., that are supposed to remain above the fray to preserve public trust.

Here’s what worries me more: One judges a liar less by the whoppers he tells than by the fibs — by his willingness to live outside the truth even when the advantages of doing so are almost negligible. Scavino’s failure to correct the record on something as minute as my exchange with Pompeo suggests he’ll lie about anything. And this is the guy who stands at the heart of the Trump administration’s social media operation — the most demagogic enterprise of our time.

The United States Office of Special Counsel has already warned Scavino that he violated the 1939 Hatch Act in April by engaging in “prohibited political activity.” If Anthony Scaramucci is serious about cleaning house in his new shop, dismissing Scavino should be a priority. I’ll take it instead of the apology I’m still owed.

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