This is the autopsy of a lie.
On the night of Nov. 18, Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Martinez was found dying on the side of an interstate in West Texas. There were immediate signs it had been an accident. Martinez's partner, Stephen Garland (who suffered a head injury and doesn't recall the incident), had radioed for help, saying he thought he ran into a culvert.
But President Trump and his allies saw an opportunity to whip up anti-immigrant fervor. At a Cabinet meeting Nov. 20, Trump announced, with cameras rolling, that "we lost a Border Patrol officer just yesterday, and another one was brutally beaten and badly, badly hurt. ... We're going to have the wall." He followed with a similar tweet.
And then there was Fox News, which went with the headline "Border Patrol agent appeared to be ambushed by illegal immigrants, bashed with rocks before death." Fox News host Tucker Carlson reported that Martinez was "attacked at the border in the most gruesome possible way."
The FBI swung into action, and this week it announced its findings. Although the investigation "has not conclusively determined" what happened, "none of the more than 650 interviews completed, locations searched, or evidence collected and analyzed have produced evidence that would support the existence of a scuffle, altercation, or attack on November 18, 2017."
Compared with the original allegations, the findings got little attention. There was no corrective tweet from Trump and no retraction by Fox News, which buried the FBI's findings with brief mention. Fox News, which had previously reported immigrants to be guilty of rape allegations that were later dropped, continued to report the border union's claim of assault "despite FBI finding no scuffle."
It has been more than 300 years since Jonathan Swift wrote about the utility of falsehood: "If a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect ... like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead."
Swift could not have better described Trump's America in the 21st century, when allegation substitutes for evidence. Let us pretend that Russia isn't interfering in our elections — and therefore let us decline to impose sanctions approved by Congress. Let us concoct stories about "illegal immigrant" murderers and rapists to justify a border wall. And let us tell Americans they can have a free lunch — a $1.5 trillion tax cut and $500 billion in additional spending, all paid for with borrowed funds — and suffer no adverse consequences. By the time people discover what has really happened, it will be too late.
Most Americans will never learn what investigators found about the border attack — because they were being exposed to a new hoax this week: that the key to the United States' success is in borrowing more. "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!" Trump tweeted in celebration after the two-year budget deal cleared Congress Friday morning.
But the economy is already near full employment — exactly the wrong time to enact a stimulus, typically done to jolt an economy out of recession. The deal gives the military even more than Trump sought and, with interest, will add almost $420 billion to the deficit, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The tax cut and spending spree leave the government with less power to combat a recession. And a recession is exactly what Wall Street fears as the overstimulated economy forces up inflation and interest rates.
When recession comes, it will be too late. The fiction of a free lunch will already have wasted $2 trillion in the cause of overheating the economy, just as the fiction about the attack on Martinez and Garland has already furthered Trump's attempt to portray immigrants as criminals.
The facts were knowable early on in that case. Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo, one of the first responders on the scene, told the Dallas Morning News less than two weeks after the incident that he thought a tractor-trailer could have accidentally sideswiped the border agents. "From the beginning we were radioed to assist in the incident as an injury, not an assault," he said.
But that didn't fit Trump's narrative about murderous immigrants. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.
— Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.