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FactCheck.org's bogus claim that Trump's embassy cost estimate is bogus
You not knowing where a piece of information came from is not the same thing as the information being false.
We return again this morning to our frequent and highly necessary theme of blistering the worst thing journalism has come up with in a long time - the so-called "fact-check" genre.
The problem is not with the concept of checking facts, nor is it with the notion that journalists should correct the record when a politician says something false. The problem is with how these people presume to decide what is a fact and what isn't. In many cases, they're dealing with a piece of information to which they cannot definitively attach a label of true or false, yet they presume to tell us anyway - and with absolute authority - usually based on little more than their opinion of who should be believed.
There is nothing wrong with reporting a news story in which you quote different people making competing claims about what is true. There is something wrong with simply deciding - based on your own opinion or belief - which one is telling the truth and thus making a declaration that a particular version of events is definitively factual.
Another variation of this genre is the one in which the media "fact-checker" declares that a piece of information is false because he can't verify that it's true. That is not a measure of the truthfulness of a statement. It's a measure of the limits of that journalist's reporting ability.
So both of these problems are on display with this morning's tome by FactCheck.org concerning a statement President Trump made yesterday about the cost of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Trump said he'd been told a new embassy would cost $1 billion, but that he had found a way to do it for $250,000.
False, according to FactCheck.org, although their actual report on the subject reveals that they actually have no idea:
“Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars versus a billion dollars. Is that good?” Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It would be if it were true. But Trump is comparing the cost of renovating and adding to an existing facility in Jerusalem to use temporarily as an interim embassy with the cost of building a new, permanent home for the embassy in Jerusalem.
Moreover, it’s unclear where Trump is getting that $1 billion estimate for the cost of the permanent facility.
We asked the White House press office who provided Trump with the $1 billion estimate. It did not respond.
But just a week ago, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it was “premature to discuss financing arrangements” for the new construction. “We have not had any formal discussions or any formal proposals of the sort, and when it comes to overall cost estimates, that’s something that we’ll have to work out with Congress,” Nauert said in a Feb. 28 briefing.
Trump’s comments came during remarks before a bilateral meeting with Netanyahu on March 5. Trump was asked about the opening of the U.S. Embassy, which Trump announced in December would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We’ll have it built very quickly,” Trump said. “We’re going to have it built very quickly and very inexpensively.”
Trump then continued: “They put an order in front of my desk last week for a billion dollars. I said, ‘A billion? What’s that for?’ ‘We’re going to build an embassy.’ I said, ‘We’re not going to spend a billion dollars.’ And we’re actually doing it for about $250,000. So check that out. Now, it’s temporary, but it’ll be very nice. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars versus a billion dollars. Is that good?”
That was a bit of a long excerpt, but I want you to get the context. First let's deal with FactCheck.org's claim that Trump is conflating apples and oranges here.
Trump is talking about the imperative to move the embassy by May of this year, which is much sooner than was previously tbought possible because the construction of a new embassy was estimated to cost $1 billion. Trump wanted to move the embassy by May, so he and his team found an entirely different way to do it, which was to renovate an existing building, which he believes can be done for only $250,000.
It's true that he's comparing two different things - building an entirely new embassy vs. moving into existing space - but who cares? If the objective is to get the embassy to Jerusalem as quickly as possible, then the less expensive option gets the job done and at least in the short term saves a lot of money.
It maybe true that we will eventually have to build a new embassy that will cost considerably more, but there's no urgent imperative to do it right away because Trump went with a cheaper, yet entirely functional, option. There is no reason that comparison is not valid.
Now, what about FactCheck.org's claims that the numbers aren't right? Here's what they say about that:
A State Department official told us internal modifications to allow the embassy to open in an existing facility in May are anticipated to cost $200,000 to $400,000. So that’s presumably where Trump got the $250,000 figure, which he identified as going toward a “temporary” facility.
The State Department says it has begun to search for a site for a permanent embassy, “the planning and construction of which will be a longer-term undertaking.”
That, of course, is the bigger ticket item. But as we said, we’re not sure where the president is getting his $1 billion estimate, and the press office did not clarify. The New York Times cited a former State Department official who estimated the cost at half that, $500 million.
Patrick Kennedy, who retired last year from the State Department where he served as under secretary for management, told the New York Times that embassies can cost anywhere from $150 million to $1 billion to build. According to the Times: “The one in Jerusalem is likely to cost somewhere in the middle of that range — about $500 million — because it does not need the housing, warehouse or security functions of some of the most expensive buildings, such as those in Baghdad and Kabul, Mr. Kennedy said.”
So Trump says a completely new embassy would cost $1 billion, and FactCheck.org immediately casts aspersions on that figure because he doesn't say where it came from. Yet they quote the New York Times quoting a former State Department official saying it would cost half that.
Question: Where does Mr. Kennedy get his figure? Does he know more about what it costs to build a building than Donald Trump knows? I realize the media reflexively doubt everything Trump says, but if there's any subject you'd expect him to know about, it's real estate development. And they're happy to accept the word of retired ex-bureaucrats as authoritative, but not the president of the United States on a subject he's been familiar with his entire adult life.
You can't declare a cost estimate on a future project false, because until the project is built no one knows for sure what it will cost. I'd go with an estimate by Donald Trump over one by someone who's never developed real estate, but they're all just estimates.
And you can't call a statement false because, in your opinion, it compares apples and oranges, when you pay no attention to the relationship between the apple and the orange.
Or, to put it more plainly, don't waste your time going to media "fact-checkers" to understand anything. Because they don't, and neither will you.
Dan writes Christian spiritual warfare novels and does all kinds of other weird things too. Follow all his activity by liking him on Facebook!