All politicians — probably all people — bend the truth, sometimes to the point of rupture. But normally, politicians try to at least leave an inch of plausible deniability, or commit lies of omission, rather than flat-out fib.
President Trump doesn't do this. For whatever reason, consciously or not, Trump is breathtakingly mendacious.
The Washington Post, which has documented more than 3,250 false or misleading claims Trump has made in office, noticed last week that the president "has been outdoing even himself with falsehoods in recent days, repeating and amplifying bogus claims on several of the most pressing controversies facing his presidency." At just one rally — in Duluth last Wednesday night — Trump told a whopper once almost every two minutes for an hour, per Post fact-checker Meg Kelly's tally.
And it's not just the Jeff Bezos Fake News Washington Post that finds Trump less than truthful. A new Gallup poll shows only 37 percent of Americans consider Trump honest and trustworthy, and Pew Research Center just found that a 54 percent majority of American adults trust what Trump says less than past presidents.
— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) June 22, 2018
If you're uncomfortable calling Trump's constantly untruthful statements "lies" — it's a pretty shocking and discomfiting thing to say about a president of the United States, and I take no pleasure in highlighting it — there are plenty of euphemisms: falsehoods, half-truths, whoppers, fibs, inventions, fabrications, taradiddles, or the Kellyanne Conway-coined "alternative facts." But whatever your genteelism, it's time to consider the possibility that Trump is not and never will be a credible source of information.
Some of Trump's "alternative facts" are pretty silly — like his inaugural crowd size inflation or his claim that he's "reopening NASA," an agency that has never been closed and whose budget is larger than ever (not adjusted for inflation). Some are mostly embarrassing, like his repeated insistence that he lacked the power to end his family separation policy with an executive order just days before he signed such an order doing exactly that. There are some he must know will be exposed, like when he tweeted that he was cheered on by House Republicans for trashing one of their respected members, Rep. Mark Sanford (S.C.).
But some of his lies are broadly consequential, with real policy and political implications, like the lie that former President Barack Obama "wiretapped" him; or that millions of illegal voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton, depriving him of a popular-vote victory; or that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are more likely to commit violent crimes — in fact, several sizable studies show the opposite. An ICE spokesman, James Schwab, quit in March, saying he "couldn't bear the burden" of perpetuating "misleading facts" about crime and immigrants being spread by Trump administration officials.
Trump says things that are obviously untrue so often, it's barely newsworthy anymore. We read one of his tweets that contains a glaring falsehood that's been debunked numerous times, and what? We shrug, or we tell ourselves it's no big deal, or we convince ourselves he isn't lying, or we just roll our eyes — there he goes again.
Well, maybe Trump's lies shouldn't be news. If this president can't be expected to tell the truth, there's no value in spreading his lies — a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes, as the saying goes. But there are times when citizens need to believe what the president is saying, like in times of attack or other national emergency. So what to do about Trump's truth troubles?
For the pettier mendacity, a good shrug is probably the best response — some people will believe that Trump has enacted more legislation than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no matter how many charts and lists you show them. For Trump's more consequential policy-related falsehoods, like the claim that he has solved the North Korea nuclear standoff or repealed (rather than just undermined) the Affordable Care Act or enacted the largest tax cut in history, it's probably best to pay attention to Trump's actions rather than his words — what has he actually signed, and what does it say?
Media critic Jack Shafer offers some more pointers at Politico, drawing lessons from Trump's rare surrender on his family-separation border policy, a story that finally "couldn't be diluted or contaminated with Twitter truculence." The first lesson is persistence: If Trump or his aides continue to evade or mislead or outright lie about an important policy point, like pulling children from their families, eschew shiny objects and insist on learning the objective facts and keep asking and pressing and challenging the administration. If the lie becomes untenable, the truth will out, the embarrassment might reinforce good behavior, and everyone will be better for that.
Shafer's last insight is especially suited to Trump, who watches TV more than most people and is especially gifted and invested in imagery. He writes:
For three years now we've been told that nothing bad sticks to Trump, that his mind games and double-talk make him invulnerable to the protestations of the righteous. That no matter how tight his detractors tie the knot, he'll always slip out of it. This week we learned differently. Trump can reliably win the battle if it's fought with words. But against images and descriptions of distraught and traumatized children and parents, Trump's superpowers fail. [Politico]
In an ideal world, the political cost of being trapped in blatant lies would incentivize more honesty to the point where Trump could rebuild some of the public trust he has squandered. But the admitted serial adulterer who has been brazenly (and mostly successfully) lying to inflate his reported wealth since the early 1980s, roping in both his lawyer and alter-ego for the campaign, is unlikely to radically transform his personality at age 72. So maybe take comfort in the line attributed to Abraham Lincoln, "No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar," and work on being honest with yourself and one another. Because the truth matters, even if it doesn't matter to any given commander in chief.