It wasn’t fake news and couldn’t be called that; we all watched it together.
FBI Director James B. Comey, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, said that neither the FBI or the Justice Department had any information that President Barack Obama ever ordered Donald Trump’s phones tapped at Trump Tower. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said.
In “those tweets” in the early hours of March 4, the sitting president of the United States lied, accusing his predecessor of a serious crime with no justification or evidence for the accusation.
Anyone can get things wrong; many presidents have gotten things wrong. Lying must also contain intent. And behind Trump’s continual falsehoods is intent: changing the facts with “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories that support him, his agenda, and his brand.
In a New York Times op-ed the day after Comey’s testimony, David Leonhardt made the distinction: George W. Bush thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was wrong; Barack Obama thought people would be able to keep their current health insurance program if they wanted, which also turned out to be wrong.
“They made careless statements that proved to be false (and they deserved much of the criticism they got),” Leonhardt writes. “But the current President of the United States lies. He lies in ways that no American politician has before. He has lied about, among other things, Obama’s birthplace, John Kennedy’s assassination, Sept. 11, the Iraq War, ISIS, NATO, military veterans, Mexican immigrants, anti-Semitic attacks, the unemployment rate, the murder rate, the Electoral College, voter fraud, and his groping of women.”
Very alarmingly, most of the readers of this column, and probably even their children, could easily add many more Trump lies to the list: the size of his inauguration crowd, the size of his victory, the size of his wealth, the size of his business successes, and insults his opponents and anyone who dares to challenge him — as Trump has made a habit out of bullying his way through life.
Then there are the many facts that Donald Trump refuses to disclose — like his tax returns. And, of course, with the facts of Trump’s financial life hidden, he can create his own facts, to protect his personal financial interests — even if they conflict with the national interest.
Donald Trump and his team have also consistently repeated that he and they have nothing to do with Russia, have no serious business interests or history there, had no relationships with Russian foreign operatives who tried to influence the American election in his favor, and that the Russians had no impact in their interference in the United States 2016 election. Trump says, “Russia is fake news.”
But Comey says otherwise. The FBI director made the extraordinary announcement this week that an investigation is underway to see whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Comey went on to say, “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
As Leonhardt suggests, there is a need now for more than journalistic fact checking. Deeper moral reflection is now required. “He tells so many untruths that it’s time to leave behind the textual parsing over which are unwitting and which are deliberate — as well as the condescending notion that most of Trump’s supporters enjoy his lies,” Leonhardt writes. “Trump sets out to deceive people. As he has put it, ‘I play to people’s fantasies.’”
Alternatively, Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
What will happen to a nation’s freedom when its people don’t know the truth anymore? What happens when the political leader of the nation doesn’t seem to know the truth but lies about it day after day? Has repetitive lying already become normalized and accepted in the country under Donald Trump? What will the effect be on our children when even they can see that the president lies all the time? Will that make it harder for us as parents to tell them to always tell the truth? How does it affect a nation’s credibility when his supporters say that nobody should take what he says “literally”? What does it do to the nation’s moral fabric when the intelligence and justice officers of a nation tell us publicly that there is no proof behind the president’s numerous accusations? And, what does it mean when the president refuses to apologize or accept any responsibility for his mountain of deceptions?
As a Wall Street Journal editorial put it on Tuesday, in an unusually scathing critique from the conservative newspaper, “Two months into his presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump’s approval rating at 39%. No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news, but if he doesn’t show more respect for the truth, most Americans may conclude he’s a fake president.”
The perpetual and seemingly pathological lying of the president of the United States is now more than a political issue, and certainly more than a partisan one; it is both a moral and a religious crisis now for the nation. And it is time for leaders in the faith community to stand up and say so. The truth will indeed set us free, and the unwillingness of the faith community to speak the truth to power could help put us into political bondage.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.