WASHINGTON ― In the Donald Trump Universe, North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. Opioid overdose deaths are on the decline. The self-described Islamic State has been “obliterated.” And a new wall along the Mexican border is well underway.
In the actual universe, none of these things is true.
Trump proclaimed: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” right after meeting with that country’s dictator in June, but the International Atomic Energy Agency in a new report finds no letup in North Korea’s nuclear program.
On opioid overdoses, Trump this spring claimed: “The numbers are way down” and “We’re doing a good job with it” ― while his own National Institutes of Health shows there were nearly 7,000 more deaths in 2017, Trump’s first year in office, than in 2016, a 16 percent increase.
While Trump claims he has “wiped out,” “eradicated” and “obliterated” ISIS, his own Defense Department found it has about 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, about the same number the CIA estimated it had back in 2014.
And not only is Trump’s long-promised border wall not under construction, the spending bill that Trump himself signed in March specifically prohibits one from being built.
“They call him a reality TV star, but he’s untethered from reality. Lying is a second nature. That’s who he is,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. Brinkley said Trump’s untruths seem to be coming much more rapidly in recent months ― so fast that fact-checkers are having trouble keeping up.
“You can’t give a Pinocchio to someone who’s just a walking nose,” he added.
While Trump’s propensity for falsehoods and even, at times, outright lies is well-established, his recent move deeper into his alternate reality could not have come at a worse time for him.
Trump’s credibility could determine the fate of his presidency as impeachment talk grows louder following the guilty plea of Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer and “fixer.” Cohen admitted in federal court that Trump explicitly directed him to make payments in the days leading up to the 2016 election to keep the stories of two women who said they had affairs with the candidate out of the press.
Cohen’s role in that resulted in a felony conviction, essentially making Trump an unindicted co-conspirator known as “Individual-1” in the court papers.
Already this year, Trump’s story on the matter of the payments has shifted dramatically, from claiming that he had no knowledge of them when he was asked on April 5, to, most recently, claiming that his reimbursement to Cohen for them proves it was all perfectly legal.
Now, Trump’s credibility will not only be matched against that of fired FBI Director James Comey, who took detailed notes of his conversations with Trump immediately after they had taken place, but against the text messages, encrypted messages and audio recordings between Cohen and Trump now in the possession of prosecutors. Included in that cache is one tape of Trump and Cohen apparently discussing the payment intended for Playboy playmate Karen McDougal ahead of time.
Rudy Giuliani, who leads Trump’s outside legal team, said he is unconcerned and instead accused Comey of leaking classified information about his conversations with Trump after the president fired him.
“We’re not worried about Comey,” Giuliani told HuffPost in a phone interview from Trump’s golf resort in Aberdeen, Scotland. “Everything the president has said about this case has turned out to be true. So I’m not worried about his credibility in this case.”
A top Republican adviser close to the White House, though, said Trump’s credibility could indeed be a problem, given his decadeslong track record of dishonesty.
“Individually, does he stand up well against Comey? Yes. Individually, does he stand up well against Michael Cohen? Yes. Individually, does he stand up well against Omarosa? Yes,” the adviser said on condition of anonymity. “But when you have the entirety of this stuff, it does wear down even hardened supporters.”
But GOP consultant John Weaver, who ran Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign in 2016, laughed aloud at the idea that large numbers of people would believe Trump.
“Other than blood relatives and people he pays?” he asked.
Recent polling shows that only 30 percent of Americans believe Trump is honest and trustworthy, and Weaver said that includes some soft support from traditional Republicans who are likely to bail on him as more information comes out.
“His hardcore base is 25 percent of the country. That’s who’s going to stick with him,” Weaver said. “That’s what Nixon had.”
Richard Nixon chose to resign the presidency in August 1974 rather than face impeachment after the release of evidence that he had, in fact, obstructed justice in the Watergate investigation. Trump, similarly, is being investigated for obstruction of justice in the probe of Russia’s work to help him win the 2016 election.
Trump admitted he had fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, and he subsequently dictated a false statement about a meeting his campaign held at Trump Tower in an effort to get damaging information about his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, from the Russian government.
Weaver said Trump and others in the White House have put themselves in a bind by needlessly lying thousands of times since taking office, starting with the size of his inauguration crowd ― leaving themselves with little or no credibility.
“For the last year and a half, they squandered it like they were in some bazaar. They spent it and spent it and spent it like it was some endless ATM machine,” he said. “And now they’re going to go to their ATM machine when they need it and it’s going to take their card and shred it.”
Trump’s defenders, both inside and outside the White House, downplay his frequent deviation from facts, arguing that Trump is fond of exaggerating to make a point, a strategy he himself defended in his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal.
“That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts,” ghostwriter Tony Schwartz wrote after interviewing Trump extensively. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration ― and a very effective form of promotion.”
Some of Trump’s frequent falsehoods may be explained this way. Trump inherited a strong economy that has continued its upward trend that began under President Barack Obama at the end of the recession. But Trump is not content to take credit for a good economy and instead calls it “the best economy we’ve ever had in the history of our country” ― which is false.
His false claims of record-low unemployment rates for minorities are similarly exaggerations of strong numbers that are, nevertheless, not record-setting.
But his proclivity for exaggeration does not explain assertions that appear to be complete fabrications out of whole cloth, such as the one in which he claims that an executive at U.S. Steel had called to tell him that the company was opening six new plants (a figure that grew to eight, and now appears to have settled at seven). U.S. Steel, a publicly traded company, has reported no such plans.
“You are not counting the steel plants run by the unicorns,” joked one former Trump campaign official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know. I don’t understand the strategy.”
That’s because, Trump critics and even some supporters say, there is no strategy. There is only Trump saying whatever untrue thing he feels like saying at any particular moment to boost his ego.
Weaver said that behavior is unacceptable in any president, let alone one facing ongoing criminal investigations. “If he was the CEO of a publicly traded company, or the owner of a sports team, or the head of your family, you’d have him committed,” he said.
Even the GOP adviser close to the White House had no explanation for Trump’s fondness for untruths.
“He has a version of truth that, you know ― well ― I don’t know. There is some wiring in his brain,” he said. “I don’t think he understands that, as president, when he says something with his words, it goes on his permanent record. Anyway. He isn’t going to change. He is what he is.”