Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost

The Ministry Of Untruth

What Donald Trump's unending stream of lies has done to our White House, our country and us.

As our president sat across from Volodymyr Zelensky in New York last autumn, he explained to the newly elected leader that he knew all about his country because, after all, he used to own the Miss Universe pageant, and one year the winner was from Ukraine.

“We got to know the country very well in a lot of different ways,” Donald Trump said.

It was, unsurprisingly, completely false. A Miss Ukraine had never won the Miss Universe title in the pageant’s 66-year history, including the 20 that Trump had owned it.

Equally unsurprisingly, the lie went largely unnoticed and uncared about. In the flood of falsehoods that gush from Trump’s mouth and Twitter feed most every day, something like this lacked anywhere near the heft to make a splash.

Indeed, on that day during his United Nations General Assembly visit, Trump also claimed:  “We have created the greatest economy in the history of our country.” Of the USMCA trade agreement: “It’s a great trade deal — the greatest we’ve ever had. NAFTA was a horrible trade deal. It replaces NAFTA.” Of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “A lot of her members now are having second thoughts. They’re saying they’re in a very bad position.” Of his long-promised wall along the Mexican border: “And the wall is going up, many miles a week.” Of the WTO: “World Trade Organization was not one of the greats. Not one of the greats. That was the creation of China, which went like a rocket ship from the day they signed.” And of new automotive plants: “Many of the great Japanese companies, at my request, are now building their plants in the United States. … Big ones going up in South Carolina, Florida.”

Not a single one of Trump’s assertions was true.

Today’s economy is not the greatest economy in the country’s history, and has, in fact, over the past year been slowing down. Trump’s United States Mexico Canada Agreement is essentially the North American Free Trade Agreement with some minor tweaks. Pelosi was not losing support among her Democratic members. Not a single mile of new fence had been built someplace where there hadn’t already been a barrier. China did not create the WTO, and Toyota and Nissan are not suddenly building new plants here. Not in Florida. Not anywhere.

And on that day, the scandal now threatening Trump’s presidency – his request of Zelensky for the “favor” of investigating a political rival – was just erupting into full bloom, the day after Pelosi had announced a formal impeachment inquiry.

It was easy for the fake Ukrainian Miss Universe to get lost.

 

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It is exhausting. All of it.

I’ve been a journalist for 33 years. I’ve covered Congress. NASA and the military space program. City and county halls. The Florida statehouse. Criminal courts, including armed robbers and serial killers. In all of that time, I have never encountered a public official, a candidate for office, a bureaucrat, a defense lawyer or, frankly, an actual criminal who is as regularly and aggressively dishonest as the current president of the United States. And that includes a dozen years covering the Florida legislature.

It is, in fact, the defining feature of this White House: The president will spew falsehoods about nearly everything, morning, noon and night. He lies in one-on-one interviews, in formal news conferences, and standing beside other world leaders. He lies in “official” government speeches and at campaign rallies.

Protesters gather against Trump in London, July 2018.
Protesters gather against Trump in London, July 2018.

Trump lied about the size of his inaugural crowd on his very first full day in office, at CIA headquarters standing in front of a memorial to officers killed in the line of duty. He invented “millions” of illegal votes by illegal aliens to rationalize Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory. He made up Japanese officials who supposedly told him that Democrats wanted our country to fail, just to make Trump look bad. He told the leader of Pakistan that India’s prime minister wanted Trump to mediate an agreement on Kashmir. The Indian government within minutes put out a statement denying that Narendra Modi had said any such thing.

He has lied repeatedly about the status of the border wall he promised Mexico would pay for. (He lied several times that Mexico was actually paying for it, when, in fact, Mexico has not paid a single peso.) He has lied and continues to lie that China is paying the tariffs he imposed on imported Chinese goods. And he lies and he lies and he lies, over and over again, that he was somehow responsible for the VA choice law, which allowed veterans facing long wait times at VA clinics to see private doctors. In fact, it came to be thanks to three Trump nemeses: the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wrote it, and Democratic President Barack Obama, who signed it into law two years before Trump was elected.

A combination of photos taken at the National Mall shows the crowds attending the inauguration ceremonies to swear in U.S. Pr
A combination of photos taken at the National Mall shows the crowds attending the inauguration ceremonies to swear in U.S. President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2017 and President Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009.

In all, to date, there have been many thousands of falsehoods, and a significant percentage of them are lies: That is, Trump knows what he saying is not true, but says it anyway. It is not worth trying to list even a small subset of them – other journalists are doing yeoman’s work in that area – but it is nevertheless truly astonishing when you stop and think about it: Whenever the president of the United States opens his mouth, odds are that the words that tumble forth are false. Whenever the erstwhile leader of the free world puts his thumbs to his iPhone keypad, it is more likely than not that the assertions that pop up on social media moments later are an exaggeration. Or a random fabrication. Or a dramatic embellishment. Or a deliberate lie.

And perhaps the most troubling part of all this? That three years into the Donald Trump presidency, these observations lack the capacity to shock or even to raise an eyebrow. It is no longer newsworthy that the person leading the world’s most powerful nation, commanding the most destructive arsenal in human history, is untrustworthy to his core. It is simply where we are today.

If Ronald Reagan is the president who won the Cold War, and Obama will be remembered as the first Black president, Trump’s place in the history books is certain to be considerably less flattering: the impeached president who made up the most stuff, pretty much all day, pretty much every day.

Once upon a time, not terribly long ago, Donald J. Trump’s difficult relationship with the truth was of little actual consequence to anyone.

He was an outer-borough real estate guy turned Manhattan celebrity turned game show host, whose fame was built largely on his willingness to fill New York City’s tabloid gossip pages. He would say whatever juicy or outrageous or provocative thing that came to mind to get himself ink. It mattered not at all whether he was truly sleeping with a particular supermodel, as his made-up-spokesman alias would claim, or if a member of the royal family was really moving into one of his properties – except perhaps to the writer struggling to fill those remaining column inches by deadline.

That all changed in May 2016, when he became the presumptive presidential nominee for one of the two major American political parties. Overnight, his utterances became deeply significant, every syllable pored over both in America, where many until that point had not paid much attention to him, and more so in capital cities the world over ― even if he didn’t appreciate it or care.

Three and a half years later, pretty much everyone on the planet paying even the least bit of attention understands that when it comes to assertions of fact from the American president, there is good reason to take them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Several healthy doses, in fact. And because Donald Trump demands loyalty both in words and deed – expecting behavior that tends to normalize his own – that caveat became necessary early on for just about everyone who works at the White House as well as the political appointees across the executive branch agencies.

Real estate magnate Donald Trump and his then-girlfriend (and eventual second wife) Marla Maples are seen at the Holyfield-Fo
Real estate magnate Donald Trump and his then-girlfriend (and eventual second wife) Marla Maples are seen at the Holyfield-Foreman fight at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J., April 19, 1991. 

Which brings us to today. The president faces removal from office for withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of congressionally approved military aid to coerce a foreign leader into helping Trump’s own reelection campaign. He is simultaneously embracing a go-it-alone escalation with Iran that could easily blossom into a full-on war.

Regarding Ukraine, there are a great number of facts out there, both from witness testimony and documents, corroborating the accusations against him. And on Iran, there seem to be few facts backing up his claims that it was preparing imminent attacks against the United States.

To survive a Senate trial and win reelection later this year, the president needs a substantial plurality of Americans to ignore all of that and instead accept Trump’s word.

Based on his track record, there is zero reason for anyone to do so. Zero.

 

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On an Air Force One flight back to Washington after a Louisiana outing last spring, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise couldn’t help but chortle as he recounted all the absurdities sprinkled into Trump’s remarks earlier that day: “Windmills cause cancer! Dead birds!”

Trump, as is his wont, had been railing on about another of his nemeses, wind turbines, and how they are unreliable for watching television because ― what if the wind dies? How their spinning blades kill birds, and especially, for some reason, bald eagles. How they cause nearby homes to plummet in value. How, he even claimed once, they cause cancer.

It goes without saying that not a word Trump had said about wind power was true. Indeed, implicit in Scalise’s levity was that Trump’s words are not to be taken seriously. They are terrific for their entertainment value, but it is pointless to parse them for meaning.

Unfortunately, the nation and the world do parse Trump’s words, because while they are often absurd and even more often false, he himself usually intends them seriously, and the powers at his fingertips are so vast that he cannot be safely ignored.

His words mattered a great deal, for example, to a U.S. Navy SEAL and an untold number of Yemeni civilians who died in the first days of Trump’s presidency when he approved a special operations raid there ― in no small measure because predecessor Barack Obama had refused to approve it.

They’ve mattered and will continue to matter in the Middle East, where his decisions to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement ― again, in large measure because Obama had achieved it ― to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and, most recently, to kill Iran’s top military leader have all further destabilized the region.

And they’ve certainly mattered to farmers in the American Midwest, whose livelihoods have been crushed because Trump’s trade war with China wrecked a market they had spent decades nurturing.

President Donald Trump displays the "Space Policy Directive 4" establishing a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed fo
President Donald Trump displays the "Space Policy Directive 4" establishing a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces, Feb. 19, 2019. 

Each of these decisions had been telegraphed for months or years along with outlandish claims of his military acumen, his foreign policy expertise and his mastery of international trade ― claims that have turned out to be entirely specious. Trump does not, in fact, know more about war than “his generals.” The Iran agreement was actually working, as officials in his own administration were telling him. And trade wars, it appears, are neither “good” nor “easy to win.”

More so than any previous administration in modern times, Donald Trump and his White House are eager and willing to disseminate false information to advance an agenda that seems to have no other goal than to secure Trump a second term.

The examples are legion. Trump, and his staff, claim that drug prices are coming down. That air quality is the best in the world. That the southern border wall is rapidly getting built. That the military is suddenly bristling with hundreds of brand-new airplanes and ships. That jobs are “pouring” back into the country from overseas.

A conference call the White House staged last summer was beyond Orwellian. The former coal lobbyist Trump had put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency was literally giving his boss credit for environmental progress made under presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. We had truly entered the upside-down world.

This happens so often, on so many fronts, that it becomes numbing. We simply get used to the nonsense and shrug. Perhaps that is the intended goal.

Progressives excoriate and conservatives praise the policies that Trump has put into place, from rolling back environmental regulations to installing Federalist Society judges to signing a tax cut that disproportionately helps the richest. Trump has, indeed, done those things ― but most if not all would have come from any Republican president from that 2016 field.

What Trump has brought, uniquely, is far more consequential long term: He has destroyed the credibility of the United States government, both at home and abroad. And while Scalise and other Republicans like to pretend that that doesn’t really matter, it does. Immensely.

In this June 30, 2019, file photo, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pose at the border village of Panmunjom in the D
In this June 30, 2019, file photo, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pose at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea.

The only time NATO’s mutual defense provision has ever been triggered in its 70-year history was when, we, the United States of America, were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Soldiers, pilots and sailors from 14 countries put their lives at risk on behalf of ours.

Yet over the past three years, our president has repeatedly lied about our allies and their financial obligations to the military alliance. He has falsely claimed that the European Union was created to undermine the United States. He has similarly lied about the terms of military and trade agreements with Japan and South Korea.

In Trump’s first year, European officials would hear from top administration voices, including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, that the core relationship had not changed, regardless of what the president personally might be saying at any given moment. Over time, though, reassuring words have lost meaning as they saw that Trump could and would act precipitously, such as his announcement to abandon the Kurds in Syria ― who had done much of the fighting and bleeding and dying for America in the fight against ISIS ― to the mercies of Turkey’s strongman Recep Erdoğan.

What will happen if the day comes when we truly need those traditional allies again? How will they trust us? Why should they trust us?

  

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Of course, what might happen in some future overseas crisis, even one as looming and as plausible as a war with Iran, is a hypothetical that for a variety of reasons will not alarm many Americans.

A far more worrisome example of the Trump White House’s toxic mix of recklessness and mendacity already took place right here at home, just a few months back.

On Sept. 1, at 10:21 a.m. Washington time, the president of the United States emerged from a hurricane briefing and decided to offer his own update on Twitter: “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!”

Except, by then, the National Hurricane Center’s consensus was that Dorian would parallel the east coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, before eventually turning northeast and off to sea. Hurricane watches and warnings were posted along those coasts.

In other words, Trump’s inclusion of Alabama had zero relationship to the actual Hurricane Center forecast.

To appreciate why what happened next was so appalling, it is perhaps necessary to have lived in a hurricane-prone state for a period of years. In those places, the rule is simple: Accept the experts’ analyses and recommendations. Don’t embellish. Don’t play games. People’s lives hang in the balance.

It’s also important to understand that the public advisories issued by forecasters are carefully workshopped to strike a balance between providing meteorological precision and managing an orderly public response. Evacuations are time-consuming and come with their own risks and opportunity costs. Evacuating southeast Florida, for instance, makes evacuating Central Florida much harder, because, first, there are only so many hotel rooms and shelters within a day’s drive of the coast and, second, the interstates and turnpike can only carry so many cars before they become parking lots. Most of all, forecasters want to maintain public confidence in their products to maximize compliance with whatever response emergency managers choose to order. For example, they hate “windshield wipering” a forecast track ― bending it in one direction, and then the other – even if successive computer model runs indicate exactly that, because doing so exasperates an anxious public.

Donald Trump’s Alabama tweet ran roughshod over all of that.

Why he did so is probably not worth the headache that trying to divine Trump’s motives often brings. The simplest explanation is that Trump has always been a drama junkie, and that his last career before his White House run was hosting a reality television show where that trait was particularly prized. Alabama has been a favorite of his ever since a campaign visit to Mobile in August 2015 brought out a crowd of 30,000. He simply wrote the state into the Hurricane Dorian episode.

Trump holds a Hurricane Dorian forecast tracking chart -- adjusted by a Sharpie -- as he talks with reporters in the White Ho
Trump holds a Hurricane Dorian forecast tracking chart -- adjusted by a Sharpie -- as he talks with reporters in the White House Oval Office.

The consequences, of course, were immediate. The National Weather Service office in Birmingham was flooded with panicked phone calls, asking about the monster hurricane that was suddenly bearing down on their state. Forecasters responded 20 minutes later with their own tweet: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

And that act of truth-telling set off more than a week of Trump and his political appointees at the White House waging war on the actual experts, the actual facts and, really, the actual truth.

Rather than just admit the mistake and move on, Trump instead insisted that he had been right. He claimed – falsely – that at the time of the tweet, there had still been a decent chance that Alabama would be struck. And that, in turn, triggered a response that had already happened so many times previously and which continues to happen today: His staff tried to re-engineer reality to fit the lie their boss had told and was refusing to back away from.

To this end, they ordered up a large poster board of a forecast map from nearly a week earlier, when the storm had been predicted to cross the Florida peninsula. Trump then drew in an additional semicircle with a black Sharpie to include southeastern Alabama.

And this, within the White House, became the official line. For days. That Trump had been right, and the country’s best meteorologists had been wrong. One top press officer, in fact, kept an 8 1/2-by-11 printout of the outdated tracking map on his desk – a prop to continue arguing to reporters, for months, that Trump had been correct.

The whole thing became comical – which served to hide the perils it exposed.

Trump, even in serious matters, could not be counted on to tell the truth or to correct obvious mistakes. Even worse, his White House and top agency officials would take his side and chastise line-level employees who dared contradict him.

The USS John S. McCain destroyer is moored out of sight in Japan on June 1, 2019, after the White House and Defense Departmen
The USS John S. McCain destroyer is moored out of sight in Japan on June 1, 2019, after the White House and Defense Department exchanged emails on hiding the ship during Trump's visit so he wouldn't be enraged by seeing the name of his rival. 

The National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are among the crown jewels of the federal government – islands of quiet competence regardless of the political winds of the moment. Trump’s childishness drew them both into the churning chaos that constantly surrounds him.

On Sept. 6, NOAA headquarters released a statement – unsigned but presumably a political appointee – backing up Trump and scolding the Birmingham office. That, in turn, drew a chorus of condemnation from the top scientists and career staff. It was a mess, generated for no good reason at all.

This was a hurricane, a relatively predictable weather event for which the White House is not the sole or even the main source of information. What happens when it is something else, a terrorist bombing, an attack on an overseas military base, a disease outbreak, where the White House is a primary or perhaps the only source of information?

Something like, say, the targeted killing of a top leader of a hostile nation? 

 

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As Trump made dishonesty a principal feature of his White House, he had an unwitting accomplice: the White House press corps itself.

Part of this was inevitable, at least in the beginning. Journalists generally assume that someone is telling the truth when they talk to us, and Trump and his staff were afforded that same benefit of the doubt. Now, arguably, given his decades-long history as a fabulist – recall that he used to dial up gossip columnists and, identifying himself as “John Barron” or “John Miller,” try to plant fake stories about his sexual and business conquests – perhaps Trump should not have been trusted from the outset.

But there was a notion, pushed strongly by national Republican leaders, that Trump would grow into the job, that the responsibility of the office would weigh on his shoulders and that he would finally act like an adult.

Of course, that did not happen. I was by chance the pool reporter for Trump’s first full day in office, and watched with my own eyes as he stood in front of the memorial wall at CIA headquarters across the river in Langley, Virginia, and claimed, falsely, that there had been as many as a million and a half people on the National Mall for his inauguration and that the media were lying about him having had a much smaller crowd than Barack Obama eight years earlier. A couple of hours later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s first official act in that job was to march into the briefing room, repeat those lies and then march out.

The barrage of near-daily dishonesties that followed helped sweep away that deep-seated aversion that most journalists – including this one – had to using the word “lie” in print and on the air. The likelihood of turning off some in the audience with such a charged term aside, there was the definitional problem: A lie means that the purported liar knows what he is saying is false at the moment that he says it. On a real-time basis, of course, that’s nearly impossible to prove. How can we know what is going through people’s heads as they say things?

As the weeks and months passed, though, we began to see that Trump had, in fact, time after time, been given accurate information about topics as silly as to whether Ronald Reagan had won Wisconsin (he had) to as consequential as to whether China was paying the tariffs Trump had imposed (they were not). Yet he had continued to make the false claims anyway. This eventually led to more and more news organizations getting past their reticence and calling Trump a liar as warranted.

Unfortunately, other more deeply rooted factors remain that have served to make this president’s relationship with the truth seem to reside within a band of normal, when in reality it is an extreme outlier.

Instead of pointing out the casual lies coming from the administration as they happen, too many members of the press corps just put the lie out there as news. “The president said X,” is the headline, rather than: “The president lied about X” or, more accurately, “The president lied about X again.”

As a former Associated Press reporter versed in the responsibility of providing just-the-facts coverage, I appreciate that there are times our jobs require that we act as stenographers. As someone who has covered Trump from the day he rode down his escalator, I appreciate that this approach does our audience an enormous disservice. Yet it remains a staple of far too much White House coverage.

Some of this is a function of journalists too young and too inexperienced to understand that Trump’s behavior is not merely unusual, but aberrant and dangerous to a self-governing society.

Once upon a time, covering the White House was a mid- or late-career assignment. Reporters making their way there would have spent decades covering school boards, county commissions, criminal courts, statehouses, Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department – all of which provided a solid foundation for understanding the functioning of American government and the players who make it work.

Trump holds what appears to be a prepared statement and handwritten notes after watching testimony by U.S. Ambassador to the
Trump holds what appears to be a prepared statement and handwritten notes after watching testimony by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland as he speaks to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House  on Nov. 20, 2019. 

Today, the White House press corps is radically different. Many reporters had covered just a few, or even just one, political campaign before their White House assignments. They would be hard-pressed to explain ad valorem taxation. Or how a bond issue works. Or statewide school funding formulas. This is one reason, for example, that when 2016 candidates vowed to eliminate Common Core educational standards and bring decisions to local school boards, too many of the reporters covering them just scribbled it all down, rather than ask the candidates what they meant, given that schools are already controlled by local boards.

In fairness, this isn’t completely their fault. The recession of 2008-09 wreaked havoc on the news business, which made wholesale cuts of higher-salaried journalists, which is to say those with a decade or more of experience. This resulted in a press corps nationally and in Washington far younger and greener than prior to the recession, while the industry itself morphed to keep up with the Internet and social media.

And it’s this last piece that’s the most sinister element “normalizing” someone like Trump.

The era of filing one or two articles a day, let alone weekly in-depth pieces, is long gone at the vast majority of news organizations. Some “new media” outlets have a quota of five or six bylined items a day. It goes without saying that this is not a winning formula for producing high-quality journalism.

As it turns out, though, the Trump noise machine is perfectly suited for meeting that five-or-six piece quota. Indeed, between the morning tweets and the random comments at Oval Office photo opportunities, Cabinet meeting preambles and shouting sessions on the South Lawn beside the idling jet turbines of Marine 1, Donald Trump generates enough fresh material for a dozen, sometimes two dozen pieces of “content” each and every day. Contrast this with the Obama presidency, or the George W. Bush presidency, when days or even a week could go by without the president saying anything particularly newsworthy.

This is why even senior members of the White House press corps – those who should know better – actually praise Trump and his White House for being the most “accessible” in history, without acknowledging that so much of that access is to material that is either straight-up false or noisy nonsense.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to reporters on the North Lawn outside the White House on May 23, 2
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to reporters on the North Lawn outside the White House on May 23, 2019.

A perfect example of this is Sarah Huckabee Sanders. As press secretary to the White House, her main job should have been to provide accurate information to the American public through the news media. Of course she had the right to “spin” facts to put the president in the best possible light. But she went way beyond that. She would often claim, for instance, that Trump worked harder than anyone she had ever known – even though Trump has kept the lightest work schedule of any president going back at least 50 years. She would claim that Trump was fully versed on details of his administration’s policy goals – even though a cursory review of his statements shows that he often doesn’t have the slightest idea of what is contained in legislation or, sometimes, in his own executive orders.

Yet even flackery that far over the top can be excused. What she did in the days following the May 2017 firing of James Comey cannot.

When asked about morale at the FBI after Trump dismissed their director in hopes of blocking an investigation into his campaign, Sanders said that she personally had heard from “countless members of the FBI” in support of the firing. When asked a follow-up the next day about how many “countless” might mean, exactly, she said: “I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said they’re very happy with the president’s decision.”

As it turned out, all of that was a lie. Not just a small lie, but invented out of whole cloth for the sole purpose of destroying someone’s reputation. This came out in simple, matter-of-fact prose in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report nearly two years later. From that day forward, Sanders should have been treated as if she were wearing a giant scarlet “L,” and no journalist should have trusted a word she said again.

Instead, months later when she stepped down, all was apparently forgiven. Two members of the White House Correspondents Association board even hosted a farewell party for her.

 

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There will come a day when Donald Trump is no longer president.

Perhaps that’s a year from now. Perhaps five years. Or, in the off chance an unforeseen turn ends in his removal or resignation, perhaps just weeks or months. In any case, his departure from the White House will bring a serious reckoning of what we, as Americans, will tolerate from our top elected official.

 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, on Dec. 8, 2017. 
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, on Dec. 8, 2017. 

After Richard Nixon, the nation came to a consensus that what had happened was not at all good, and introduced institutional safeguards to try to prevent it from happening again. Nixon’s use of barely regulated slush funds to pay the Watergate burglars resulted in new campaign finance laws imposing limits and requiring better disclosure. Other laws provided privacy protections, created independent inspectors general for executive agencies, codified presidential record keeping and strengthened the Freedom of Information Act.

Underlying all of these reforms was the shared conviction that a president ought not to lie and cheat. This was the fundamental virtue Jimmy Carter was selling in 1976: that he would not lie to the American people. He was a long shot, but that message made him a winner. 

Four decades later, is truth still of value to Americans? Polling shows that the vast majority of the public knows full well that Trump and his White House are profoundly dishonest. A CNN survey in September showed that only 28% of Americans believe all or most of the information coming out of the White House. Yet some 40% to 45% continue to approve of Trump. I’ve talked to a great number of people in that subset who disbelieve Trump but support him anyway. Among their top rationales: All politicians lie, so what’s so terrible about Trump’s lies?

And that, perhaps, is the worst, most corrosive lie that Trump has sold to his defenders: That everyone is corrupt, that everyone lies, so Republicans may as well go with a corrupt liar who is on their side.

I’ve seen this attitude in Trump supporters from Wisconsin to New Hampshire to Florida when confronted with irrefutable evidence of Trump’s falsehoods and self-dealing. A selectman from Plymouth, New Hampshire, population 6,752, said he didn’t mind if Trump was dishonest because all politicians were, although he could not at that moment give any examples. A treasurer for a county GOP committee in western Iowa told me it didn’t bother him that Trump was trying to steer a multi-million dollar government contract to his own South Florida golf resort because all elected officials find ways to funnel themselves public money.

Well, everyone is not corrupt. Everyone does not lie.

President Donald Trump gestures as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 6, 2019. G
President Donald Trump gestures as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 6, 2019. Graham has become one of Trump's leading GOP apologists.

In fact, most politicians do not lie, and do everything they can to avoid lying. They try to present unfavorable facts about themselves in as favorable a light as they can manage. They obfuscate. They change the subject. They avoid journalists and the public. But by and large, they try hard not to lie, because lying brings opprobrium at best and the end of one’s political career at worst.

At least, that was the landscape before Trump’s presidency.

The conduct of Trump’s most ardent Republican supporters in the House – most vividly on display during the impeachment hearings – suggests there will be a cadre of public officials who will try to make “alternative facts” a permanent feature of American politics going forward.

It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this would be. The revelation that Nixon had lied about something Big and Important led to his downfall when a substantial slice of voters in his own party decided that such conduct was unacceptable. Forty-six years later, with an analogous set of facts already in the public domain that Trump tried to cheat his way to victory in his reelection, Republican voters appear to be giving Trump a pass, seeming to embrace instead a series of lies nonsensical on their face.

How does self-government survive when a significant number of participants simply refuse to accept facts because they are harmful to the leader who panders to their prejudices?

In astrophysics, there is a maxim that gravity always wins in the end. After the strong and weak nuclear forces are spent, after all the photons have scattered and dissipated, gravity will remain and will inexorably make its presence felt.

So it is in the world of the everyday. Facts can be ignored, but cannot be willed away. Calling climate change a hoax will not prevent Miami and Norfolk and Annapolis from flooding every spring tide. Claiming that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is no longer interested in nuclear weapons does not, as it turns out, actually make it so.

Yet if truth is to win post-Trump, it will have to be the American public that makes it so. Average citizens, those who do not spend hours each day monitoring cable news and Twitter, will have to decide that lying is unacceptable in our governance. That those entrusted with the public’s money and the public’s well-being have a core obligation to provide that public the truth.

The news media cannot lead the way in this. News is a business, and in business, the customer is always right. If the customer in this case prefers to hear lies that match up with his fears and preconceptions, there are plenty of media outlets willing to offer that service.

In this Sept. 25, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the Unit
In this Sept. 25, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the United Nations General Assembly in New York. 

The question Americans need to ask themselves is do we have the right to accurate information from our White House, or not? Would we permit an elected small town mayor to lie this frequently about town business? How about a school board chair?

In hindsight, it is easy to understand why the fake Ukrainian Miss Universe winner was so easy to miss in that Sept. 25 photo opportunity.

In those 17 minutes, Trump claimed – falsely – that he had not pressured the new Ukrainian president into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden, even though the call memo of that phone conversation from two months earlier made clear that he had done precisely that. He claimed that other European countries were not helping Ukraine as much as the United States was, when the opposite is true.

He defended his lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to push a debunked conspiracy theory that Russia had not helped Trump win the 2016 election, and that Ukraine had framed Russia by planting fake evidence. He repeated his frequent, but untrue, claim that China had “given” Hunter Biden $1.5 billion.

And squeezed in there among all the lies was one statement to Volodymyr Zelensky that could almost qualify as a policy declaration. Asked by Zelensky for help getting Crimea back from Russia, Trump essentially washed his hands of the matter, saying the invasion and annexation had happened under predecessor Barack Obama – “It’s just one of those things” – and urging Zelensky to work with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “You’ve really made some progress with Russia,” Trump told him. “Just keep it going.”

The pained expression on Zelensky’s face through most of the session said it all. Correcting Trump about the Miss Universe pageant was the least of his worries. Or ours.

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