How Trump Gets Away With Lying and the Mainstream Media Colludes With Him

Few people would accuse Donald Trump of possessing extensive knowledge of policy issues, history or basic facts. But considering the presumed Republican nominee engages several times per day with people whose basic job function is to understand and contextualize policy issues, history and facts—a.k.a. journalists—the number of lies Trump is able to get away with is truly staggering.


There are dozens of examples of Trump's lack of "truthiness." In fact, the Huffington Post analyzed a March 2016 GOP debate and found that Trump averaged “1.16 falsehoods every minute”—and that was a single debate.

We analyzed four blatantly inaccurate claims the Republican frontrunner has made during this election cycle to better understand what propels and perpetuates these falsehoods throughout the mainstream media. As it turns out, television—undoubtedly Trump’s favorite medium besides Twitter—bears the most responsibility.

Big Lie #1: Trump opposed the Iraq war before it began.

Trump has been peddling this line since last July, when the reality TV star-turned-presidential candidate demonstrated his incomparable foresight by insisting he vehemently opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq before it happened.

The thing is, his claim is demonstrably false. There is no record of Trump speaking publicly against the Iraq war prior to the U.S.-led occupation in March 2003. The suggestion was debunked as early as Aug. 6, 2015, when the New York Times fact-checked his supposedly “loud and clear” objection to the war, finding that Trump didn’t loudly or clearly state his opposition until 2004—a year after it began. 

But despite both digital and print journalism dismantling Trump’s claim, the presumed Republican nominee’s antiwar narrative continued to permeate TV newsrooms, with Trump insisting in interview after interview that he was the only GOP contender with the prudence and foresight to oppose the war in Iraq. Trump’s claim was even substantiated by Fox News' Brett Baier in October 2015: “That is definitely true, we've gone back and looked at all the quotes and you definitely did that,” Baier told Trump.

Interestingly enough—and something largely unacknowledged by those in the media who are supposed to do the acknowledging—is that Trump himself often dates his opposition to the war to 2004, and even when speaking with seasoned journalists who covered the Iraq war, still manages to frame it as though he spoke out before the war began.

  • “In 2004, I was totally against going in. If you look, July of 2004, Reuters—probably stuff before that—but [in] July of 2004, Bush actually sent a group to talk to me, because I was getting a lot of publicity on the fact that we shouldn’t be doing Iraq.” —Trump, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, July 22, 2015

  • “You go back to 2004, July, and you will see a major, major article that Donald Trump said, ‘Don’t go into Iraq, because if you go into Iraq, and if you decimate Iraq, you’re going to lose the balance of the whole Middle East.’ I turned out to be right.” —Trump, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Aug. 10 2015

  • “As you know, I was never in favor of going in. I told you years ago. Going into Iraq was a huge mistake because you’re going to destabilize the whole Middle East. So I’m the only one. In fact, they have major articles in 2004, in Reuters, in fact, July of 2004.” —Trump, Fox Business Network's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Aug. 16, 2015

Trump successfully wielded his antiwar talking point during the CBS GOP debate on Feb. 13, 2016 insisting, “I'm the only one on this stage that said, ‘Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.’ Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn't a politician, fortunately.” 

The claim went uncontested by the debate moderators and Trump’s rival candidates. Despite being armed with the internet (and presumably a team of staff writers and researchers), no one in any of the aforementioned exchanges pushed Trump to explain how his opposition to the war in 2004 was akin to opposing it in March 2003.

Following the GOP debate, Buzzfeed unearthed a 2002 interview with radio host Howard Stern. In the interview, Stern asked Trump if he was in favor of the war in Iraq. “Yeah, I guess so,” Trump responded. Buzzfeed also reported that Trump praised the U.S. occupation of Iraq the day it began, telling Fox’s Neil Cavuto the war “looks like a tremendous success from a military standpoint.”

Even after Buzzfeed’s revelations, Trump remained largely unchallenged on his Iraq position, explaining away his tepid support of the war as irrelevant because he was in the private sector at the time. It wasn't until May 5, 2016, two days after he effectively clinched the Republican nomination, that Trump was finally pressed on the timeline of his antiwar position, ironically enough, by the same Fox News host who substantiated his claim several months earlier:

Trump: … I criticized his decision to go into Iraq.

Baier: Now on that, I just want to clear that up. You’ve come out with articles, but there’s audio of you before there were—

Trump: No, there isn’t. No, there isn’t.

Baier: There’s a Buzzfeed piece…

[…]

Trump: Yes, I’m talking to Howard Stern weeks before, the first time anyone ever asked me about the war, about should we go in, because it was a question, are we going in. And I said very weakly, "well, blah, blah, blah, yes, I guess."

Baier: And then on the first day of the war—

Trump: Then by the time—

Baier: You said that “it’s a tremendous military success.”

Trump: No, I—what I said—what I said is that it was a success because they thought it was a success. But before that, I said they shouldn't go in.

Baier then allowed Trump to use his superior foresight as a jumping-off point to attack Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s Iraq war vote.

Big Lie #2: Ted Cruz’s father, Raphael Cruz, was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

This lie is so absurd that Trump himself eventually admitted he didn’t really believe it. This laughable folly made its way into the collective political conscious on May 3, when the hosts of Fox and Friends allowed Trump to cite a widely discredited National Enquirer article alleging a connection between former Republican rival Ted Cruz’s father, Raphael Cruz, and John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

“You know, his father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being, you know, shot,” Trump told the Fox and Friends couch on the morning of the pivotal Indiana primary (which he won). “I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous. What is this, right? Prior to his being shot, and nobody brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported and nobody talks about it. But I think it’s horrible. I think it’s absolutely horrible that a man can go and do that.”

“I mean, what was he doing, what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting?” Trump continued as the Fox and Friends cohosts nodded in agreement.

The Republican candidate doubled down on his assertion later that day during a radio interview with Fox New’s Sean Hannity. “As you know there was a picture a few weeks ago, and it was all over the place, about Lee Harvey Oswald and his father, a few months before,” Trump said. Asked if he could substantiate that claim, Trump insisted the “very big professionals” over at the National Enquirer “wouldn't put it in if they could be sued.”

“… What was he doing having breakfast or whatever they were doing, three months before the JFK assassination?” Trump continued. “Why are they doing that? Why is the father meeting with Lee Harvey Oswald?”

Trump’s reference to the National Enquirer article drew the ire of some major news programs. On CNN’s The Lead, Jake Tapper called out Trump’s suggestion that the media is somehow ignoring the Oswald-Cruz connection, explaining to his audience, “we in the media don't talk about it because there's no evidence of it.”

“Any suggestion that Cruz's father played a role in the Kennedy assassination is ridiculous, and frankly, shameful,” Tapper added. “Now, that's not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It's a pro-truth position.” 

Headline after headline, media critics applauded Tapper for “tearing apart” and “going off on” Trump’s inane conspiracy theory. Of course, pointing out a candidate's absurd or otherwise unsubstantiated claim is the job of a political reporter, and the fact that Tapper’s standard for the truth made headlines at all is an incredible feat of the 2016 election cycle. But, as CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out in a similar takedown of Trump's claim, “it's pretty unusual to see something like that on TV.”

A day after Trump first floated the Oswald-Cruz conspiracy theory, the Republican nominee called into ABC’s Good Morning America to defend his use of the National Enquirer story, telling George Stephanopoulos all he was doing “was referring to a picture that was reported in a magazine.”

“All I did was refer to it,” Trump insisted. “I'm just referring to an article that appeared. It has nothing to do with me."

Like the lie itself, that is also inaccurate. Trump wasn’t simply “referring” to the National Enquirer article, he very clearly stated the Oswald-Cruz connection as fact: “You know, his father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being, you know, shot."

Despite access to all of Trump's quotes, the lies persisted. After his interview with Stephanopoulos, Trump sat down for a face-to-face interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, during which the candidate admitted he didn't believe the story in the first place. Blitzer eventually suggested to Trump that, as the presumptive Republican nominee, he might want to “have a higher standard than to repeat conspiratorial theories like that,” but not before Trump managed to assert in this amazing twist of facts:

Blitzer: Yesterday with this National Enquirer story, I just want you to clarify. You don't really believe—

Trump: I didn't say…

Blitzer: —that Ted Cruz's father had anything to do with the assassination of President Kennedy?

Trump: No, I don't believe it. 

Blitzer: Because this was a story that was in the National Enquirer.

Trump: Of course I don't think that. 

Blitzer: Here is the question, you are the presumptive Republican presidential nominee—

Truimp: No, I wasn't. Not at the time. 

Blitzer: Last week you said you were, or you thought you were. 

Trump: It was not announced until last night.

[…]

Trump: When I said how bad it was that [Raphael Cruz] would say something like that I said, well, why don't you read the various magazines because it's not only there, it was put in numerous where he has a picture of himself with Lee Harvey Oswald. I'm not saying they conspired.

Blitzer: It was on the internet. But the National Enquirer put it on its cover.

Trump: I’m just saying, it was all over the place. I said well, why don't you talk about that? That was it. I'm not saying he did it but I'm just saying it was all over the place. 

Then Blitzer moved on, failing to point out that the front page of the National Enquirer is hardly “all over the place,” failing to ask what other “various magazines” the image was featured in and failing to push Trump on why he brought it up if he didn’t believe it.

Big Lie #3: The birther movement was started by Hillary Clinton.

Trump began pushing this gem last September, when he tweeted that Clinton was “all in” on the Barack Obama birth certificate controversy back in 2008.

Despite not discussing it much in the interim, the Republican nominee resurrected the talking point during his most recent face-to-face with Wolf Blitzer:

“You know who started the birther movement? You know who started it? Do you know who questioned his birth certificate, one of the first? Hillary Clinton. She’s the one that started it. She brought it up years before it was brought up by me.”

Actually, Trump himself was probably the most vocal birther during President Obama’s reelection campaign. As Politifact reports, “There is no record that Clinton herself or anyone within her campaign ever advanced the charge that Obama was not born in the United States.” 

Similar fact-checking websites have also noted that, while some birthers did have ties to pro-Clinton Democrats, the former Secretary of State never once suggested Obama was not from the United States and even admonished “staffers who criticized Obama’s ‘otherness.’”

Following his interview with Trump, Blitzer acknowledged Trump’s lie (without ever explicitly saying he lied), telling viewers, “Hillary Clinton never said that Barack Obama was born outside the United States.” But despite knowing this fact, he failed to push back on Trump in person.

Big Lie #4: 'Spread [vaccines] out over a long period of time & autism will drop.'

Trump has repeatedly suggested a link between vaccines and autism, a fringe hypothesis dating back to 1998, when a fraudulent research paper made its way into a substantial medical journal. The paper in question was retracted in 2010 after it was revealed the author manipulated evidence and failed to report numerous conflicts of interest.

As the medical community has stated time and time again, there is no link between vaccines and autism. But that didn't stop Trump from sharing this darling anecdote during the CNN GOP debate in September 2015, moderated by Jake Tapper:

“You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump—it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child. And we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Asked to respond, Trump’s rival, pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson told the audience that “we have extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations,” before bizarrely siding with Trump. “It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time, and a lot of pediatricians now recognize that and I think are cutting down on the number and proximity in which they are done, and I think that’s appropriate,” Carson added.

“And that’s all I’m saying, Jake. That’s all I’m saying,” Trump replied.

A careful review of Trump's words shows that is not all he was saying. The Republican candidate explicitly stated that a kid he knew went to the doctor, was administered routine vaccinations and “a week later… got very, very sick, now is autistic.” Any interpretation to the contrary is giving Trump way more credit than he deserves. As Amanda Marcotte pointed out:

“Claiming that you're not opposed to vaccines, just that you want them to be safer or on a different schedule, is a common deflection technique among anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists. As Trump demonstrated, it's a way to position yourself as reasonable while still perpetuating the false belief that getting your jabs is going to destroy your brain. Meanwhile, there's no evidence that vaccines are safer if they're spaced out more—all that does is open a window to disease exposure and increase the risk that a child could miss a vaccine altogether.”

Despite the clear scientific evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, and despite the fact that Trump said vaccines do cause autism, not one person challenged Trump on his faulty and dangerous scientific interpretation. No one pushed him to explain why, if he believes vaccines cause autism, he supports administering them on a different schedule, or which medical experts he received his information from, or what impact blindly spewing anti-vaxxer propaganda could have on the general populace.

There are several elements at play that allow Trump to perpetuate his lies. The general progression is that, while thorough print and digital reporters unearth inaccuracies early and often, those in TV journalism—who by and large have the most access to Trump often because he just calls them up and they nearly always take his calls—fail to press him on the specifics of his claims until much later.

This can only be the result of two things: either journalists working for the nation’s largest networks fail to do the basic research required to uncover the inaccuracies in Trump’s claims; or they’re so worried about losing access to Trump that they avoid pressing him on specifics. 

Neither bodes well for the mainstream media.

The final element at play here is that Trump is a vastly more talented TV personality than the people who are paid to interview him on TV. His ability to invent provocative soundbites, misstate facts and assert falsehoods as truth, especially when a camera is in front of his face, is second to none. Trump’s natural habitat is television; he owns the medium. No broadcast journalist, no matter how persistent or grounded in research, has been able to score more than a few points against the media creation that is Donald Trump. And considering the symbiotic relationship between Trump and cable news ratings (a relationship frequently and unapologetically referenced by the Republican nominee), there’s little incentive for television networks to crack down on their reporting or face off with the reality TV star. Unless you consider the future of our county an incentive.

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