Election 2016

President Donald Trump Is Telling Lies at an Astonishing and Historic Rate

"Sometimes, Trump can’t even keep his untruths straight," the NYT reports.

Is there anything President Trump hasn’t lied about since taking office?

This has become a serious question. The world is in an unaccustomed position, as longtime New Yorker writer Mark Singer put it in his 2016 book, Trump and Me, of being forced to take Donald Trump seriously. He is not just a serial liar, a boundless egomaniac and a chaos-embracing provocateur—the man, as Singer exquisitely depicts, was born lacking the genes for self-reflection or shame. But now that he’s president, the world—and especially journalists—have to take this heap seriously.

The New York Times has published a compendium of Trump’s lies since taking office. Reporters David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson have professionally focused their analytical minds on the most unprofessional and unfocused man now atop the American political system. Their June 23 report gives credit where credit is due.

“Trump achieved something remarkable: He said something untrue, in public, every day for the first 40 days of his presidency. The streak didn’t end until March 1,” they write. “Since then, he has said something untrue on at least 74 of 113 days. On days without an untrue statement, he is often absent from Twitter, vacationing at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, or busy golfing.”

We’ll parse their results in a second. First, we must enlarge the frame. When Mark Singer was assigned to profile Donald Trump in 1996, he viewed the man as a performance artist and wanted to “apprehend the person within the person.” He followed him to business meetings, his apartments and resorts, flew beside him in planes and dined with him. Trump bragged about women. He explained that creating chaos served him because no one could pin him down. Singer concluded, “He had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”

Fast-forward to 2017, when the Times has tracked a president whose utterances are unmolested by any regard for speaking truthfully or concern about the consequences of his intended, unintended or mangled takes on reality.

“Sometimes, Trump can’t even keep his untruths straight,” the Times writes. “After he reversed a campaign pledge and declined to label China a currency manipulator, he kept changing his description of when China had stopped the bad behavior. Initially, he said it stopped once he took office. He then changed the turning point to the election, then to since he started talking about it, and then to some uncertain point in the distant past.”

That gnarled sequence is typical of the scores of lies Trump tells. What may be more useful than recounting his biggest inaccuracies, insults and idiocies is looking at what Trump lies about the most. Why give the lies more ink?

If we group Trump’s lies by topic or pattern, we find most of his lies are about taking credit for others’ accomplishments (16 examples). That’s followed by: mangling historical details and recent news that did or didn’t happen (11 examples); exaggerating crowd sizes and magazine cover appearances (7 examples); what the federal government does (7 examples); Obamacare’s negative impacts (6 examples); fabricating press apologies—mostly to him (5 examples); falsehoods about Democrats (5 examples); the lack of public interest in his income tax returns and the FBI investigation (4 examples); knowledge of political colleagues (3 examples); accusations of illegal voting that didn’t occur (3 examples); stating wrong causes of big problems (3 examples); misstating or making up what others said on TV (3 examples); inventing economic statistics (3 examples); attributing job creating impacts of his policies (3 examples); Obama spying on him (twice); supporting war with Iraq (once); how smoothly his immigration policies are working (1 example); and setting high ethical standards for White House staff (1 example).

This list would be a bad joke if Trump's job were not so deadly serious. Americans seem to have acclimated themselves to Trump’s hall of mirrors. Take this boast from February 28 from a president who has put more multi-millionaires into cabinet posts than anyone in history: “We have begun to drain the swamp of government corruption by imposing a five-year ban on lobbying by executive branch officials.” As the Times noted, “They can’t lobby their former agency but can still become lobbyists.”

That’s perfectly Orwellian. It’s how legal corruption works. But has the American public taken notice, started tuning Trump out, or just shrugged and accepted his dysfunctions as the new normal? The most discouraging part of the Times report is how little public opinion has budged given the almost daily stream of lies from the president.

“Trump has retained the support of most of his voters as well as the Republican leadership in Congress,” they write. “But he has still paid some price for his lies. Nearly 60 percent of Americans say the president is not honest, polls show, up from about 53 percent when he took office.”

That price seems disproportionately small compared to the frequency and magnitude of the president's lies. The final pages of Singer’s Trump and Me suggest no one should be surprised that Trump is behaving the way he always has behaved.

“It is deeply unfair to say that Trump lies all the time,” Singer wrote. “I would never suggest that he lies when he’s asleep. On the other hand, he famously gets by on only four hours a night. I suspect this might less a function of requiring very little sleep than of Trump’s agitation at being unable to manipulate his unconscious. Four hours might be as much loss of control as he can tolerate. We’ll never know and neither will Trump. He told one biographer, ‘I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see.’”

Now he’s president, the press, the public and world leaders can’t help but see Donald Trump, and most are not impressed. Singer hoped the swamp that is Trump would not “presage a very bad global something.” He balances that scary thought by noting Trump is hardly the first Republican to exploit “racial and culture war grievances to persuade disaffected white working-class men to vote contrary to their economic self-interests. He didn’t invent the bait-and-switch; he is just its latest, and most enthusiastic, practitioner.”

Perhaps, then, we need to reclassify Trump’s lies. Not all lies are equal. There may be bigger lies that matter; say, when lives are at stake. And smaller lies that don’t matter—such as who holds the record for appearing on the cover of Time (not Trump, but Richard Nixon). Seen that way, Trump may not be the biggest liar in Washington, at least not this week. That tarnished cup goes to Mitch McConnell for calling it progress when his Senate health care bill would harm tens of millions, including the most vulnerable Americans.

The Times compendium of Trump’s near daily lies suggests the president is a good fit among the national leadership of today’s Republican Party. If he can’t keep the truth straight, why should they or anyone else in his orbit? As big a liar as Donald Trump is, he’s hardly alone—not in today’s Washington.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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