One of the most consequential unknowns is whether future presidents will believe they can lie with impunity, or if Donald Trump’s relentless mendacity will be an anomaly.
“Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies” encapsulates the duplicity we’ve been subjected to these past 3½ years in a way that hopefully will deter our future leaders from thinking truth-telling is optional.
Washington Post reporters Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly have exhaustively documented Trump’s lies and misleading claims in Fact Checker columns, videos, a database and in the book, which released in June.
“Our weekends and evenings were soon lost to the depressing task of wading through the president’s forest of falsehoods,” they write.
During his first three years in office, Trump tallied 16,241 falsehoods, and on July 9 he reached 20,000, easily making Trump “the most mendacious president in U.S. history.”
“He’s not known for one big lie — just a constant stream of exaggerated, invented, boastful, purposely outrageous, spiteful, inconsistent, dubious and false claims,” they write.
Trump’s technique: Never admit any error. Repeat falsehoods. Have no shame about your tactics.
The book reminds readers of the countless Trump inventions and exaggerations that are sometimes forgotten because of their “mind-numbing … pace and frequency.”
Trump didn’t know why his attorney made hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. Mexico’s paying for the wall. He’s presided over the best economy in history. President Obama gave 2,500 Iranians citizenship as part of the Iranian nuclear accord. Deals with Saudi Arabia will create 500,000 American jobs (or 1.5 million jobs, depending on the tweet). It was the Democrats who colluded with Russia.
At times, I found myself exhausted re-encountering so many of Trump’s false tweets and public statements. Perhaps it’s better to digest the book in discrete bites rather than one sitting. And I wondered if all the fact-checking, while essential, could have any impact at all; Trump repeats untruths so frequently, and psychologists have found that people tend to believe falsehoods more when repeated.
But I appreciated the methodical way the authors printed Trump’s claims and then debunked it with straight reporting. Like the president describing himself as the “least racist” person “anywhere in the world,” and then following it with a litany of Trump’s racist actions as a landlord and racist statements. No pithy hot takes. Just great journalism.
Why does Trump seem to suffer so little consequence? “Most politicians would have been wary of making” false claims, the authors explain. “But Trump said many things that his supporters already believed to be true, so he sounded like the first politician who actually told the truth.”
That quirk of psychology bolstered his appeal to some. But alone, it probably wouldn’t have enabled Trump to sell so much snake oil. For that, Trump needed a right-wing media ecosystem to buoy his claims, submissive Republican allies and a mainstream media, I believe, that didn’t — and still doesn’t — know how to report them properly. White House reporters maddeningly live-tweet Trump’s falsehoods. Newscasts lead with what he says instead of what’s true.
In the mid-2000s, Kessler, the book’s co-author, and I spent years covering the State Department together, he for the Washington Post, and I for Bloomberg News. (Later, I joined the Washington Post as Jerusalem Bureau Chief.) Back then, even the subtlest policy reversal in North Korean or Iranian nuclear negotiations was considered newsworthy.
So one of the most enervating aspects of this presidency for me has been how Trump’s policy flip-flops barely register.
“For Trump, his statements are relevant only for today’s news cycle and are subject to change, even to total contradiction,” the authors write. “In a word one could (once upon a time) never use in a family newspaper, Trump is a bulls—ter.”
Will Republicans care if the next president is, too? In 2018, only 49% of Republicans said honesty was an important characteristic of a presidential candidate — a 22-point drop compared with a decade earlier.
Let’s hope if the danger of having a president who plays loose with the truth wasn’t clear before, it is now as COVID-19 ravages the United States. “No pandemic models predicted a president who was knowingly misinforming citizens,” doctor and Atlantic writer James Hamblin tweeted on July 10.
If Americans want a president to say what they want to hear, even if it is false, then our democracy is in peril. If they solely seek out partisan information sources that accord with their feelings, then we risk a Trump repeat. But if Americans again demand honesty from their leader, then Trump’s assault on truth can be short-lived and memorialized through books like these.
Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post reporter, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy lecturer in the department of communication at Stanford University.