LAST THURSDAY, DONALD Trump told his 60 million followers on Twitter that he had “never told then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller.” No one truly believes this.
Trump was, according to the Mueller Report, obsessed with firing the special counsel. He called McGahn at home, telling him “Mueller has to go,” and asked him to “call me back when you do it.”
At the same time, the president told key aides and confidants that he was looking to get rid of Mueller.
There is so much evidence that Trump wanted to push the special counsel aside and end the Russia investigation that it practically serves as the basis for Mueller’s conclusions on whether the president sought to obstruct justice.
So why put out something that no one takes seriously and is easily disprovable?
Maybe the better question is why I’m even bothering to take note of it? After all, earlier this week, Washington Post fact-checkers made note of an ignominious, but hardly surprising moment in Trump’s presidency — his 10,000th false or misleading statement. When I asked Bill Adair, a professor of journalism at Duke University and the creator of Politifact, to put all this dishonesty in context, he said that if all the fact-checking organizations in the US “put all of their staff on Trump all the time they probably still could not keep up with all the fact-checking that needs to be done” with this president.
Trump lies all the time. That’s just the way things are. Yet, the unique, deeply corrosive, and frankly, fascinating ways in which Trump is dishonest has reshaped our political discourse.
Politicians lie. Actually, pretty much all of us lie at some point. We exaggerate. We shade the truth. We elide and we mislead. Elected officials are no different. But usually there is a political purpose or objective to this dishonesty.
With Trump, however, one just sees utter indifference to truth. He has been known to call what he does “truthful hyperbole,” but even that is misleading because it’s far from clear that he understands that the things he says are false. It’s quite possible, even likely, that he has convinced himself they are true and he lacks the ability or psychological make-up to understand what truth actually is. That, of course, would make him delusional.
So perhaps Trump wasn’t lying when he denied having told McGahn to fire Mueller. The Mueller Report recounts that when press reports came out in 2018 about the incident he groused to an aide that McGahn was a “lying bastard.” Maybe Trump has convinced himself of his own lie.
Whether Trump is a liar or delusional is open to debate. Less debatable, however, is the destructive impact of his behavior on our politics. Social science research suggests that simply repeating a lie — as Trump constantly does — creates a phenomenon known as “illusory truth,” which can lead people to believe it’s true. Our brains simply can’t handle a torrent of dishonesty, so we adjust our own thinking to match it. Repeat often enough that undocumented immigrants commit more crime, or that one’s inaugural crowds were the largest ever, or that you didn’t ask for the special counsel to be fired, and pretty soon you’ve created a new reality — one that a broad cross-section of voters will come to believe.
What’s worse, “Trump’s total disregard for accuracy,” Brendan Nyhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, told me, “undermines the notion that a politician should even care about the accuracy of their statements.”
When I worked as a speechwriter in the late ’90s, I would take umbrage at the oft heard assertion that I wrote lies for politicians. Putting aside ethical concerns, being caught in a lie was so embarrassing and potentially career ending that it was something politicians and their staff went out of their way to avoid. But in 2012, I noticed how deliberate lie-telling had begun to seep into mainstream political rhetoric. I wrote about Mitt Romney’s brazen and flagrant lying during his presidential campaign that year, and how his incessant dishonesty, even in the face of regular fact-checking that corrected the record, was “cynically eroding the fragile sense of trust that exists between voters and politicians.”
Trump, with his 10,000 plus lies, has blown that trust to pieces. Indeed, it was striking to watch Attorney General William Barr testify to Congress this week as his lies and misleading statements regarding the Mueller Report were exposed. Unlike Trump, Barr lied in a more conventional manner — eliding, shading, and hair-splitting his way around objective reality. Less conventional was the GOP’s response to his subterfuge: He was hailed by the president and conservative media as a heroic figure.
Lying has become so endemic to our current politics that it’s difficult to imagine how to get the genie back in the bottle. We’ve entered a post-truth political environment in which both sides — though overwhelmingly Republicans — will adhere to what White House counselor and noted fib-teller, Kellyanne Conway, called “alternative facts.” Trump’s allergy to the truth has already transformed our politics in once unimaginable ways. We’ve gone from George Washington saying “I cannot tell a lie” to our current moment: a president who cannot tell the truth.