A President who peddles falsehoods and dabbles in conspiracy confronts the challenge of governing in reality
Generations of American children have learned the apocryphal tale of young George Washington, bravely admitting to his father that he chopped down the cherry tree. The story sprang from a culture that wanted even its fables to serve the ideal of truth. By that standard, the House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20 should have been a massive humiliation for the President, who followed Washington 228 years later. It is rare for such hearings to be unclassified–and thus televised–but FBI Director James Comey found the largest possible audience for his rebuke of the sitting President.
He had given Donald Trump nearly three weeks to walk back his incendiary tweets accusing President Obama of “wire tapping” Trump Tower during the campaign. If such surveillance had been done through legal channels, the FBI would have known; if done illegally, it was a scandal of historic proportions and the FBI should be digging into it. Either way, Trump’s accusation implicated the integrity of Comey’s bureau, which is why the former prosecutor felt compelled to push back as the cameras rolled. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same.”
The statement was concise, direct and damning. The President of the United States had been marked as a fabulist by one of the top officials in government charged with finding the truth. And yet, for the man being called out, the rebuke was nothing of the sort.
“I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right,” Trump told TIME two days later, in a 20-minute phone interview from the Oval Office. The testimony, in other words, had not fazed him at all. He was still convinced he would be proved right. “I have articles saying it happened.”
That is not exactly true. The New York Times reported on Jan. 20 that wiretapped data had been used in an investigation of Trump’s advisers, but not that Obama had targeted Trump for wiretapping, as Trump had claimed. But he had new ammunition: House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes had just announced that he had seen intelligence reports showing the President-elect and his team were “at least monitored” as part of “legally collected” information. Nunes suggested the monitoring was most likely the result of “incidental collection,” which occurs when a target of an intelligence operation, like a foreign ambassador, talks with another U.S. person. But Nunes never claimed that Obama wiretapped Trump.
And yet for Trump, who proceeded to read at length over the phone from a Politico article on Nunes’ statement, such distinctions did not matter. “That means I’m right,” he said. He also argued that the punctuation in his original tweet meant he did not mean wiretapping in the literal sense. “When I said ‘wire tapping,’ it was in quotes,” he said.
What did he mean? Trump argued that his claims about scandalous wiretaps by Obama had to be viewed within the context of other assertions he had made in the past, which had later come true. He had predicted, for instance, that the sexting of former Representative Anthony Weiner would become a problem for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which it did, when the FBI found emails to Clinton on his computer. He had claimed that he would win the White House, when few believed him, which he did. He claimed that Britain would vote to exit the European Union–“I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass.” He described Brussels as a “hellhole” before a major terrorist attack there. “I happen to be a person that knows how life works,” he said.
He also claimed credit for things he had said that were factually incorrect at the time, but for which he later found evidence. At a February rally, in a discussion about problems caused by new migrants in Europe, he said, “Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.” Nothing had happened the prior night in Sweden, prompting diplomatic protests from Stockholm. But days later, there was a riot in a predominantly immigrant suburb in response to a local arrest. Which, to the President’s way of thinking, made him a truth-teller. “I was right about that,” he said.
Truth, in other words, takes time to ripen: he also said his unsubstantiated claim that at least 3 million undocumented immigrants had voted illegally in the 2016 election would be proved right eventually, though he hinted to TIME that he no longer stood by all parts of that claim. “When I say that, I mean mostly they register wrong. In other words, for the votes, they register incorrectly, and/or illegally,” the President said. “I’m forming a committee on it.”
The more the conversation continued, the more the binary distinctions between truth and falsehood blurred, the telltale sign of a veteran and strategic misleader who knows enough to leave himself an escape route when he tosses a bomb. Rather than assert things outright, he often couches provocative statements as “beliefs,” or attributes them to unnamed “very smart people.” During the campaign, he claimed falsely that Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s father had consorted with the assassin who killed John F. Kennedy. Now as President, Trump argued that he had done nothing wrong by spreading the fiction, since it had been printed in the National Enquirer, a tabloid famous for its unconventional editorial standards.
“Why do you say that I have to apologize?” he asked. “I am just quoting the newspaper.” He appeared to do it again, when he repeated the accusation of a Fox News contributor, Andrew Napolitano, who claimed his network was told by three former intelligence officials that Obama had asked the British to surveil Trump’s campaign. Fox News repudiated the claim, the pundit vanished from the airwaves, the British called the accusation “ridiculous,” and the head of the U.S. National Security Agency said it would not have happened under his watch. And yet Trump did not back down. “I have a lot of respect for Judge Napolitano,” he said. “I don’t know where he has gone with it since then.”
Trump has in this way brought to the Oval Office an entirely different set of assumptions about the proper behavior of a public official, and introduced to the country entirely new rules for public debate. In some ways, it is not surprising. For years, we have known Trump colored outside the lines of what was actually real because he told us. As a businessman, Trump wrote in praise of strategic falsehood, or “truthful hyperbole,” as he preferred to call it. Sometimes his whoppers were clumsy, the apparent result of being ill informed or promiscuous in his sources. Sometimes he exaggerated to get a rise out of his audience. But often Trump’s untruths give every sign of being deliberate and thought through. Trump recently bragged about a drop in the Labor Department jobless rate–after calling the same statistic “phony” when it signaled improvement under Obama. Trump explained the contradiction through his spokesman with a quip: “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
Through it all, he has presented himself as the last honest man, and among his fervent supporters, he hits notes that harmonize with the facts of their lives as they deeply feel them. To beat a polygraph, it’s said you should make some part of your brain believe what you are saying. Friends of Trump report that the President would pass with flying colors. He tells them privately that he believes the things he tweets in public. Despite the luxury and ease of his own life, he seems genuine in his belief that the system is rigged, and that life is a zero-sum game: no one wins without someone else losing. Reality, for the reality-show mogul, is something to be invented episode by episode.
And what reality is Trump creating? He entered national politics in 2011 peddling the incredible theory that Obama might have been born in Africa–and therefore constitutionally barred from the presidency. In those days Trump was widely dismissed as a reckless self-promoter, though he clung to his story for five years, using it to get television bookings and newspaper coverage, before surrendering it with a shrug. Looking back, it’s striking to see a future President testing the waters by charging the elected incumbent with fraud and illegitimacy without introducing a shred of evidence.
That was a fitting warm-up for Trump’s official entry into the 2016 campaign. The Mexican government, he alleged, is deliberately dumping its hoodlums in the U.S. Later that year, he answered the Paris terrorist attacks by claiming, without substantiation, that he had seen “thousands and thousands of people” celebrating in New Jersey as the Twin Towers smoldered on 9/11 on television. (No footage is known to exist.)
Trump’s alternative reality is dark, divisive and pessimistic, and it tends to position him and his supporters as heroic victims of injustice. Despite this–or maybe because of it–his reckless assertions are weapons that often work. He commandeers the traditional news cycle and makes visceral connections with voters. By taking on Obama over his birth certificate, Trump charmed a right-wing constituency and ratcheted himself to the level of White House–ready. By scorning good manners to attack border crossers and Muslims, Trump showed solidarity with the politically incorrect and advertised his iconoclasm. By flouting fact-checkers and making journalists his enemy, he is driving home the theme that his turbulent presidency is a struggle to the death with a despised Washington elite.
Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better. It is for this same reason that Russia deployed paid Internet trolls in the 2016 campaign, according to U.S. investigators, repeatedly promoting lies on U.S. social networks to muddy the debate. In the radical democracy of social media, even the retweets of outraged truth squadders has the effect of rebroadcasting false messages. Controversy elevates message. And it keeps the President on offense.
If the fable of President Trump is ever written, young Donald might say to his father: I’m not gonna lie to you, Dad. The tree has been chopped–smart people say maybe by illegal immigrants or Muslims. There are some bad hombres. Anyway, it’s gone, and I’m gonna build something truly terrific on this parcel.
“These big falsehoods are different,” explains Bill Adair, who created PolitiFact, the fact-checking journalistic site that won a Pulitzer Prize. “They are like a neutron bomb. They just take over the discussion and obliterate a lot of other things that we should be discussing.”
Since winning the White House, Trump has employed this weapon at specific times, often when he is losing control of the national story line. He pulled the trigger on Nov. 27, a day after Clinton’s vanquished campaign agreed to join in a recount of votes in Wisconsin. Over the course of that day, Trump sent out 11 tweets, averaging 18,440 retweets, expressing his outrage over the situation. But the two most widely read and shared, by wide margins, were the false ones.
His incorrect claim that he had won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” was retweeted more than 53,000 times. His unsupported allegation of “serious voter fraud” in three states that he lost was forwarded more than 31,000 times. The virtual world far prefers the outrageous, the new, the controversial to the normal routine of reason and verification. And so does the world of news. Television and print reporters rushed to examine the President-elect’s sensational statements, thus spreading them further. In the dog-eat-dog world of Donald Trump, Clinton had taken the first swing, and he was justified in fighting back with the full force of the Internet.
TIME reviewed the 298 tweets Trump has sent since being elected President as of March 21. Fifteen included clear falsehoods, like the wiretap claims. The false messages were retweeted an average of 28,550 times. Those that were not clearly false were retweeted on average 23,945 times. The viral effect of falsehood being repeated on the news was many times more pronounced. According to a search through the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library database, the false tweets were quoted on television an average of 31 times, more than twice as often as other tweets.
For Trump’s allies, this is a measure of strategic brilliance, not defective character. “He understands how to make something an issue and elevate the discussion by saying things that are contrary, perhaps even unproved,” explains Roger Stone, a former adviser to Trump, who has his own penchant for spreading false conspiracy theories. “He has the ability to change the subject to what he wants to talk about.”
The night before his wiretap maneuver had been a trying one for Trump’s young White House, according to aides. It was a Friday, and the President was frustrated that his widely praised address to Congress on Tuesday had been overtaken by darker news. Revelations of previously denied contacts between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a Russian official had led Sessions to recuse himself from any probe of Russian election interference. The LexisNexis database registered 509 stories or news transcripts referring to some aspect of the story.
Aides later said Trump latched on to an online article by a conservative talk-show host, who assembled previously published media reports into a speculative indictment of Obama. Whether Trump was persuaded by the theory or simply looking for something explosive to change the story line, he knew he had found dynamite. “There is one page in the Trump White House crisis-management playbook,” argued Obama’s former White House spokesman Josh Earnest two days later. “And that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal.” It worked. His tweet replaced the Russian story at the top of the news, generating 514 stories that Sunday.
Trump is by no means the first to use diversion and distortion as a political weapon. During the 2016 Brexit debate in Great Britain, critics of the E.U. exaggerated the cost of E.U. membership to average Britons by roughly 100%. The ensuing argument over the correct amount served to focus resentment that citizens were paying anything at all.
Democrats have been caught playing the game. Former Senate leader Harry Reid floated the false claim that Mitt Romney did not pay taxes, without any evidence. And in both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the Obama campaign suggested that Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. They did not, but the misdirection tilted the abortion debate toward an issue favorable to most Democrats.
Trump took this occasional tool and made it a favorite weapon. “The President has a history of being a negotiator,” explains Christopher Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump’s, who continues to meet with him in Florida. “If I look back, I think he is always in a state of negotiation with everybody, all the time. He takes an exaggerated position to create a new middle ground. He moves the goalposts to force other people to move.”
And he is able to withstand tremendous derision over his untruthfulness. A man who has cheerfully discussed intimate details of his private life on the air with Howard Stern, a man who mugs and poses at professional-wrestling bouts, a man who encouraged the coverage of his own affair in the New York tabloids is not overburdened by a sense of shame. This has proved to be an advantage over politicians who fear the embarrassment of being caught in a lie.
That fear has been documented by political scientists. During the 2012 election season, two researchers randomly divided 1,169 state legislators from nine states into three groups. One group received letters warning that they were being monitored for falsehood by PolitiFact, and that any false statements would soil their reputations and risk defeat. The second group was sent letters saying their statements were being monitored–but with no explicit warning of consequences. The third group wasn’t contacted at all.
Group A–the ones who were warned of consequences–proved to be more cautious about the truth. They had their accuracy questioned at less than half the rate of the other groups. “Politicians typically care not just how the public cares about them but about how elites care about them,” explained Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, one of the authors of the study. “Trump doesn’t care.” Indeed, even exit polls on Election Day found that 65% of voters–including 28% of his own voters–said that he isn’t “honest and trustworthy.” Yet that hasn’t stopped his rise.
The question now is this: Can this same strategy work for a President of the United States? The credibility Trump toys with is no longer just his own. For generations, the world has looked to American leadership in times of crises, one grounded in an historic fidelity to basic facts and a sobriety of rhetoric. What does it mean if the President now needs to use that credibility to rally support in a new confrontation with North Korea? Will the world have time or patience to consider which words he has put air quotes around?
The conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal had raised the question on the same morning Trump called TIME, with a biting condemnation of Trump’s falsehoods. The article compared the President to a drunk, clinging “to an empty gin bottle” of fabrication. Trump had read the piece, and he did not approve. “The country’s not buying it. It is fake media,” he said of the Journal. “The country believes me. Hey, I went to Kentucky two nights ago. We had 25,000 people.”
It is true that Trump has many supporters. One possibility is that this shift in behavior at the top will lead to an increased skepticism among the voters and politicians on whom Trump depends. Reams of social science long ago established that partisans tend to unconsciously overlook falsehoods that come from their own team, while being outraged by the errors of their enemies. But Trump’s excesses are exasperating even his fellow Republicans. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has stepped up his warnings about Trump’s tweeting, telling one conservative outlet that it “takes attention away” from his party’s accomplishments. Trump isn’t moved. “Mitch is a wonderful man,” the President told TIME. “Mitch will speak for himself.”
But other Republican members of Congress have become more bold in voicing their concerns. “There’s a lot of distractions,” agrees Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, whose state gave Trump 56% of its votes. “I just would say that truth is foundational. It’s important in public life, and all of us need to do what we can to tell it the way the facts are.” Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida agrees: “The White House and the President have to understand that there’s a cost to all of this. This country needs a government that it can trust.”
Ultimately, democracy needs facts to allow for public debate and provide a check on abuses of power. “Truth has a despotic character,” philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in a 1968 essay on the subject. “It is therefore hated by tyrants who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize.” Although Trump is a tyrant only in the minds of his most fevered critics, he often talks like one. “Any negative polls are fake news,” he tweeted in his third week on the job. The Gallup daily tracking poll of Trump’s approval fell below 40% after the release of his Obamacare replacement bill.
With time, Trump may find he has committed himself to a strategy that will deteriorate with reuse, because with each passing month the American people will be gathering their own data on his habits and tactics, and what they yield. They will decide whether it’s true, as Trump has promised, that health care costs are lower and everyone has wonderful insurance. They will fact-check his pledge of millions of new manufacturing jobs. They will see whether their incomes rise and their taxes fall, whether Mexico pays for a giant wall. “In the end, Presidents aren’t allowed to get away with excuses,” explains Bill Galston, a presidential scholar who worked in the Clinton White House. “They pay a price for the promises they make.” This is a truth that no one yet has been able to tweet away.
Before he got off the phone, I tried one more time to get Trump to answer a question about the risk to his reputation caused by false and ever changing utterances. Once again, he would not accept the premise. “Hey, look,” he said. “I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m President and you’re not.” As a factual matter, the last part of this statement is indisputably true. And with that, he graciously said goodbye and went back to running the affairs of the most powerful country in the world.
–With reporting by SAM FRIZELL, ZEKE J. MILLER, PRATHEEK REBALA and CHRIS WILSON/WASHINGTON