Donald Trump lies as boldly and as regularly as any candidate I've encountered. He embodies the politics of truthiness. What distinguishes him from other lying politicians is that he truly doesn't give a shit. He assumes that voters don't give a shit either, and he's half-right.
It's not so much that voters don't care as they don't trust the press. Much of that distrust is misplaced, but it's real nevertheless, and a product our Balkanized media landscape, which offers competing versions of reality for consumers all along the ideological spectrum.
Masterfully, Trump has turned his campaign into an indictment of both the media and the political establishment. He's free to riff on stage like a political saxophonist without any regard for the truth. When he lies about Mexican immigrants or Syrian refugees or Obama's school records or Muslims dancing in the streets after 9/11 or corporate tax rates or unemployment levels, the media dutifully calls him out - and his poll numbers promptly skyrocket.
By virtue of being opposed by fact-checkers in the “crooked” media, he wins. He wears his “Four Pinocchio” ratings as a badge of honor, as proof of his straight-talking credentials. This puts Trump in a no-lose situation. If he tells the truth, he's refreshingly honest. If he lies and is exposed, he's an outsider being persecuted for political incorrectness.
I'm not sure there's anything the media can do about this. They're confronting a man who knows the TV business better than they do. What the media can't do, however, is what The New York Times appears to have done this weekend: feed Trump's persecution narrative.
In an article titled “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved with Women in Private,” the NYT features Rowanne Brewer Lane (among several other women), a former model whose encounters with Trump are described as indicative of his history of misogyny. It begins with an account of Brewer's first collision with Trump, a party during which he asked her to leave and put on a swimsuit.
From the NYT: “But the 1990 episode at Mar-a-Lago that Ms. Brewer Lane described was different: a debasing face-to-face encounter between Mr. Trump and a young women he hardly knew. This is the private treatment of some women by Mr. Trump, the up-close and more intimate encounters.”
But Brewer is now actively disputing the story. Appearing on “Fox & Friends” Monday morning, she said: “Actually, it was very upsetting. I was not happy to read it all...The New York Times told us several times that they would make sure that my story that I was telling came across. They promised several times that they would do it accurately. They told me several times and my manager several times that it would not be a hit piece and that my story would come across the way that I was telling it and honestly, and it absolutely was not.”
Brewer claims her remarks were taken out of context, that “they spun it to where it appeared negative.” “I did not have a negative experience with Donald Trump...He was very kind, thoughtful, generous, you know. He was a gentleman,” she said.
Predictably, Trump has already pounced on the story, tweeting: “Everyone is laughing at the @nytimes for the lame hit piece they did on me and women. I gave them many names of women I helped – refused to use.”
I have no idea what really happened between Trump and Ms. Brewer Lane. Perhaps there is more truth in The New York Times piece than she now suggests. And, in any case, Trump's sordid history with women is well-documented, regardless of what happened in this particular case. There are also other accounts in the story (which is more even-handed than Trump's tweet implies) that have yet be contested. But if you're going to run a piece like this, you better make sure all the sources are solid. That Brewer is now publicly distancing herself in this way throws doubt on the entire story. More importantly, it plays perfectly into Trump's broader narrative about the media being untrustworthy and biased, which is false but now seems more plausible.
Sadly, the next 10 times the media correctly refutes Trump, he'll cite The New York Times piece as Exhibit A in his victim narrative. And, frustratingly, he'll have a point, however muddled.