In the wake of the Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday night, Donald Trump is once again trying to double down on the lie that he opposed the Iraq War, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
As he did last month with his first major foreign policy speech, Trump pegged his claim to a 2004 Esquire interview. “I was an opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning – a major difference between me and my opponent,” Trump said before quoting at length from the Esquire interview.
In response, Esquire pushed back, noting first that “Trump's big point throughout the speech and this entire campaign has been that he was always opposed to the war — even before it began,” then that “this claim has been debunked (over and over again), by multiple fact-checkers, magazines, and newspapers,” and finally that “Trump came out against the war in Esquire almost a year and a half after the invasion began, when the situation on the ground had begun to deteriorate and popular support for the war was sinking.”
When Trump cited the Esquire interview again in the forum, deputy editor John Hendrickson tweeted, “Because Donald Trump won't stop lying, we've updated our 2004 story with an editor's note,” which read:
“The following story was published in the August 2004 issue of Esquire. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, and he has cited this story as proof. The Iraq War began in March 2003, more than a year before this story ran, thus nullifying Trump's timeline.”
But invariably when Donald Trump lies there is more than one lie involved and it's a mistake to just focus on one — especially since the balance-obsessed media will quickly assist him in excusing it, burying it and moving on. You have to recall the broader context in which his lies have been told because his lying is invariably a performance and can only be fully understood as such: The entire performance is a lie.
In the primaries, when Trump first rolled out his Iraq War lie, he was trying to position himself as the ultimate outsider, truth-teller and above all, anti-Bush candidate. So he didn't just falsely posture as having always opposed the war but as having been a major force speaking out against it — one so important that the Bush Administration itself tried to silence him.
“I’ll give you 25 different stories” citing his opposition to the war, Trump falsely boasted during the September 2015 CNN debate, elbowing aside Rand Paul, who actually had been opposed to the war but could not get a word in edgewise. “In fact, a delegation was sent to my office to see me because I was so vocal about it,” Trump bragged. He elaborated further on Fox the next month. “I was visited by people from the White House asking me to sort of, could I be silenced because I seem to get a disproportionate amount of publicity,” he boasted.
At the time, The Washington Post gave Trump “Four Pinocchios” for his claim of a White House silencing effort, after talking to a dozen former top Bush advisers, including Karl Rove. As for the “25 stories” claim, Buzzfeed could find only two in 2003 with Trump comments on Iraq, neither vigorously opposing the war.
But facts be damned. Trump easily shoved aside Rand Paul, taking center stage as the No. 1 Iraq War critic. All sorts of folks have searched high and low for stories supporting Trump's claims since. Yet, Trump himself has been able to come up with only a handful of stories when he expressed ideas all over the map, which he has cherry-picked his most negative comments from — but not anywhere close to his having generated “a disproportionate amount of publicity.”
The line he took back then was, in fact, the exact opposite of the line he's taking now — when he's claiming that he barely paid any attention to Iraq and that no one paid
In the follow-up to the forum, in a campaign speech Thursday, Trump once again tried to make it seem like he'd been against the war from the beginning, quoting at some length once again from the Esquire article and falsely claiming repeatedly that it was “right at the beginning.”
But he also said about a Howard Stern interview, “It was the first time anybody had asked me about Iraq, and I said, "I don't know." In reality — as Buzzfeed first reported in February, Stern asked, “Are you for invading Iraq?” and Trump answered, “Yeah, I guess so,” adding, “I wish the first time it was done correctly.”
In his speech on Thursday, Trump also said, “Nobody cared too much about what I said, I was doing business” — quite a turnabout from his primary debate claim that White House people tried to silence him “because I seem to get a disproportionate amount of publicity.” Now Trump says, “I don't even know why I was asked the question. I guess because I was asked the question.”
So, when Trump was shoving Rand Paul aside and running hard against Jeb Bush as leader of the GOP establishment that he alone could topple, Trump portrayed himself as such a prominent critic that the White House administration of Bush's brother tried to silence him. But now that he's running against Hillary Clinton, eh, not so much. He was just zis guy, you know?
There's a crucial lesson here: It's important to not focus exclusively on the specific lies that Trump is telling in the moment, without also taking note of the broader lies he's telling about himself in how he's presenting himself. The fact that Trump continues to lie repeatedly about opposing the Iraq War, despite repeated debunking, exemplifies his trait of being a pathological liar. But the fact that he's completely reversed his positioning speaks to his more fundamental nature as a bullshitter. In “On Bullshit," Harry Frankfurt warns that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” and explained:
“The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”
And that is precisely what Donald Trump is up to: deceiving us. The precise nature of the deception may change dramatically — as it has in this case: from powerful, outspoken White House opponent to the businessman whom no one paid any attention to. But there's always an angle, always a purpose, always a deception, always a con.
Ask not, “What's Trump lying about now?” Ask, “Why is Trump telling this set of lies now? What is he really up to?”