Why Trump lies

Lies are the way authoritarians exercise power. While in office, Trump has lied 1,628 times

Published November 18, 2017 8:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump; Vladimir Putin (Getty/Mikhail Klimentyev)
Donald Trump; Vladimir Putin (Getty/Mikhail Klimentyev)

You want to know how inured we are to Trump’s lies? A headline in the Washington Post this week passed almost without notice. “President Trump has made 1628 false or misleading claims in 298 days.” I’ll bet it went right by you, along with this: “In the past 35 days, Trump has averaged an astonishing nine claims a day.” That would be false claims, in case you were wondering. According to the Post’s calculations, Trump has averaged 5.5 lies a day, putting him “on track to reach 1,999 claims by the end of his first year in office, though he obviously would easily exceed 2,000 if he maintained the pace of the past month.”

The Post is pussyfooting around by calling Trump’s lies “false and misleading claims.” To use only one of the Post’s examples, Trump has said the Affordable Care Act was dying or dead at least 60 times since taking office, despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has repeatedly found that the health care exchanges are “expected to remain stable for the foreseeable future,” according to the Post. The Hill reported last week that more than 200,000 people signed up for Obamacare on the first day of open enrollment, with over a million visiting the Healthcare.gov sign-up site. By any reasonable measure, calling a functioning federal program “dead” when in fact it is alive and well is not “misleading,” it’s a lie. With Trump’s repetitions, it is 60 lies.

But it’s not how many times Trump has lied that makes him remarkable. It is how he lied, and why.  It would appear that Trump lies instinctively, automatically, reflexively, almost as a matter of course. But he doesn’t lie that way at all. Trump tells lies as a way to exercise power. He used lies to accumulate wealth as a businessman. He used lies to accumulate votes as a candidate. He used lies to accumulate power as a president. Now he’s using lies to keep himself from being removed from office.

It’s amazing how similar Trump’s lies are to the perpetual campaign of propaganda used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to maintain power. After taking power in 2000, the first thing Putin did was seize or co-opt most of Russian news media by jailing or exiling its oligarch owners. Once he controlled the media, he set about firing executives of state-owned outlets like the RIA Novosti news agency, liquidating their assets and remaking them in his image. This resulted in classic Soviet-style-all-lies-all-the-time Russian propaganda cranked out around the clock on TV and newspapers across Russia. The only difference between what Putin does and the way Trump behaves here is ownership of the media. The perpetual production and dissemination of lies are exactly the same. Lies are the way authoritarians exercise power. If you are governed by a set of rules and laws, and then tell lies that enable you to break those rules and laws, the lies give you power. It’s like you’re standing astride the life of the nation and saying, I know I’m lying. You know I’m lying. I’m powerful and you’re not. Fuck you.

There’s only one thing Trump and Putin care about: power. They showed their affinity for each other last week in Vietnam when Trump repeatedly and affirmatively quoted Putin denying that Russia had anything to do with “meddling” in U.S. elections last year, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary that has built up since American intelligence agencies concluded over a year ago that Russia had hacked Democratic party servers and sought to disrupt our elections.

Trump may not own the media in this country, but he has been unnervingly successful in bending it to his will. Fox News, of course, willingly and aggressively parrots the Trump propaganda line. Other news outlets, from cable news to the pages of major newspapers, have simply been overwhelmed by Trump’s lies. And then there have been the seemingly off-the-cuff threats Trump has made against the broadcast licenses of television networks he’s not happy with — hello, CNN and NBC — not to mention threats to jail journalists over “leaks” he hasn’t liked, nearly every one of which has come straight from his own White House.

It’s hard to remember just how extraordinary it is that we are even talking about a president of the United States lying. It was only a little over a year ago that the New York Times first used the word “lie” to describe something Trump said, at that time as a candidate. On Sept. 16 of last year, the Times first called Trump a liar, most prominently in a front-page headline. “Trump gives up a lie but refuses to repent,” the Times splashed across a story about Trump’s begrudging admission that Obama was born in the United States after five years of assertions that Obama was foreign-born.

The Times also used “lie” in another story about Trump’s claims about a $1 trillion small business tax cut. With what we’ve known about Obama’s birth all along, and what we’ve learned this week about the $1 billion tax cut Trump will get from the House bill passed this week, can there really any argument that Trump was lying on both counts? And yet the Times felt it necessary last year to trot out Liz Spayd, its public editor, to explain why for the first time it was calling a presidential candidate a liar. “A lie is different from the spin, exaggerations and squabbling between candidates that are commonplace in politics,” explained Times political editor Carolyn Ryan. “It’s not a word we will use lightly.” That promise was circling the drain by June 21 of this year when the Times ran a full page of Trump’s falsehoods under the headline “Trump’s Lies,” including a calculation that “Trump told public lies or falsehoods every day for his first 40 days.”

Stories like these by the Washington Post and the New York Times mark the first time that as a country we have encountered a professional liar as president of the United States. Trump has been lying for his entire life. He doubtlessly learned to lie early in life from his parents and then employed lying as a real estate developer in New York City. Over the years, Trump lied in every conceivable way you can think of. He lied about the number of floors in Trump Tower. He lied that he was going to build projects he never intended to build. He lied about the number of condos he sold in his buildings. He lied about the prices he got for those condos. He lied about how much he paid for buildings he bought, like the Plaza Hotel, and then lied again about how much he sold them for. He lied about how much he owed to banks. He lied about how much he had paid on his loans. He lied to contractors about how much he would pay them. He lied to people who signed up for Trump University about what they would learn and who would teach them. He lied when he said he would never settle the Trump University lawsuit filed against him.

He lied repeatedly and egregiously as a candidate for president. He has lied repeatedly as president — at least 5.5 times a day, according to the Post. He even lied on his very first day on the job when he sent Sean Spicer out to tell the blatant lie that his inaugural crowd had been the largest in history, and then repeated the lie himself out loud the next day when he went over to address the CIA, standing in front of its Wall of Heroes.

And then we come to the lies he has told that have put his presidency in jeopardy. I’m referring here to his lie on March 4 of this year when he woke up dawn at Mar a Lago and tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” He went on to call for a congressional investigation of this alleged Obama wiretapping, which the Republican-led congress was only too happy to do for him. This led to the appearance just two weeks later by FBI Director James Comey before the House Intelligence Committee. While Comey told the committee there was no evidence whatsoever of Obama administration wiretapping, he proceeded to astound the country by announcing that the FBI had had Trump and his campaign and transition team under criminal and counter-intelligence investigation for more than nine months.

This sent Trump into a rage, and he fired Comey a little more than a month later, which of course he lied about by getting Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to concoct a letter justifying the firing on phony grounds. Trump is now under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice in the firing of Comey, as well as for colluding with Russian propagandists in influencing last year’s election.

It would be comforting to be able to say that lies and propaganda have only so much power, but I’m afraid we’re well past that. I’m old enough to remember the dark days of the Cold War, when Russian propaganda was pointed to as the way evil commies maintained their grip on power in the Soviet Union. Even while the evening news here would show long lines for bread in Moscow, the Soviets produced glorious documentaries showing lines of tractors harvesting fields of waving grain on collective farms and posters of iconographic Russian workers smiling robotically into sunsets over the steppes. It would have been laughable if it wasn’t presented as such an ominous threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life.

And then this week we turn on the TV and what do we see? An ad put out by the 45 Committee, funded by conservative financier Joe Ricketts, shows iconographic American workers staring smilingly into the camera while nonsense is spouted about  the great tax cuts they’re going to get from the Republican “middle class” tax bill. Which, by the way, will actually result in everyone who earns less than $75,000 a year (which is pretty much the entire “middle class” in this country) paying more taxes over its 10-year lifespan.

So far, Trump’s hundreds and hundreds of lies haven’t had the power to push through the passage of even one promise he made during the blizzard of lies of last year’s campaign. But in the words of the Liar in Chief, I guess time will tell.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Donald Trump Trump Russia Scandal Vladamir Putin