President Donald Trump listens to a question during press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Is Donald Trump delusional or a gaslighter? Media should say clearly: It's both

Either Trump inhabits an alternate reality or he wants his fans to ignore the facts. Either way, call him out


Dan Froomkin
March 19, 2020 10:00AM (UTC)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

Donald Trump gave the media exactly the excuse it needed on Tuesday to properly qualify his statements going forward.

By insisting that he had "always" taken the coronavirus seriously — and that in fact he "felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic" — Trump was either being delusional or engaging in gaslighting or both.

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Calling that a falsehood isn't enough. Even calling it a lie isn't enough.

There are really only three alternatives: Either he actually believes what he said, even though it is completely contradicted by the actual timeline in which the rest of us live; or he is not only lying but affirmatively trying to make people forget, disregard and deny the truth; or some combination of the two.

As a result, news organizations should immediately start adding some sort of warning label every time they quote or paraphrase the president — especially when it comes to a life-or-death public-health issue.

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I recommend some variation of the language from a recent Washington Post article, which noted that "[m]uch of what Trump has said has been contradictory or false," or a recent New York Times article which said that "Trump has continually made false statements and misinformed the public about the severity of [the] virus" — along with something to the effect of "some of his assertions indicate either delusion or an attempt to make the public doubt their own sense of reality."

Katie Rogers of the New York Times and Don Lemon of CNN were standouts in their response to Trump's gaslighting on Tuesday.

Rogers' report was way too heavy on euphemisms but still deserves kudos for making Trump's big lie the main thrust of the story, rather than, say, quoting him at length before eventually pointing out that he was talking complete smack.

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Under the headline "Trump Now Claims He Always Knew the Coronavirus Would Be a Pandemic," Rogers wrote:

The president tried to rewrite his history with advising Americans about the coronavirus. His own words prove him wrong.

Despite his "more urgent tone in recent days," Rogers wrote, "his assertion on Tuesday that he had long seen the pandemic coming was the most abrupt pivot yet from the voluminous number of claims and caustic remarks he has made about the disease."

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She wrote:

Besides denying the seriousness of the coronavirus over the past two months, he had also displayed an acerbic tone toward people who took it more seriously.

And she added:

Another theme has been the president's offering inaccurate information.

Some normally critical readers on Twitter cheered. That included Larry Glickman, a historian at Cornell University:

And Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves:

New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples hailed the Rogers piece:

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CNN's Don Lemon spent slightly more than 12 minutes deconstructing Trump's comment.

From the transcript:

We're going to go through this. Because it's important that you should know. It is important that you hold the people who are in charge accountable. It is important to know how we got to this point. That is gaslighting, pure and simple.

The president of the United States is gaslighting you, and you deserve to know. Claiming today that he has known all along that the coronavirus is a pandemic.

After serving up more than half a dozen clips of Trump shrugging off, mocking and otherwise belittling the consequences of the virus, Lemon resumed:

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Like I said, this is gaslighting, pure and simple. The president of the United States has been making demonstrably false statements from the beginning of all of this, at a time when real leadership could have saved lives.

Other journalists also rose to the challenge.

CNN fact-checker extraordinaire Daniel Dale wrote:

This was another of Trump's brazen attempts to rewrite a history that played out in public view.

Washington Post opinion blogger Paul Waldman did a marvelous job of putting it in context:

The point of this revisionist history is to retroactively wipe away Trump's own negligence, to make his repeated efforts to play down the virus fade into the mist. In the new version of history, we didn't go through a period where people were begging Trump to take it seriously; instead, we all realized what was happening at exactly the same moment.

And he explained why conservative media is adjusting accordingly:

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In the world created by Fox News and conservative talk radio, policy issues and ways of understanding controversies are fluid and subject to change. …

What is unchanging are the meta-themes that run through all their coverage: The world is frightening and dangerous. Things were better in the past. White people are besieged and put-upon, while ungrateful minorities have all the advantages. The non-conservative media always lie and so can never be trusted; only what we here at Fox News and other conservative outlets tell you is true.

Beside all those meta-themes, which have been in operation for a few decades now, is one of more recent vintage: Trump is always right. He was right yesterday, and he's right today, even if yesterday he said the opposite of what he's saying today.

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows, under the headline "Trump Is Lying, Blatantly," did some psychologizing:

[T]hat he believes he can baldly zap away all memory of his words and deeds and reinvent himself as the man saving his country from pandemic — another Anthony Fauci, but with executive powers — reveals something  about Trump's mind and character, and something about his assessment of public life.

  • About his mind it suggests: He lives in the moment, and whatever he wants to be true at this instant, is "true" for him, at least while he's saying it.
  • About his assessment of others it indicates: He is betting he can get away with it. At some level he must know that half the press is weary of writing the 900th story pointing out his falsehoods. The other half is hungry for some way to show its "balance," and to avoid using the plain word "lie." And meanwhile the constituency Trump said would stay with him if he "shot someone on Fifth Avenue" may still be aboard.

New York Times opinion columnist Nick Kristof cast the comments in their authoritarian context:

New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman wondered "how much Trump's inability to admit error is hurting things now. Investors seemed relieved that he was finally showing hints of realism about the coronacrisis, but then he undercut that with ludicrous gaslighting."

ABC News national correspondent Terry Moran tweeted:

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Next move: Blaming China

Having argued, to his satisfaction, that he responded with alacrity to the coronavirus crisis, Trump held yet another news conference on Wednesday, in which attempted to place the blame for any slow response on China.

He opened his remarks by talking about "our war against the Chinese virus." He later called himself a "wartime president."

Asked why he keeps using the term "Chinese virus" despite cases of anti-Asian bias, Trump repeated twice, "It comes from China." He denied any racism on his part, and made it clear that he was bristling against a Chinese official's conspiracy theory blaming American soldiers.

You could literally see him start shifting the blame. "It was nobody's fault. This happened. Some people could say it was somebody's fault, actually," he said.

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And later, he finished that thought: "I don't know if you'd say China is to blame. Certainly we didn't get an early run on it. It would've been helpful if we knew about it earlier."

[Read more Press Watch coverage of Trump and the coronavirus]


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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