It used to be taken for granted that, even if you didn’t like his politics, you could trust the president of the United States was basically telling the truth.
That when he outlined a position, he actually held it. That the world could take its cues from his statements.
Way back on January 19, the day before Donald Trump assembled “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period”, if the president spoke, people assumed he was giving you some version of the facts that mapped on to the real world.
All presidents bend the truth to one degree or another; like all politicians, they go out of their way to present positions in the most favourable light available – this day-to-day massaging of reality is a normal part of governing. Maybe you’d prefer it not be, but it’s certainly not destabilising in any deep sense.
Some presidents have lied outright. But these moments, both in the moment and in hindsight, felt like aberrations. Past presidents lied, sure, but never to the point they became defined by their untruths.
We’ve never been in a situation where the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful nation on Earth lies so wantonly, about things (inauguration crowd sizes, popular vote totals, TV ratings) that not only don’t matter but are disproven simply by looking, and, more troublingly, about things that definitely do.
It already seems like the distant past, but Trump knocked his entire administration out of orbit for the better part of a month when he decided to fire off a bunch of tweets claiming he had proof President Obama wiretapped him. Obviously no other president has accused their predecessor of a massive crime, but in the hypothetical you could be certain they were backed up by a barely-figurative mountain of evidence, and any statement had been gone over with a legal tooth comb.
Trump, needless to say, did not trouble himself with those truth-seeking best practices. As recently as this weekend, in an interview with CBS News’ John Dickerson, Trump said “I don’t stand by anything” in relation to his conjured-from-thin-air accusations. But in the same train of thought also seems to stand by them. Trump’s disregard for reality is audacious, and has taken us to the point where he is no longer a reliable source, even for his own thoughts.
We’re scarcely a hundred days into Trump’s administration and the world doesn’t take him seriously.
Even Republicans in Congress don’t take Trump at his word. As we’ve seen repeatedly, they treat him like a dotty old man – a ceremonial figurehead who’ll make grand, sporadic pronouncements but is fundamentally disconnected from the law-making process (though that has as much to do with his laziness, lack of patience, and general disinterest). When Trump says a bill has to contain something, members of the House tell reporters what he ‘really meant’; when he makes threats, they assume he’s just posturing. They’ll surely grow more comfortable and more brazen given everything seen thus far.
In the same CBS interview, the most powerful man in the world also told us the latest attempt at a healthcare bill covers pre-existing conditions. It doesn’t. The first bill, the one that failed, did, but the provision was cut in an effort to win over the Freedom Caucus.
That’s a high-level talking point, not esoterica. A yes or no on requiring insurers to cover patients with pre-existing conditions is among the broadest, most fundamental issues in the whole healthcare debate. So Trump doesn’t know or understand what’s in the bill republicans are attempting to ram into law and is confused, or he’s lying. Either way, he’s made himself an untrustworthy source for his own legislation.
The press has generally gotten better at covering Trump since his inauguration, but there’s still a tendency to play into Trump’s lies, as if the problem is a genuine policy disagreement, rather than a constantly shifting bag of wholesale lying and delusion.
Where journalists still struggle to accurately cover Trump, it’s because they don’t have the language to do the situation justice. As Jay Rosen tweeted, “[f]orced to choose between inventing a language for a presidency without precedent and distorting the picture by relying on normal terms the newswriters have frequently chosen inaccuracy by means of a received language, even though they know there’s nothing normal here”.
When most people lie, they do so with the expectation that you won’t find out.
People tend not to lie if there’s a reasonable chance they’ll be caught and shamed for their deceit. To most of us, shame is a powerful deterrent. Donald Trump lies in ways that don’t map onto normal human behaviour. Short of a psychological diagnosis, we must assume he knows he’s lying and simply doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that you might catch him, on the assumption that the sheer frequency will be beyond our ability to fact-check.
David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times that, “When Donald Trump says something happened, it should not change anyone’s estimation of whether the event actually happened. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. His claim doesn’t change the odds.”
That Leonhardt puts it so succinctly should not lessen the absurdity or potential for harm here. That the president of the United States is no longer a reliable source for information should terrify everyone.
Whether or not the president can be trusted is not an academic question.
Trump rose to political prominence on the back of a racist lie about President Obama. He continued to hurl falsehoods throughout his campaign, and a hundred days into his administration has only become less reliable.
Taking their cues from the boss, the White House press office brags about spreading misinformation for sport. Press Secretary Sean Spicer is manifestly making things up as he goes along – he cannot know Trump’s positions on anything, because Trump doesn’t know his positions on anything. So he lies and dodges and ties himself in knots until he too is no longer a credible source.
The president has the resources to be the most informed person on the planet. It seems inevitable that, at some point, Trump will come into possession of information that needs sharing with the American people. What happens then? Will people trust him? His aides have already invented massacres. What happens when we have a real one?
We’d like to think the truth will get out from a reliable source, one way or another, but it’s a staggering, precedent-shattering blow that the White House is no longer among those we can trust.