Are we still pretending Donald Trump isn’t lying?
On the day after his inauguration, Donald Trump gave a speech at CIA headquarters. He lied about the number of people attending his inauguration, claiming the crowd was far larger than it was. He also lied about the media, falsely accusing journalists of manufacturing his feud with the intelligence community. Earlier that month, Trump had compared U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany.
I remember this well because of the hand-wringing coverage of it, particularly from my beloved NPR. “It’s probably not true,” Mary Louise Kelly said about his blaming the media. “In that same speech out of the CIA this weekend, Trump also falsely inflated the size of the crowd at his inauguration.”
I sat at the kitchen table and said to our dog, “Whaaaat?”
After a lot of other listeners had the same reaction, NPR ran another story explaining why we didn’t hear the words “Trump” and “lie” in the same sentence. As NPR’s Richard Gonzalez explained, Kelly had turned to the Oxford English Dictionary in search of the definition of the word lie: “A false statement made with intent to deceive.”
This was the shiny new mantra bouncing around countless newsrooms: If we can’t see into Donald Trump’s mind, we can’t know his intent.
NPR news boss Michael Oreskes took it a step further, declaring that NPR would not use the word “lie” to describe the president’s lies.
“Our job as journalists is to report, to find facts, and establish their authenticity and share them with everybody,” Oreskes said at the time. “It’s really important that people understand that these aren’t our opinions. … These are things we’ve established through our journalism, through our reporting … and I think the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.”
You push people away from you. So, be nice.
“Ridiculous,” I said to a fellow journalist over drinks.
“Easy for you to say,” he said. “You’re a columnist.”
“Easy to see why I became one,” I said.
He bought the next round.
Fortunately, some news organizations did not agree that the best strategy for journalists was to pretend we didn’t know what Trump was doing. For more than a year, The New York Times, for example, tracked every lie uttered by the president under the running headline, “Trump’s Lies.”
“We are using the word ‘lie’ deliberately,” David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson explained in the introduction. “Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naivete to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.”
This week, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler reviewed two of Trump’s recent campaign rallies and found that 68 percent of his claims are “false, misleading or lacking evidence.”
“Small wonder then,” Kessler writes, “that the president is on the cusp of surpassing 5,000 false or misleading claims since the start of his presidency, according to The Fact Checker’s database.”
And now, 1 million copies of “Fear,” Bob Woodward’s new book about Donald Trump, have been released into the world. In the index, under “Trump, Donald,” is this entry: “as liar.”
To address just one of them: On page 320, we relive Trump’s comments about immigrants who come from mostly African countries.
“Haitians,” he said, sitting in the Oval Office. “We don’t need more Haitians. … Why are we having all these people from s—hole countries come here?” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who was in the room, was so offended that he went public with Trump’s comments. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was also there, confirmed them.
Two days later, Woodward writes, Trump called Graham.
“I didn’t say some of the things he said I said,” Trump told him, referring to Durbin.
“Yeah, you did,” Graham said.
Trump was unrepentant. “Well, some people like what I said.”
Racists, he means. They eat it up.
Ah, the memories. All that early reluctance of journalists to call Donald Trump a liar. So much tap-dancing to show how intellectually agile we could be. I think about that every time Trump stands on a stage and brays his hatred for us, turning political rallies into raging mobs as he mocks journalists in the room and declares all of us “the enemy of the people.”
The question seems almost quaint now, if we can ignore the ongoing dangers of this presidency. Which, of course, we cannot.
Must we be able to peer into the dark recesses of Donald Trump’s mind to know that he is lying?
We all know the answer. Insisting otherwise is to lie, just like the president.
Connie Schultz is a
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.