By David Barstow – The New York Times.
As a businessman, Donald J. Trump was a serial fabulist whose biggest-best boasts about everything he touched routinely crumbled under the slightest scrutiny. As a candidate, Mr. Trump was a magical realist who made fantastical claims punctuated by his favorite verbal tic: “Believe me.”
Yet even jaded connoisseurs of Oval Office dissembling were astonished over the past week by the torrent of bogus claims that gushed from President Trump during his first days in office.
“We’ve never seen anything this bizarre in our lifetimes, where up is down and down is up and everything is in question and nothing is real,” said Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity and the author of “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity,” a book about presidential deception.
It was not just Mr. Trump’s debunked claim about how many people attended his inauguration, or his insistence (contradicted by his own Twitter posts) that he had not feuded with the intelligence community, or his audacious and evidence-free claim that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because millions of people voted for her illegally.
All week long, news organizations chased down one Trump tall tale after another. PolitiFact, a website devoted to checking the veracity of claims by public officials, published 12 “of the most misleading claims” Mr. Trump made during his first White House interview. The Chicago Tribune found that Mr. Trump was incorrect when he claimed two people were shot and killed in Chicago the very hour President Barack Obama was there delivering his farewell address. (There were no shootings, police records showed.) The Philadelphia Inquirer found that Mr. Trump was incorrect when he said the city’s murder rate was “terribly increasing.” (The murder rate has steadily declined over the last decade.) The indefatigable fact checkers at The Washington Post cataloged 24 false or misleading statements made by the president during his first seven days in office.
But for students of Mr. Trump’s long business career, there was much about President Trump’s truth-mangling ways that was familiar: the mystifying false statements about seemingly trivial details, the rewriting of history to airbrush unwanted facts, the branding as liars those who point out his untruths, the deft conversion of demonstrably false claims into a semantic mush of unverifiable “beliefs.”
Mr. Trump’s falsehoods have long been viewed as a reflexive extension of his vanity, or as his method of compensating for deep-seated insecurities. But throughout his business career, Mr. Trump’s most noteworthy deceptions often did double duty, serving not just his ego but also important strategic goals. Mr. Trump’s habitually inflated claims about his wealth, for example, fed his self-proclaimed image of a business genius even as they attracted lucrative licensing deals built around the Trump brand.
Nearly 30 years ago, in his best-selling book “The Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump memorably extolled the advantages of “truthful hyperbole,” which he described as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” It is one thing when the hyperbole comes from a reality TV star exaggerating his ratings to a roomful of television critics. The stakes are infinitely higher when it comes from the leader of the free world, and this reality is provoking alarm from many across the political spectrum.
Steve Schmidt, who helped manage Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said in an interview that Mr. Trump’s cascade of falsehoods was “a direct assault on the very idea of representative democracy” in the United States. Mr. Schmidt said that when he heard Mr. Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway defend the Trump administration’s “alternative facts” on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, he thought of George Orwell’s “1984,” in which the Ministry of Truth is emblazoned with three slogans: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
“In a democratic government, there must be truth in order to hold elected officials accountable to their sovereign, which is the people,” Mr. Schmidt said. “All authoritarian societies are built on a foundation of lies and alternative facts, and what is true is what the leader believes, or what is best for the state.”
Mr. Lewis argued that the president’s untruths were a deliberate strategy to position the nation’s leading news organizations as the enemy of his administration. “Fact-checking becomes an act of war by the media,” he said.
Indeed, last Saturday, on Day 2 of his administration, Mr. Trump told hundreds of C.I.A. employees that he had “a running war with the media” and called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” The next day, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, accused the news media of trying to “delegitimize” the new president and promised, “We are not going to sit around and let it happen.” By Wednesday, Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief White House strategist, was referring to the news media as “the opposition party” during an interview with The New York Times.
“It feels like this was part of the plan all along,” Mr. Lewis said.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written about Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, said in an interview that Mr. Trump’s brazen willingness to deny “objective reality” had, if nothing else, succeeded in diverting public attention from matters of more lasting consequence, like his flurry of executive orders. “I don’t know that he is doing it strategically,” she said, “but it certainly had the impact of a magician’s sleight of hand.”
Deception, dissembling, exaggeration — what Fortune magazine called his “astonishing ability to prevaricate” — has deep roots in Mr. Trump’s business career. In innumerable interviews over the years, Mr. Trump glibly inflated everything from the size of his speaking fees to the cost of his golf club memberships to the number of units he had sold in new Trump buildings. In project after project, he faced allegations of broken promises, deceit or outright fraud, from Trump University students who said they had been defrauded, to Trump condominium buyers who said they had been fleeced, to small-time contractors who said Mr. Trump had fabricated complaints about their work to avoid paying them.
In the early 1980s, a New York City housing court judge ruled that Mr. Trump had filed a “spurious” lawsuit to harass a tenant into vacating a Trump building. In the early 1990s, a federal judge ruled that despite Mr. Trump’s denials, there was “strong evidence” he and his subordinates had conspired to hire undocumented workers and deprive them of employment benefits. In the case of Trump University, Mr. Trump repeatedly claimed that he had “handpicked” each of the instructors who were hired to teach students the secrets of his real estate investing strategies. Yet during a deposition, Mr. Trump struggled to identify a single instructor, even after he was shown their photographs.
The price Mr. Trump paid for this record of prevarication was modest and manageable. His lawyers quietly settled cases when necessary, almost always after binding plaintiffs to secrecy. Some major banks and law firms quietly pulled back from doing or seeking business with the Trump Organization. Skeptical judges turned away his libel suit against a journalist who wrote a book calling into question the amount of his wealth. But usually, by the time the truth caught up, Mr. Trump had moved on to the next big thing.
Once he stepped into the political arena, however, fact-checking operations began cataloging his false statements in ways he never experienced during his years as a real estate developer and reality television star. PolitiFact, for example, has scrutinized 356 specific claims by Mr. Trump and found that more than two-thirds of the claims were “mostly false,” “false” or, in 62 cases, “Pants on Fire” false.
“Trump is a different kind of figure than we’ve ever seen before in our 10 years of fact-checking,” Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact and a journalism professor at Duke University, said in an interview. “No one has come close to Trump in the high percentage of falsehoods.”
Mr. Trump’s election alone is evidence he did not pay a high price for his plethora of false claims on the campaign trail. Nor are there many signs that his loyal base of supporters is troubled by the misstatements he has made in the first week of his presidency.
“There’s no question that the messages and the actions of the first week are deeply resonating with tens of millions of Americans,” Mr. Schmidt said. And even if some Republican leaders in Washington view the president’s behavior as “strange” or “worrisome,” he said, they are for now more focused on the tax cuts and deregulation they hope to achieve under his administration.
Mr. Trump has given conflicting signals about whether he understands the difference between fallacies uttered by the president of the United States and promotional puffery from a real estate developer boasting of his latest hotel or golf course. In Mr. Trump’s first interview as president, David Muir of ABC News asked, “Do you think that your words matter more now?”
“Yes, very much,” Mr. Trump said.
Yet then Mr. Muir asked, “Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?”
“No, not at all,” he replied. “Not at all because many people feel the same way that I do.”
As if to prove the point, Mr. Trump then doubled down on his lie about millions of illegal votes. “Believe me, those were Hillary votes,” he said. “And if you look at it, they all voted for Hillary. They all voted for Hillary. They didn’t vote for me.”
For Ms. Goodwin, Mr. Trump’s week of reality distortions brought to mind Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., on Jan. 27, 1838, where he made an appeal to Enlightenment values as the best antidote to what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” “Reason — cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason — must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense,” he said.
“He was worrying about authoritarian behavior,” Ms. Goodwin said.