When it comes to telling the truth, President Trump has a problem.
In the past week alone, Trump has contradicted his own claims that he did not know where his lawyer Michael Cohen received $130,000 in hush money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. His former personal physician, Harold Bornstein, disclosed that Trump himself had dictated the glowing assessment of the candidate’s health that was released during the campaign. The president falsely portrayed the status of three U.S. hostages in North Korea, tweeting, “As everybody is aware, the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail. Stay tuned!” In fact, two of the three hostages were taken captive during Trump’s term, not Barack Obama’s presidency.
During Thursday’s briefing, reporters peppered White House press secretary Sarah Sanders with questions about Trump’s casual relationship with the truth.
“Could you explain why the president, when he answered questions by reporters a few weeks ago about the $130,000 payment from Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels, why the president was not truthful with the American people and with the people in this room?” the Associated Press’s Zeke Miller asked.
“As Mayor Giuliani stated, and I’ll refer you back to his comments, this was information that the president didn’t know at the time but eventually learned,” Sanders replied.
In a follow-up, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl piled on.
“When the president so often says things that turn out not to be true, when the president and the White House show what appears to be a blatant disregard for the truth, how are the American people to trust or believe what is said here or what is said by the president?”
Sanders’s answer — that she offers “the very best information” she has at the time — was telling, and did little to dispel a growing skepticism that the information she provides can be taken at face value.
By the Washington Post’s tally, Trump has made 3,001 false or misleading claims since he was sworn into office — an average of 6.5 untruths per day. A cottage industry of Trump fact checkers struggles to keep pace with the president’s pronouncements. So frequent are his erroneous statements, in fact, that the debate has shifted from whether he makes them to whether they matter.
Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden took note of this shift in an excerpt from his upcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”
“It was no accident that the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2016 was ‘post-truth,’ a condition where facts are less influential in shaping opinion than emotion and personal belief,” Hayden wrote in the New York Times. “To adopt post-truth thinking is to depart from Enlightenment ideas, dominant in the West since the 17th century, that value experience and expertise, the centrality of fact, humility in the face of complexity, the need for study and a respect for ideas.”
Other conservatives have also been troubled by Trump’s casual relationship with the truth. Fox News host Neil Cavuto leveled an extraordinary broadside at the president Thursday, calling Trump’s misstatements “the problem.”
“What does public life look like without the constraining internal force of character — without the firm ethical commitments often (though not exclusively) rooted in faith?” Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post last year. “It looks like a presidential campaign unable to determine right from wrong and loyalty from disloyalty. It looks like an administration engaged in a daily assault on truth and convinced that might makes right. It looks like the residual scum left from retreating political principle — the worship of money, power, and self-promoted fame. The Trumpian trinity.”
While those philosophical concerns abound in the nation’s capital, there are signs that the president’s truthfulness may be having a wider effect. An NBC/SurveyMonkey poll released Wednesday found that 61 percent of Americans think Trump only tells the truth “some of the time or less.” On the bright side for Trump, 76 percent of Republicans still believe that he speaks the truth “all or most of the time.”
In an op-ed published last week in the New York Times, Daniel Effron, an associate professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, posited an explanation of why the president’s supporters seem unbothered by Trump’s lies.
“Wittingly or not, Mr. Trump’s representatives have used a subtle psychological strategy to defend his falsehoods: They encourage people to reflect on how the falsehoods could have been true,” Effron wrote.
It’s through that lens that one might understand the statements made by Sanders, who — like her predecessors — is tasked with spinning the president’s tweeted and off-the-cuff remarks into the realm of reason. Last month, for example, she was asked by a reporter to justify Trump’s resurfaced claim that millions of Americans had participated in voter fraud in the 2016 election.
“The president still strongly feels that there was a large amount of voter fraud, and attempted to do a thorough review of it, but a lot of states didn’t want to cooperate or participate,” Sanders said from her White House podium. “We certainly know that there were a large number of instances reported, but we can’t be sure how much because we weren’t able to conduct a full review that the president wanted.”
So could Trump have convinced himself he wasn’t involved in Cohen’s payment to Stormy Daniels, or that he wasn’t the author of the medical report issued under Bornstein’s name, or that two of the three U.S. hostages in North Korea weren’t captured during his own term in office? Anything is possible, and no one can know for sure what’s in his mind.
But there’s a simpler explanation, and it doesn’t reflect well on him.
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