By William S. Becker*
It did not take long for the media to begin calling Donald Trump the “Teflon Don”. His tendencies to violate all manner of norms, standards and common civilities were obvious even before his hat landed in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination. His insults, innuendoes and childish use of nick-names did not let up during his run against Hillary Clinton. Many voters were said to enjoy Trump’s unconventional behavior.
Trump promised he would act more presidential if he won the election. That was a lie. Immediately after he took office, he began violating ethical norms and standards against conflicts of interest, personal gain from public office, and nepotism. He thinks he is above the law. So far, no one has dared disabuse him of that idea.
Trump declared himself too smart to need the world-class experts available to assist a president with the endless assault of complex and sensitive issues with which he or she must deal. This president doesn’t like to read briefing papers, either. Instead, we are told that Trump gets his information from watching Fox News, infamous for failing to deliver the “fair and balanced” reporting it originally promised.
It has been painfully obvious that Trump has a superficial understanding at best about many of the issues on which he is supposed to lead and represent the country. In dealing with adversaries such as North Korea and Iran, Trump relies on bluster rather than finesse and his “gut” rather than actual intelligence. As a result, he has proved unequipped to deal with sophisticated competitors like Vladimir Putin. Some analysts suspect he has already been outfoxed by the young tyrant who rules North Korea.
Trump’s impulsive, ill-considered, unchecked, unwise and un-curated tweets are often followed by clarifications, corrections, reversals or retractions from the White House. While the “Me Too” movement has cost many public figures their careers because of past sexual misconduct, Trump’s own comments and the allegations against him indicate that he too deserves me-too, but he remains unscathed.
Most troublesome of all, however, is Trump’s unprecedented, unapologetic and unethical lying. The press was reluctant to use the word “lies” at the beginning of his presidency because it seemed too disrespectful an indictment. That’s not the case anymore. The Washington Post, which has taken on the exhausting task of tracking Trump’s fabrications, says he made 3,251 false or misleading claims between his inauguration and last June 1. That’s an average of more than 6.5 per day. No responsible parent would tolerate this from a 5-year-old. Yet, no one has given Trump a permanent time-out for his infinitely more dangerous falsehoods.
Trump’s style of governing would be a goldmine for the fact-checking industry, if anyone paid attention to it. But when public apathy might not be sufficient to let him avoid accountability, Trump plays defense by going on offense: He accuses the mainstream media of publishing “false facts” and fake news. He inoculates himself by calling the free press the “enemy of the people”. His White House engages in petty retribution against reporters who write stories or ask questions the president does not like.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. is in the army of analysts trying to figure out what’s going on here. His theory is that Trump “believes that reality itself can be denied and that big lies can sow enough confusion to keep the truth from taking hold”.
“Trump’s hope of clinging to power rests on the assumption that he can continue inventing enough false story lines to keep his party at bay,” Dionne writes. “His theory seems to be that a lie is as good as the truth as long as the right people believe it.”
Unfortunately, the number of believers is truly depressing. Gallup polling last week put Trump’s approval rating at 42% among American adults, even after the debacle in Helsinki. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that Trump’s approval rating was 45% among registered voters and 88% among Republicans, the highest of his presidency so far.
In a thoughtful discussion of all this on PBS News Hour this week, panelists made some points that deserve to be repeated.
First, there are times when a president can justify lying to the American people. President Franklin Roosevelt admitted he would be willing to mislead us if it was necessary to win World War II.
Second, other presidents have been caught lying for less than honorable reasons, like Nixon’s cover-up of Watergate and Johnson’s deceptions about the status of the Vietnam War.
But News Hour guest Peter Wehner explained why Trump’s record is different. Wehner served in the last three Republican administrations and is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. I have edited his comments slightly for brevity:
“What’s different is that we don’t have a run-of-the-mill liar in the White House. We have a pathological liar. This is a man who lies on personal matters, political matters, domestic, international. He lies morning, noon, and night. And it is never-ending. We have never had a president who lies so pathologically, and lies needlessly often.
“The other thing is the number of people in this country who believe in the lies, who have accepted them. This has tremendous damaging effects on the political and civic culture of the country. A self-governing nation can’t run if you can’t have a common set of facts, if you can’t agree on common realities. What you have is a man in the White House who is engaged in not just an assault on truth, but an effort to annihilate truth.”
Asked for examples, Wehner mentioned several, including this:
“One that might strike people as trivial, in retrospect was extremely important — the original lie at the dawn of the presidency of Donald Trump. And that was the crowd size (at his inauguration), when he insisted and sent his press secretary out to insist it was larger than Barack Obama’s…
“The reason it mattered is that this was right out of the box, not just a lie, but it was an assault on empirical, demonstrable facts. There were pictures that showed the difference. And that was the tell, as they say in poker. That said that this guy was something different. He was going after a sustained, relentless assault on truth.”
These criticisms have nothing to do with partisan politics. They have everything to do with the standards we expect from our leaders, the example we set for our children, the respect we have for ourselves, our honor as a country, and our credibility in the international community. For these reasons, we should be asking whether pathological lying at the presidential level and at Trump’s scale is a misdemeanor that justifies impeachment. I can only speak for myself, but I would be lying if I did not answer “yes”.
*Bill Becker began his career in journalism at age 19 as an Army combat correspondent in the Vietnam War. He went on to write for the Associated Press, and to publish his own newspaper in rural Wisconsin. During his eclectic career, Bill has been the executive secretary to the Wisconsin Attorney General, Counselor to the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and a senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy.