Many Politicians Lie. But Trump Has Elevated the Art of Fabrication
Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant here, likes to tell his clients that there are “three keys to credibility.”
“One, never defend the indefensible,” he says. “Two, never deny the undeniable. And No. 3 is: Never lie.”
Would that politicians took his advice.
Fabrications have long been a part of American politics. Politicians lie to puff themselves up, to burnish their résumés and to cover up misdeeds, including sexual affairs. (See: Bill Clinton.) Sometimes they cite false information for what they believe are justifiable policy reasons. (See: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.)
But President Trump, historians and consultants in both political parties agree, appears to have taken what the writer Hannah Arendt once called “the conflict between truth and politics” to an entirely new level.
From his days peddling the false notion that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, to his inflated claims about how many people attended his inaugural, to his description just last week of receiving two phone calls — one from the president of Mexico and another from the head of the Boy Scouts — that never happened, Mr. Trump is trafficking in hyperbole, distortion and fabrication on practically a daily basis.
In part, this represents yet another way that Mr. Trump is operating on his own terms, but it also reflects a broader decline in standards of truth for political discourse. A look at politicians over the past half-century makes it clear that lying in office did not begin with Donald J. Trump. Still, the scope of Mr. Trump’s falsehoods raises questions about whether the brakes on straying from the truth and the consequences for politicians’ being caught saying things that just are not true have diminished over time.
One of the first modern presidents to wrestle publicly with a lie was Dwight D. Eisenhower in May 1960, when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down while in Soviet airspace.
The Eisenhower administration lied to the public about the plane and its mission, claiming it was a weather aircraft. But when the Soviets announced that the pilot had been captured alive, Eisenhower reluctantly acknowledged that the plane had been on an intelligence mission — an admission that shook him badly, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said.
“He just felt that his credibility was such an important part of his person and character, and to have that undermined by having to tell a lie was one of the deepest regrets of his presidency,” Ms. Goodwin said.
In the short run, Eisenhower was hurt; a summit meeting with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev collapsed in acrimony. But the public eventually forgave him, Ms. Goodwin said, because he owned up to his mistake.
In 1972, at the height of the Watergate scandal, President Richard M. Nixon was accused of lying, obstructing justice and misusing the Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies, and resigned rather than face impeachment. Voters, accustomed to being able to trust politicians, were disgusted. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency after telling the public, “I’ll never lie to you.”
President Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction in trying to cover up his affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, during legal proceedings. Chris Lehane, a former Clinton adviser, said Mr. Clinton’s second-term agenda suffered during his impeachment, yet paradoxically his favorability ratings remained high — in part, Mr. Lehane said, because “the public distinguished between Clinton the private person and the public person.”
But sometimes it’s easier to tell what’s false than what’s a lie. President George W. Bush faced accusations that he and members of his administration took America to war in Iraq based on false intelligence about whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush and his team emphasized and in some cases exaggerated elements of the intelligence that bolstered the case while disregarding dissenting information, leading critics to accuse them of lying. Among those who said Mr. Bush had lied was Mr. Trump.
Over the past two decades, institutional changes in American politics have made it easier for politicians to lie. The proliferation of television political talk shows and the rise of the internet have created a fragmented media environment. With no widely acknowledged media gatekeeper, politicians have an easier time distorting the truth.
And in an era of hyper-partisanship, where politicians often are trying to court voters at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, politicians often lie with impunity. Even the use of the word “lie” in politics has changed.
“There was a time not long ago when you could not use the word ‘lie’ in a campaign,” said Anita Dunn, once a communications director to Mr. Obama. “It was thought to be too harsh, and it would backfire. So you had to say they hadn’t been honest, or they didn’t tell the truth, or the facts show something else, and even that was seen as hot rhetoric.”
With the rise of fact-checking websites, politicians are held accountable for their words. In 2013, the website PolitiFact declared that Mr. Obama had uttered the “lie of the year” when he told Americans that if they liked their health care plan they could keep it. (Mr. Trump won “lie of the year” in 2015.)
“I thought it was unfair at the time, and I still think it’s unfair,” Ms. Dunn said, referring to Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama later apologized to people who were forced off their plans “despite assurances from me.”
On the theory that politicians who get caught in lies put their reputations at risk, Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College (and contributor to The New York Times’s Upshot) and some colleagues tried to study the effects of Mr. Trump’s misstatements during last year’s presidential campaign.
In a controlled experiment, researchers showed a group of voters a misleading claim by Mr. Trump, while another group saw that claim accompanied by “corrective information” that directly contradicted what Mr. Trump had said. The group that viewed the corrections believed the new information, but seeing it did not change how they viewed Mr. Trump.
“We know politicians are risk averse. They try to minimize negative coverage, and that negative coverage could damage their image over time,” Mr. Nyhan said. “But the reputational consequences of making false claims aren’t strong enough. They’re not sufficiently strong to dissuade people from misleading the public.”
Of course, lying to court voters is one thing, and lying to federal prosecutors quite another. When Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, was accused of a long list of federal corruption counts related to claims that he tried to sell Mr. Obama’s seat in the United States Senate, he was asked quite directly about lying.
While Mr. Blagojevich was testifying under oath, a prosecutor pressed him on whether he made a habit, as a politician, of lying to the public. They sparred over whether Mr. Blagojevich had fed a misleading story to a local newspaper.
“That was a lie,” the prosecutor, Reid Schar, was quoted as saying.
Mr. Blagojevich refused to fess up. “That was a misdirection play in politics,” he answered.
He was sentenced to a 14-year prison term in 2011.
Joel Sawyer, a Republican strategist in South Carolina, said there were two ways for a politician to deal with deceit.
“One is to never acknowledge it, which seems to have been employed pretty successfully by our current president,” Mr. Sawyer said. “The second is to rip the Band-Aid off and say: ‘I screwed up; here’s why. Give me another chance, and I won’t disappoint you again.’”
Mr. Sawyer worked for a politician — Mark Sanford, then the governor of South Carolina — who took the latter approach. On a June weekend in 2009, Mr. Sanford slipped out of the South Carolina capitol and flew to Buenos Aires to be with his lover, but told his staff that he had gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail. His aides, including Mr. Sawyer, unknowingly passed the lie on to reporters.
Mr. Sanford later apologized profusely. Voters eventually rewarded him; today he serves in Congress.
Many of Mr. Trump’s lies — like the time he boasted that he had made the “all-time record in the history of Time Magazine” for being on its cover so often — are somewhat trivial, and “basically about him polishing his ego,” said John Weaver, a prominent Republican strategist.
That mystifies Bob Ney, a Republican former congressman who spent time in prison for accepting illegal gifts from a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, and lying to federal investigators about it. “It really baffles me why he has to feel compelled to exaggerate to exonerate himself,” Mr. Ney said.
But other presidential lies, like Mr. Trump’s false claim that millions of undocumented immigrants had cast ballots for his opponent in the 2016 election, are far more substantive, and pose a threat, scholars say, that his administration will build policies around them.
The glaring difference between Mr. Trump and his predecessors is the sheer magnitude of falsehoods and exaggerations; PolitiFact rates just 20 percent of the statements it reviewed as true, and a total of 69 percent either mostly false, false or “Pants on Fire.” That leaves scholars like Ms. Goodwin to wonder whether Mr. Trump, in elevating the art of political fabrication, has forever changed what Americans are willing to tolerate from their leaders.
“What’s different today and what’s scarier today is these lies are pointed out, and there’s evidence that they’re wrong,” she said. “And yet because of the attacks on the media, there are a percentage of people in the country who are willing to say, ‘Maybe he is telling the truth.’”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg