The United States is just days away from an election that will likely put Democrats in control of the U.S. House and check Donald Trump’s power. And that impending deadline has pushed the president to new levels of bullshit.
Throughout the first nine months of his presidency, Trump made an average of five false or misleading statements a day, the Washington Post fact-checking team found Friday. Now, the Post found, the president is spouting about 30 such claims per day.
“He says things at every appearance that need a fact-check,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, who edits the nonpartisan fact-checking outlet PolitiFact. Trump is holding rally after rally to support Republican candidates — events where Trump is frequently at the height of his imaginative powers — and generating about 35 to 45 claims at each one, according to the Post’s tally.
Trump’s tendency to make false statements is, of course, nothing new. He kicked off his political career by questioning whether Obama was born in the United States. (Obama was.) And he started his presidency by sending out then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer to insist to reporters that Trump’s inauguration drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” (It didn’t.) Lately, though, his lies have clustered around a handful of politically advantageous topics, like immigration and health care.
For David Greenberg, a professor of history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University, Trump’s casual approach to the truth is a hallmark of the current “explosive, high-strung, fearful moment” in American history.
“We, the American public, are more ready to call these things lies than we used to be,” Greenberg said. “We are more ready to ascribe nefarious motives to the politicians we disagree with than we used to be.”
The new Willie Horton
In a Thursday speech at the White House about immigration and border security, for example, Trump said that people seeking asylum in the United States don’t show up for their court dates. “It’s like a level of 3 percent. They never show up for the trial,” he said.
There’s little evidence to support that claim. In fact, 99 percent of asylum-seeking families enrolled in one Obama-era program showed up for court and regular check-ins with immigration authorities for more than 18 months, according to an executive involved in the program.
During that same speech, Trump also said that up to 20 million undocumented immigrants could be living in the country. “The record-keeping from past administrations has not exactly been very good,” he added to reporters. Trump’s own administration estimated that, as of 2014, 12.1 million undocumented people lived in the United States.
“We fact-checked President Barack Obama regularly, because he was the president. We would fact-check any president on a regular basis,” Drobnic Holan said. While Obama would make false statements while speaking off the cuff to journalists, she said, his prepared speeches typically needed one or two fact-checks — one of which might qualify as “half-true.”
“With Donald Trump, it’s a totally different dynamic,” Drobnic Holan said. “He makes multiple false statements.”
Perhaps most notably this week, Trump pinned a racially charged ad to the top of his Twitter account, where he has 55.6 million followers. The ad depicted Luis Bracamontes, who was convicted of killing two police officers in 2014, and proclaimed, “Illegal immigrant, Luis Bracamontes, killed our people! Democrats let him into our country. Democrats let him stay."
Bracamontes last entered the country illegally under a Republican administration, PolitiFact found. The outlet judged the ad to be “pants on fire” — as in, liar, liar.
The ad also evoked the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which aired during the 1988 presidential election in support of George H. W. Bush and depicted a little-known, at the time, black felon named William Horton. A convicted murderer, Horton escaped from a weekend prison furlough and later raped a white woman. The ad went after Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis, for supporting the weekend furlough program and declared, “Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.”
“Certainly, other presidents have used racist insinuations, imagery dogwhistles,” Greenberg said. “For Trump, it’s like on the front of his agenda. It’s at the forefront of his rhetoric in a kind of fairly consistent way. And that is something that we’re not used to.”
Following in Trump’s footsteps
At a rally in Florida on Wednesday, Trump told supporters, “We will always protect Americans with pre-existing conditions. Always. Always.”
History would indicate otherwise. Republicans have repeatedly taken steps to weaken the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) protections for pre-existing conditions, from trying to repeal and replace its legislation to launching a lawsuit against the ACA.
That record is now dogging Republicans, as the ACA remains popular among 49 percent of Americans, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz claimed earlier this month that he “will protect pre-existing conditions.” But last July, he introduced an amendment that, a leading insurance group said, would make coverage for people with such conditions skyrocket.
And Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who’s running for Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s seat, released an ad announcing that he supports “forcing insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions.” But Hawley has signed onto a lawsuit that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act, including its protections for pre-existing conditions. “I would say the Republicans are following President Trump’s example of being able of just not needing evidence to make allegations,” said Drobnic Holan, though she added that not all Republicans do so. “It’s not like the Democrats are innocent. But they’re not just as extreme in the fabrications and falsifications as the Republicans are.”
“I do think there has been some trickle-down of the Trumpian sort of ‘black is white, day is night’-style into the Republican bloodstream,” Greenberg agreed. But, he pointed out, elections and shifting political winds often lead politicians to reframe their record in opportunistic ways. American voters understand that.
“The Republicans are now changing their tune and sort of opportunistically sort of be more for it,” he said of the Affordable Care Act. “I think that is really pretty common to what politicians do. I don’t see that as a particularly Trumpian move.”
“I do try”
Trump is, of course, not the first president to lie — and past presidents have lied big league. Bill Clinton told a grand jury, of Monica Lewinsky, “There’s nothing going on between us.” (There was.) After a burglary at the Watergate Hotel, Richard Nixon said, "No one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” (They were.)
But Trump admits that his relationship with the truth is an open one. On Wednesday, an ABC News reporter asked Trump, “In the campaign, you made a promise. You said, 'I will never lie to you.’ So can you tell me now, honestly, have you kept that promise at all times? Have you always been truthful?"
"Well, I try. I mean, I do try,” Trump said. “I think you try, too. You say things about me that are not necessarily correct. I do try, and I always want to tell the truth. When I can, I tell the truth."
"I mean sometimes it turns out to be where something happens that's different or there's a change,” he went on. “But I always like to be truthful.”
Cover image: President Donald Trump waves off a reporters question as he speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn before boarding Marine One at the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)