The 11 Kinds of Untruths That Come Out of Trump's Mouth
If telling the truth means you don't have to remember anything, Trump has an awful lot to remember.
Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty
How many lies has Donald Trump told this year? To paraphrase noted liar Bill Clinton, it depends on what the definition of the word lies is. Fact-checkers and other journalists of the old school have high standards when it comes to calling something a lie: To fit, a statement not only has to be untrue, but you have to know the speaker was trying to trick his or her audience. Politicians—along with everyone else—misspeak and flub facts all the time, and it seems like a good idea for the media to reserve the L-word for occasions when it's clear that the liar in question knew that what they were saying was untrue. In other words, when they intended to deceive.
Sometimes, it's a judgement call. When Trump's team came out with an ad falsely alleging that Democrats let a murderer stay in the country illegally, the headline for a story I wrote about it referred to the ad as a "lie," which seemed justified in part because an ad is not an off-the-cuff remark—it was highly unlikely the people who made the spot didn't know they were misrepresenting facts. Individual writers and outlets have to figure out what is a lie and what is merely untrue, even as anti-Trump partisans scold those who use softer terms like "falsehood."
Midway through the Trump administration—oh god, how are we only midway?—the country has grown accustomed to a president who constantly flubs, misspeaks, dissembles, equivocates, and, yes, lies. We've had to adjust because of Trump's sheer volume of balderdash: According to the Washington Post, Trump had made 4,229 "false or misleading claims" as of August 1. These kinds of fact-checking efforts are admirable, but counting the things Trump gets wrong seems like the sort of task assigned to you if you fuck up really bad in a Greek myth. You might as well count the water in a river, or the sand on a beach, or the licks it takes you to get the the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop.
But if tabulating untruths seems Sisyphean, at least we can catalogue them, the same way lepidopterologists catalogue butterflies—each wrong statement may be beautiful or perplexing in its own way, but if we pin them down under glass we can sort them out into a few discrete species. If such a system doesn't help make sense of the Trump era, because nothing ever could, it's at least comforting to know that Trump isn't creative enough to invent a new way of doing dishonest politics—he's doing the same things over and over again.
This is the purest strain of Trumpian falsehood, the one where the motives are the most obvious, the New Yorkiest brand of BS. I won't venture to guess what it means when a man lies to make himself seem richer, or his buildings taller, or his putts more accurate. But clearly, whatever little voice is telling Trump to change those numbers is the same little voice telling him that his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever and his win in the electoral college was the largest since Ronald Reagan's. Before Trump was in the White House, this sort of hyperbole was largely regarded as an amusing component of his celebrity—who cared if this reality TV show huckster was a phony under an unrealistic pile of hair? Now that he is, improbably, president, the exaggerations are less charming.
The 'Ever-Expanding Number'
As president, Trump doesn't just spin tales about himself, but about the whole federal apparatus he teeters atop of. His estimates of how many jobs arms deals with Saudi Arabia would bring in went from 40,000 to "over a million" in just seven months. His statements about the broader economy are similarly suspect—there are plenty of good economic indicators actually out there, but Trump has a habit of insisting things are even better than they are. He's made other casual exaggerations on subjects ranging from the process of approving road-building projects to his own crowd sizes to the jobs created by pipelines. Calling these falsehoods "lies" is probably in itself inaccurate; they're bullshit, in philosopher Harry Frankfurt's taxonomy: Trump doesn't care whether these numbers are right or not, only that his supporters believe him.
The 'Pretty Close to Criminal Fraud'
The Trump Organization engaged in a lot of number-massaging when talking to investors and potential property buyers, too. A recent ProPublica/WNYC investigation detailed how the Trump family—including Trump himself—would mislead the public about its involvement with real estate projects, overstate how many units in those projects had been sold as a sales tactic to attract additional buyers, and often walk away having made a profit of millions when these projects fell through. These practices reportedly led to Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. nearly getting charged with fraud before Trump's influential attorney took a meeting with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Combine that with the Trump family's longtime practice of avoiding taxes by any means necessary and the company's alleged systematic underpayment of vendors and it becomes clear that the Trumps have a talent for something, but it's not building things.
The 'Conspiracy Theory'
Lest that above category of falsehood paint Trump as some kind of savvy, deceptive operator, let's remember that not all his falsehoods are carefully calculated—some are insane conspiratorial nonsense. Exhibit A is of course his idea that Barack Obama wasn't born in the US—a bit of racist hate-mongering he reportedly held onto as late as 2017, though he stopped publicly insisting on it during the campaign. He's also ranted about US elections being rigged and even after he won the presidency complained ("without evidence," as we in the media say) that millions of people voted illegally.
It's a bit tricky to figure out whether he's lying here because we can't say for sure what's in his head. As George Costanza would say, "It's not a lie... if you believe it." The line between con man and honest-to-god kook can get blurry—maybe Trump really believes Obama was born in Kenya while simultaneously realizing that spreading that myth helps him attract support from the virulently racist parts of the GOP base. Does it matter?
The 'Bottomless Pinocchio'
This is a recent coinage by the Washington Post to describe a false claim Trump (or anyone, but really mostly Trump) makes over and over again. This includes his assertion he's actively building his long-promised wall and his mischaracterization of how NATO gets funded. I'd also put his claim that Obama gave Iran $150 billion of taxpayer money in that category, though the Post doesn't. Does Trump know he's wrong about these things? It's more likely he simply doesn't care. His version of the facts sounds good and conservative media and other Republicans won't hold him accountable for getting anything wrong. What incentive does he have to change?
Speaking of not being held accountable, it used to be that if a politician changed their views on something it was a big deal—too many reversals might indicate you had no real moral center, and you might get hit with the "flip-flopper" label, as 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry memorably was. But Trump routinely adopts positions only to abandon them, sometimes extremely quickly. Most recently, this came in the form of his calling the $716 Defense Department budget "crazy" days before he approved a $750 billion Defense budget. These flip-flops aren't necessarily dishonest, but they are often nonsensical and unexplained, as was the case when Trump kept changing his mind about what he wanted congressional Republicans to do about healthcare.
A cousin of the flip-flop is the nuh-uh, when Trump says he didn't say something that he definitely said. There are plenty of cases of him doing this during the 2016 campaign, but the habit has followed him into the presidency. One notable example: He said on TV the Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired FBI Director James Comey, then denied the firing had anything to do with that. A purist might not call these bizarre assertions "lies" because Trump may be forgetting what he said, but then again, Trump also said he has a great memory, so it's difficult to know which Trump to believe about what.
The 'Cheating on Your Wife'
The most unremarkable form of dishonesty from Trump, and maybe the least politically notable. There's an argument that the private lives of politicians should be kept private, and that what really matters is how they govern, not what goes on in (or outside of) their marriages. But in Trump's case, it's hard to separate his career as an adulterer (and, of course, an accused serial sexual harasser) from his career as a world-class public liar and bullshitter.
The 'Many People Are Saying'
It's important to note that when asked about the "migrant caravan" in late October, Trump did not say that liberal mega-donor George Soros was funding it. What he said instead was that "a lot of people say" Soros funded it. That's Trump's weaselly phrasing whenever he wants to voice a really ugly view—he's not saying the bad thing, merely noting that a lot of people somewhere are saying it. The Washington Post described this dynamic perfectly in 2016:
Trump frequently couches his most controversial comments this way, which allows him to share a controversial idea, piece of tabloid gossip or conspiracy theory without technically embracing it. If the comment turns out to be popular, Trump will often drop the distancing qualifier—“people think” or “some say.” If the opposite happens, Trump can claim that he never said the thing he is accused of saying, equating it to retweeting someone else’s thoughts on Twitter.
"A lot of people" isn't the only way Trump sources dubious statements—there was the "substantial guy" named Jim who told Trump that "Paris is no longer Paris," and there was that mysterious poll that said Trump was more popular among Republicans than Abraham Lincoln. Trump reads things or hears things, who knows where, and is it his fault that when he repeats these things they turn out to be untrue or hideously racist? Yes, it is. Faulty sourcing, incidentally, runs in the family—earlier this year, Ivanka Trump appeared to have invented a Chinese proverb.
Sometimes when Trump says something untrue, it's clear that he's not trying to deceive, but is rather attempting to make an argument he doesn't understand. Here he is on Fox News explaining why he is not guilty of campaign finance violations:
Michael Cohen [pleaded] guilty to something that's not even a crime… Nobody except for me would be looked at like this. Nobody. What about Congress? The slush fund. Millions and millions of dollars paid out each year. They have a slush fund. Millions. They don't talk about campaign finance anything. Have you ever heard about campaign finance laws? Have they listed that on the campaign finance sheets? No.
Trump is likely referring to a point made by conservative scholar Hans von Spakovsky in a Daily Signal column that was tweeted by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. Von Spakovsky writes that members of Congress often settle harassment claims by secretly paying the alleged victims, and since these payments are evidently not campaign finance violations, neither is Trump's paying off his alleged mistresses on the eve of the 2016 election. The merits of that argument aside, Trump's version of it is totally unintelligible. This sort of confusion happens a lot—in November, Trump's comments about forest fires included a weird riff about Finland raking its forest floors. That's what happens when the president is not just an uncurious liar but a buffoon who will run his mouth about all manner of things he doesn't understand.
The 'Real Lie'
The point of all this is that Trump's false statements can be birthed all sorts of different ways. Sometimes he's exaggerating figures on purpose, sometimes he gets things wrong because he doesn't understand what he's talking about, sometimes he's repeating nonsense he's heard from Fox News or his rich friends, sometimes he may be contradicting his previous statements because he honestly forgot them—if telling the truth means you don't have to remember anything, Trump has an awful lot to remember.
But Trump also straight-up lies on occasion, even if it's relatively rare to find a case where he said something he demonstrably knew to be untrue in an effort to deceive someone. Here's one such case: In June 2017, Trump personally dictated a statement about Donald Jr.'s infamous meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign that falsely claimed they “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when in fact the meeting sprung from an offer of "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. Trump's team initially denied he was involved in drafting that statement, but later said that denial was a "mistake" due to "bad information." The statement's falsity can't be blamed on Trump forgetting or garbling facts, and the subsequent false claims about Trump's involvement underscore that the president's communications team was working to deceive the public. It was a lie, in other words.
That meeting, of course, is one of the incidents at the heart of the scandal over Russian interference in the 2016 election, and whether there were subsequent communications between the Trump campaign and the Russian government could determine the fate of the Trump presidency. Trump himself has said "nothing happened after the meeting concluded." And why would he lie?
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