A conversation on Fox News Wednesday between Trump flunky Sean Hannity and Trump flunky Rudolph Giuliani broke news unexpectedly when Giuliani let slip that Donald Trump had repaid his attorney Michael Cohen for the $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says she had an affair with Trump and is now suing the president for defamation. Less than a month ago, Trump said he didn't know about the payment, so the admission by Giuliani, a recently hired member of the president's legal team, seemed to indicate the president is lying.
In a subsequent interview with the Washington Post, Giuliani claimed that the repayments were made over time as part of Cohen's regular retainer fees, but it's unclear how Trump could have paid Cohen back without knowing what the repayments were for. (In a series of oddly formal tweets, Trump himself confirmed Giuliani's description of the arrangement.) Additionally, Giuliani seemed to imply on Fox & Friends that the Daniels payoff in October 2016 was meant to stop news of the alleged affair from appearing in the final days of the campaign—which would make that payment, really a loan from Cohen to Trump, arguably a campaign finance violation.
This is a convoluted story even by the standards of the Trump Cinematic Universe—complicated by the fact that no one except Giuliani and maybe Trump knew that Giuliani would make these disclosures. But the upshot is that it appears Trump and some of the angry tristate types he surrounds himself with have misled the public about what the president knew and when about Cohen's handling of Daniels. To which a reasonable person might reply: Yeah, no shit.
Uncovering evidence of dishonesty on behalf of the president would normally be shocking, except in Trump's case dishonesty is a core part of his brand. Anyone who knew him when he came up in the New York real estate scene was aware he lied about things big and small, or as he termed it in The Art of the Deal, "truthful hyperbole." In the 80s, he impersonated a PR flack to lie about his net worth and get on the Forbes list of the richest people in America. He routinely made up stuff on the campaign trail and hasn't quit that habit during the presidency: In March, he claimed at a rally that he told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the US had a trade deficit with Canada even though he didn't know if that was true (it wasn't)—but he might have been lying to the crowd about that conversation. With Trump, you can't be certain of anything.
"If Trump said, 'Good morning,' you could be pretty sure it was five o’clock in the afternoon," is how New York tabloid veteran Susan Mulcahy put it in a 2016 issue of Politico Magazine.
Just this week another of Trump's alleged fibs was revealed when his former doctor, Harold Bornstein, told CNN that Trump had dictated a letter released by Bornstein during the campaign that described Trump's health in over-the-top terms ("If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency"). In other words, Trump was accusing Hillary Clinton of hiding health problems at the same time he was allegedly inventing a note from his own doctor.
If there wasn't a whole lot of outrage over Trump's doctor's note, that's likely because even the most ardent anti-Trumpers have outrage fatigue these days. Brazen lying of the sort rarely seen in Washington, DC, is routine in Trump's administration. EPA head Scott Pruitt said he never met with the lobbyist whose wife was renting Pruitt a condo, which was untrue. Jared Kushner repeatedly left off dozens of foreign contacts on his disclosure forms, an unprecedented number of "mistakes." Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn got fired for lying to Vice President Michael Pence and the FBI about a conversation with the Russian ambassador. (Trump later reportedly regretted the firing.) Donald Trump, Jr. released a misleading statement, reportedly after coaching from his dad, about a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign.
Trump's spokespeople have lied from the White House podium, his cabinet nominees have lied to Congress during confirmation hearings, and most of all, Trump has lied from Twitter. To take the most recent example: On Thursday, Trump tweeted that "the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail"—but only one of those hostages was detained before Trump took office.
Anyone involved in politics has probably shaded the truth, dissembled, or made misleading equivocations. But Trumpian lies are more brazen, more aggressive, more filled with chutzpah. And there's no reason for them to abate anytime soon—most Republicans in Congress and the pro-Trump media, particularly Fox News, will defend the administration no matter how absurd things get, and Trump's allies have for years denounced anyone alleging wrongdoing as being part of a fake news industrial complex. There's no referee remaining in American politics, no trusted nonpartisan institution that Republicans and Democrats both trust. Lying over and over again has no consequences, so why bother to tell the truth?
As far as presidential lies go, the Daniels affair is pretty low-stakes. The Cohen payoff may constitute a campaign finance violation, but Trump faces much more serious allegations. Why did he fire the FBI director? What was the upshot of all of the Trump campaign's connections to Russia? How involved is Trump in his business? We may find out the truth behind these questions one day, but it won't come from Trump.
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