WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump told America this week that he had no loans from Russia. That Russian intelligence could not possibly have compromising material about him. That no one on his staff had any contacts with the Russians during the presidential campaign.
And after 18 months of listening to him, Americans might be excused if they choose not to believe even a word of it, as the candidate who issued falsehoods at a historic rate will next week find himself the least believed president since Richard Nixon, right from the moment he takes the oath of office.
“You don’t want to be accused of lying,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP communications consultant. “But that doesn’t seem to bother Trump.”
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said voters obviously tolerated Trump’s loose relationship with facts when they went to the polls in November. “Trump comes from a business world where what’s important is: Can you turn a pile of dirt into a tower of steel?”
As to whether and how Trump can win back credibility, the question itself might be irrelevant.
“Politically it may not matter because if people in general like what he’s getting accomplished and notice improvements in their lives, I don’t think people are going to be too worried about the precision of his language,” said Rick Tyler, a former aide to Trump’s last remaining Republican primary rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “As long as things are going great, you know: Tell me lies! Tell me lies!”
And that, says frequent Trump critic Jay Rosen, is precisely the next president’s plan. “Trump is preparing a presidency that optimizes for a low-trust environment,” said Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. “The whole premise of ‘winning back credibility’ is off. He’s prepared to govern without credibility. He seeks to profit from maximizing distrust.”
“You don’t want to be accused of lying. But that doesn’t seem to bother Trump.”
Trump through the years has been notoriously willing to say things that are untrue. During a 2007 deposition in a defamation lawsuit he filed because he was angry that the writer had questioned his claimed net worth, Trump repeatedly made statements that proved to be false. He claimed ownership of properties, for example, in which he was either merely licensing the use of his name or was in line to receive a share of future profits. When confronted by lawyers, Trump then argued that, in fact, not having an ownership interest was smarter because it limited his losses.
A decade and a half earlier, Trump had taken untruth to a new level, calling a gossip columnist to claim a nonexistent sexual relationship with Italian supermodel Carla Bruni while claiming to be his own nonexistent press aide.
The proclivity for falsehoods accompanied Trump into his presidential campaign, as Trump regularly misrepresented facts about ― among many, many other things ― the crime rate, the unemployment rate, the size and strength of the U.S. military, the nature and significance of the balance of trade, Muslims cheering from rooftops on 9/11, self-funding his campaign and the current state of illegal immigration.
In a Republican primary debate in the autumn of 2015, Trump claimed he had no idea where a characterization describing rival Marco Rubio as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator could have come from ― even though the source was his own campaign website. (When confronted on this a few minutes later, Trump responded with 158 words on unrelated topics that failed to address the question.)
Then there was the debate in which Trump claimed a strong relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin because he’d been on the same CBS News broadcast with him: “I got to know him very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes.’ We were stablemates.” Trump later denied knowing him at all. “I don’t know Putin,” he said during the final general election debate 11 months later.
Over the span of just days last year, Trump claimed the NFL had sent him a letter complaining of the fall debate schedule (it had not), that the billionaire Koch brothers had wanted to meet with him (they had not) and that he had seen video of pallets of cash sent by the United States being unloaded in Iran (no such video existed). In the case of the invented Iranian cash video, Trump added embellishments describing where and how it had been shot.
Trump on a number of occasions during the campaign even said that the father of Cruz had been involved in the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, basing his theory on an article in the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid.
Cruz, on the day he lost the Indiana primary that effectively ended his candidacy after months of praising the reality TV star, finally unloaded on Trump. “I’m going to do something I haven’t done before – those of you who follow me around on the campaign trail. I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump,” he said to reporters. “This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory. And he’d pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he’s telling, at that minute he believes it.”
“As long as things are going great, you know: Tell me lies! Tell me lies!”
Trump and his top staff’s casualness with facts has continued after the election and right up through his Wednesday news conference.
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, for example, claimed that Trump had never personally been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials about a privately gathered dossier of his contacts with Russia, including salacious material about Trump’s purported activities with prostitutes in that country. But late Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper essentially confirmed that information about the dossier had been included in his overall briefing last week regarding Russia’s efforts to get Trump elected.
Even in the news conference itself, Trump continued his reliance on falsehoods. He claimed, for instance, that 96 million Americans are looking for full-time work but cannot find it ― or nearly one-third of the nation’s entire population. (The real number is less than 6 million.)
In the end, his misstatements, even if proved intentional, may not matter. The election is over, and the next one is four years away.
What’s more, Republican consultants agreed, enough voters in enough key states decided that Trump’s promise to improve their lives was more important than his personal qualities, including his willingness to dispense untruths.
“The tolerance for ambiguity is a function of whether people are satisfied or dissatisfied with the leadership,” said Tyler, the former Cruz aide.
And if voters do not see improvement in their lives and wind up dissatisfied?
That’s where American’s lack of trust in their new president could prove devastating. A president like Barack Obama, whose personal integrity and honesty were among his strongest features, was able to weather bad times because voters were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, Fleischer said.
Trump will not have that to fall back upon should the economy worsen instead of, as he has promised, take off.
“If he says things that are not accurate and things haven’t turned around,” Fleischer said, “then the double whammy can set in.”
“He’s got a six-month period,” Mackowiak predicted. “He’s either going to be a real success, or he’s going to have real problems.”