Does telling truth matter to Trump?

Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: Trump slams Carson's veracity, but Trump has long history of embellishing, making up stories
  • For example, he denied bankruptcy, said wife was Olympic skier, spread false Obama rumors
  • Does Trump think candidates should tell the truth?

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the new book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Donald Trump declared Sunday that Ben Carson has to "explain a lot of things" about his autobiography, including anecdotes that no else can confirm.

Michael D'Antonio
But in questioning Carson's story, Trump raises an issue that could backfire on him: Should we expect those who would be president to present themselves with honesty and clarity? Do we permit fudging and fabrication, or do we hold them to a higher standard?
Trump's record shows that he is willing to use innuendo and misrepresentation, even as he demands the highest level of accurate disclosure by others. Indeed his own record of public statements is rife with distortions, deceptions and untruths.
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    It begins in 1976 with the strange claim that he is of Swedish, not German, extraction. Trump made this statement to a New York Times reporter who was writing the first profile of him to appear in a major paper. The Swedish thing was fabricated first by his father, who apparently thought that German heritage was a negative in the years after World War II, but there was never any doubt in the family about where the family originated. And yet Trump apparently couldn't resist seizing whatever advantage he thought he might gain with a deception.
    Next came the strange story of his (then) young wife Ivana's trip to Sapporo, Japan, where, he wrote in his book "Trump: The Art of the Deal," she was an alternate on the Czechoslovakian ski team at the Winter Olympics. Ivana doesn't appear in Olympic records because, in fact, Czechoslovakia didn't send anyone to ski in the games. Nevertheless, this "fact" was widely reported and when the subject arose as I interviewed her son Eric, he dutifully confirmed that his mom was an Olympian. No one would fault a son for believing such a story about his mother, but what are we to think about the origins of the fakery?
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    In the 1980s, Trump admitted that he and another executive sometimes made phone calls under the alias "John Baron" as they dealt with the press. It was Baron who claimed that Trump didn't know that scores of undocumented immigrants had worked on his Trump Tower project. The fake spokesman Baron was also deployed to claim ignorance when a brief scandal arose over the destruction of valuable art work at the same site. When he admitted the truth about John Baron, Trump equated it with a writer's use of a pen name.
    In 1991 Trump deployed a new false identity -- John Miller -- to help him deal with the media furor over his relationship with Marla Maples, the "other woman" who later became his second wife. In a recorded phone interview with a People magazine reporter, "Miller," whose voice was later identified as Trump's by Maples and columnist Cindy Adams, declared his engagement with Marla over. "Miller" also noted that "important, beautiful women call him all the time." Among them were, he said, Madonna, Kim Basinger and Carla Bruni. Trump eventually admitted he was John Miller and said he regretted using the fake persona to gossip with journalists.
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    Over the years, Trump has relied on a naughty boy image to get away with his deceptions. The press in New York City tolerated his manipulations because they made for good copy. He made so many outlandish statements and proposals that keeping up with them all was impossible, and his slippery way of talking made sorting things out seem like more trouble than it was worth.
    For example, he insisted that he never went bankrupt, despite going through four major corporate bankruptcies. What he meant was that he never filed for bankruptcy on a personal basis. But this was a distinction without much difference, since what mattered was that he led four companies into bankruptcy court.
    In many cases, journalists have reacted to Trump as if he's an amusing hype artist. When he told assembled television critics that his Celebrity Apprentice was "The No. 1 show on television" they laughed. When Trump said that President Obama's birth certificate could show he was identified as Muslim, TV host Bill O'Reilly said, "You get a lot of attention raising the question, but I don't think you believe it."
    Donald Trump's denials: True or false?
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    Donald Trump's denials: True or false? 02:23
    As the most visible of the so-called "birthers" who have used innuendo to cast doubt on Barack Obama's status as a natural born citizen qualified for office, Trump went to extraordinary lengths to challenge the veracity of the President's biography. In the middle of the birther frenzy, Trump said he had sent people to check out the President's background in Hawaii. "They cannot believe what they're finding," he said.
    Trump never revealed what they allegedly found, nor did he offer proof they had even gone looking. Trump also smeared the President's academic record. "The word is, according to what I've read, that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental [College]. He then gets into Columbia. He then gets to Harvard. ... How do you get into Harvard if you're not a good student?" In fact Obama was such a good student that he was a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law.
    Indeed, unlike Donald Trump's frequent claims that he is the "best" at any number of things, and a reliable "winner," the President's law school diploma, like his birth certificate, are documented, provable matters of public record.
    But there are public records that support matters in Trump's past: The court proceedings detailing Trump's corporate bankruptcies, his grandfather's citizenship papers showing his German birth and his own admissions regarding the fictitious John Miller and John Baron. Well documented, too, were Trump's recent criticisms of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg over immigration, which Trump baldly denied making even though they appeared on a Trump website.
    Before this presidential campaign, Trump usually got away with deceptions and distortions because he was regarded as a mostly-harmless huckster of the P.T. Barnum type. Of course Barnum never sought the White House, and he never devoted himself to a campaign to delegitimize one of its occupants. Trump has engaged in both these endeavors and is now going after opponent Ben Carson on the basis of the holes in his autobiography.
    The suggestion behind Trump's critique is that any man or woman who seeks the presidency is obligated to demonstrate honesty, integrity, and forthrightness. This is a standard he has so far failed to meet himself.