Cherry-picking facts is not uncommon in politics -- but Trump far exceeds the norm
The much-anticipated presidential "pivot" has not happened
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
You’ve got to give Donald Trump points for consistent audacity. When you lie, distort, and make God an accomplice while speaking to the Central Intelligence Agency – where facts are the coin of the realm – you must have absolute confidence in your abilities.
In the first days of his presidency, Trump has shown he will continue to wreak havoc on established facts, even as he ticks items off his political to-do list.
On Monday, he repeated a false claim that millions of illegal ballots cast by undocumented immigrants deprived him of winning the popular vote in November.
The latest false claim, which legislators reported to CNN and other news outlets, has no basis in fact and apparently originated on websites that peddle conspiracy theories.
However, like many of the distortions in which Trump has trafficked, the voter fraud narrative suggests he deserves more credit and acclaim than he has received.
Throughout his life Trump has insisted he is richer than people acknowledge. Now winning the presidency isn’t sufficient. He wants the final score to be adjusted in his favor.
Trump’s complaints and distortions suggest that even as he carries out his duties as President, he will reflexively promote his alternative view of reality.
The day after his inaugural address, Trump – in a speech to the CIA – denied ample photographic evidence, insisting that his swearing in was in fact attended by a crowd that “looked like a million, a million and a half people.”
He then recruited the Almighty to aid the lie, saying heaven had stopped the rain from falling when he spoke – “and then it became really sunny.” It rained throughout.
Coming on his first full day in office, Trump’s 15-minute talk was delivered as he stood before the Wall of Stars that memorializes CIA agents killed in action.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could occupy this spot and speak with so little regard for accuracy and truth. However, this is Donald Trump, and he didn’t get where he is by exercising care, precision and restraint.
Donald Trump became a public figure in New York by promoting himself as a high-achieving real estate mogul – before he’d built a single project.
That first project depended on a lie told to the City of New York, in the form of an unsigned document, and a hyped-up claim made to recruit Hyatt hotels as a partner. It worked.
What followed was a lifetime of little and big falsehoods, some of which involved adopting false identities.
Most involved what Trump calls “truthful hyperbole.” This category would include such items as his claim that he that he was supposed to be aboard a helicopter that crashed, that his wealth was far greater than reported, and that he owned the Empire State Building.
When caught in his deceptions, Trump has generally gone on the attack against those who fact check his claims. In the Empire State Building episode, he didn’t defend himself, but instead went on the offensive, calling the British TV reporter Selina Scott a “third-class journalist.”
Indeed, throughout his life, Trump has deflected criticism with attacks on the press. He made this theme a major element of his election campaign, labeling journalists “slime”, “dishonest” and “disgusting.” He repeated the charge at the CIA last weekend.
Although political craft often includes cherry-picking facts and battles with straw men, Trump far exceeds the norm and has confounded analysts and pundits who try to assess him.
During his campaign, which included many specious claims about his opponents, much was written and said about how he might “pivot” to show he could be presidential. This change never happened and, now that he holds the office, he seems equally disinclined.
Understanding why requires acknowledging both the man’s record and the dynamics that are engaged when people lie and get away with it.
Knowing that character is destiny, parents teach their children to tell the truth, but invariably preschoolers discover that honesty isn’t always required.
Few things are more thrilling in the life of a kindergartner than a whopper that grown-ups find amusing. Later kids discover how to tell more sophisticated lies that are more likely to go undiscovered, and they realize that everyone is capable of practicing deception.
Adolescent adjustment requires that we come to grips with the fact that lying is part of human nature. People tend to rank deceptions according to the harm they cause, or, in some cases, the greater good they may achieve.
Economists and other social scientists have documented the prevalence of lying and shown that people feel more comfortable lying if they think their deceit will help someone worthy.
Fortunately, people who habitually tell really big lies are rare. Neuroscience shows that among frequent deceivers, the discomfort people feel usually when they lie recedes. When researcher Tali Sharot of University College London discussed this with a writer for New York magazine she said: “After a while, the negative value of lying – the negative feeling – is just not there, so much.”
Of course most of us want to be considered trustworthy and we know that all relationships, from the personal to the political, depend on reliable truth telling. The exceptions are those who discover they can get away with distortions, and even profit from them. Those capable of the most sophisticated deceptions are bold, brazen, and may even enlist others in support of the process.
History is replete with examples of lies, told and agreed to, with scandalous results. The crime and coverup that doomed Richard Nixon’s presidency was a florid display of the danger in deception.
The collapse of so-called dot-com companies – including Enron and Worldcom – came when systemic lies unraveled.
In Trump’s life before politics we can see smaller examples, including his insistence that his public relations man claim that ratings for his TV show “The Apprentice” were higher than the facts showed.
During the election he accumulated an abysmal record when it came to truthfulness. The nonpartisan Politifact.com reported that only 16 percent of hundreds of Trump statements it reviewed were better than “half true.” Although he was called out on this practice, he continued doing it to the end of the campaign and beyond. In the process, he enlisted his campaign apparatus in support of whatever he said at his rallies, in interviews, and at debates.
After the election, prominent Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes told public radio talk show host Diane Rhem “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”
Amid the controversy over Trump’s statement at the CIA, his press secretary Sean Spicer used his first appearance before the White House press corps to support the boss’s claims with a lecture riddled with inaccuracies about the inauguration. (He even offered inflated numbers for the local transit system’s ridership.)
Next, Kellyanne Conway explained that as Trump contradicts evidence available to all he was simply offering “alternative facts”.
Conway’s reference to alternative facts, and Spicer’s strange Saturday rant, provoked pointed criticism of the sort that would trouble someone unaccustomed to Trump-style combat against the facts.
When he next met with reporters, whom he must deal with on a regular basis, Spicer tried to make them understand him – in a way that Trump never would.
He said: “The default narrative [of the press] is always negative, and that’s demoralizing. It’s a little demoralizing because when you are sitting there and you are looking out and you are in awe of just how awesome that view is and how many people are there and you turn on the television and you see shots comparing this and that.”
It is easy to empathize with Spicer’s experience, but if he is demoralized it’s mainly because he is part of a team led by a man who has never been satisfied with his real achievements.
When you demand that others reject what they know to be true in favor of a gilded vision that favors your side, you are bound to receive a demoralizing response.