Donald Trump has learned he can get away with anything.
While the President has always profited from creating his own reality, the impact of having a commander in chief who so frequently bends fact is only beginning to be understood.
On Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper whether she thinks the President’s job included lying to the American people and whether his distortions created a credibility crisis for his White House.
“No, I don’t,” she told Tapper.
Before Trump, the idea of having a President who habitually fails to tell the truth and survives would have been unthinkable. But it’s becoming clear that Trump’s tenure is not just a lesson in fractured presidential convention. It amounts to a unique challenge to the office of the presidency itself, to the institutions that underpin American democracy and the long-held idea that government can only function effectively if it has the trust of the governed.
The most shocking aspect of the President’s latest flurry of untruths in recent days relating to events before the 2016 election is that they were not at all shocking to a nation numbed by his barrage of easily disprovable claims and statements.
Revelations that Trump dictated a doctor’s report on his health before voters went to the polls and his ever-shifting story on a hush payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels might have been a debilitating blow to any normal politician.
In Trump’s case, they were simply more of the same flurry of daily controversies that characterize his presidency. While his critics reacted with outrage, his supporters saw media fact checks as just more “fake news.”
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whose criticisms Trump has previously rejected, compared the President’s method to the “moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts” described by George Orwell in his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.
“Up is down, black is white, war is peace,” Clapper recently said on CNN. “What disturbs me is this is becoming normal in this country. The people just accept the fact that the place to look for truth is not the White House.”
Trump’s strategy of prevarication is about to face its biggest test.
The looming midterm elections offer voters their first chance to judge his conduct since his earth-shaking capture of the presidency.
While there’s no evidence that Trump broke the law before the election or since, his thickening legal challenges will show whether the evasions and shifting stories that helped him reinvent politics can withstand the more rigid codes of the rule of law and the will of the voters over time.
Some Trump critics believe there is more going on here than a President who lies to just to get out of trouble.
Michael Hayden, a former CIA and National Security Agency director under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, argues in a new book that the ideals of America itself are threatened by such behavior.
Hayden, a CNN commentator, points out that Trump’s biggest clashes have been with power centers that have the evidence-based pursuit of truth and fact as part of their mandate – like the intelligence agencies, judicial authorities, news organizations and scientists.
He writes in “The Assault on Intelligence” that the American experiment depends on a Jeffersonian vision of truth based on objective reality.
“What becomes of the legitimacy of that vision – the legitimacy of that experiment – in a world that has redefined or is simply indifferent to truth? And are we about to find out?”
It’s not difficult to see why the President might conclude that willingness to shade the truth is a useful weapon – its effectiveness was reconfirmed as recently as last week.
CNN revealed that a statement from his doctor giving a hyperbolic assessment of his health was actually dictated by Trump himself.
“If elected, Mr Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” the doctor, Harold Bornstein, had written.
Though the revelation confirmed the suspicions of many at the time – it was a classic Trump line, improbable in its audacity, yet unsurprising because it came from a man who often acted as his own spokesman to generate tabloid interest during the 1980s.
And, of course, at the time of the dictated letter, Trump was lashing his opponent Hillary Clinton as lacking the “mental and physical stamina” to take on ISIS.
But though it was embarrassing when the origins were exposed, no one can say it didn’t work: By falsifying a report on his health, the oldest man elected President for a first term had defused a nettlesome political problem.
It was also a lesson that behavior that would have felled any other candidate did not harm Trump as he evaded accountability.
For instance, his lawyer Michael Cohen paid off Daniels while he was simultaneously lambasting Clinton as bad for women over her treatment of accusers who claimed affairs or sexual misconduct by her husband.
Crowd size, illegal voting and more
By now, it’s clear that rather than harming him, Trump’s rejection of provable facts embraced by elites actually enhances his political brand.
So, he’s lied about the size of his inaugural crowds, the reason he lost the popular vote, the scale of his tax cut, the Iran nuclear deal, how much the US spent in the Middle East and the level of historic accomplishment compared to other first-year presidents.
“The President learned during the campaign that he could do this and be rewarded for it,” David Priess, a former CIA officer and CNN political commentator, told CNN’s Erica Hill this week. “He did not take a hit for anything that was discovered about not telling the truth to the American people or holding back things like tax returns, like medical records.”
“The lesson he clearly learned was, ‘I don’t have to do it and there will not be a price to pay that matters enough to me.’ “
Trump is so far unique because of the volume of fabrications he has gotten away with, unlike predecessors who told untruths less frequently yet paid a bigger price.
President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath. President George H.W. Bush was relegated to a single term for going back on a pledge not to raise taxes. President Barack Obama’s promise that “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor,” haunted him for years.
Trump, who according to The Washington Post Fact Check has so far lied more than 3,000 times as President, is possibly proving that peddling untruths on an industrial scale is how to avoid a blowback.
Denying words from his own mouth
Trump’s capacity to completely disregard fact, logic and truth was on display Friday when he sparred with reporters on the tarmac alongside Air Force One.
The President was asked why the latest version of his story about a hush payment made to Daniels weeks before the election appeared to indicate that he had lied when he told reporters on Air Force One last month that he didn’t know about it.
“You take a look at what I said. You go back and take a look – you’ll see what I said,” Trump told them.
When the reporter pointed out that Trump had said “no” when she asked him whether he knew about the payment, Trump replied: “Excuse me, you got take a look at what we said.”
It was a typically unreal moment in a presidency that has often shattered norms of logic and convention – here was Trump openly denying words that had come out of his own mouth.
He knew before we did
Existing in Trump’s world or shifting truth can be a tough for his aides, many of whom see their own reputations tarnished.
Former White House spokesman Sean Spicer never recovered from the absurd drama that ensued when Trump sent him out to proclaim the inaugural crowds the biggest ever on the second day of his presidency.
Trump aides are forced into rhetorical gymnastics or ridiculous evasions to try to keep straight with their boss and their own integrity intact.
Conway coined the notorious term “alternative facts.”
Trump’s second press secretary, Sarah Sanders, has seen her effectiveness compromised because she apparently can’t get a straight story from her boss.
“I gave you the best information that I had and I’m going to continue to do my best to do that every single day,” was her tortured response Thursday when asked about the changing Daniels story.
A shrugging reaction to Trump’s untruths last week might have been predictable.
Trump observed way back in January 2016 in Iowa that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
As far as his hugely loyal base is concerned that statement remains true. Though Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any new president, his polling floor rarely moves below the high 30s in percentage terms.
Trump supporters often view fact-checking of their President and journalists who point out his falsehoods as symptomatic of a media that they see as irretrievably biased against Trump. Everyone knew that Trump had a truth problem when he was a candidate – it’s a character flaw that seems to be discounted by those who like him. In 2016 exit polls, only 33% of voters viewed Trump as honest and trustworthy – but he still won.
Political analysts have long tried to identify moments – like the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape during the campaign – when Trump’s trouble with the truth would catch up with him. But they’ve always been wrong.
Still, Trump’s unpopularity and doubts about his honesty are factoring into the poor political environment Republicans are facing in the November midterm elections.
While Trump has been almost obsessive about nurturing his base as President, he needed more than his loyalists to win election and will need to expand his coalition to spare Republicans a rout in 2018 and to keep his job in 2020.
There have also been subtle warning signs in recent days that Trump could ultimately pay a price for his words.
The shifting explanations of the Daniels payment come in the context of the raid targeting Trump’s personal lawyer Cohen last month.
It is a reminder that while Trump’s strategy of debunking provable facts can work in a political context, it could lead him into dangerous legal territory.
The President’s habit of trying to shape his own reality and haziness with the truth is one reason why his lawyers are adamant that offering an interview to special counsel Robert Mueller could be disastrous.
There could also come a point – a major international or domestic crisis – when he needs Americans to take his word.
As the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, hardly an example of the anti-Trump media, put it Friday: “Mr. Trump should worry that Americans will stop believing anything he says.”
This story has been updated.