Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Anyone who doubted that the 2020 election will be a choice between a politician who believes in facts and an incumbent who traffics in distortions now knows the truth – at least about one of the 2020 candidates.
President Donald Trump will not pivot toward the truth. Why? Because Trump has not and will not change, nor will his deceptive style of leadership.
For proof, consider that as he was about to fly to his summit in Vietnam with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump falsely declared that his daughter Ivanka had “created millions of jobs” and tweeted the lie that former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “got thrown out” of the Senate.
As if to prove they belong on the Trump team, both his secretary of state and press secretary offered up separate but equally misleading responses to serious questions this week.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, now in Vietnam with Trump, denied that Trump had said, “There’s no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” Responding to CNN’s Jake Tapper, Pompeo declared, “That’s not what he said.” It was exactly what Trump said on Twitter, but this fact was uncomfortable for Pompeo because he knew that statement to be false.
And so, Pompeo offered the following response: “… what he said was that the efforts that had been made in Singapore, this commitment that Chairman Kim, may have substantially taken down the risk to the American people. It’s the mission of the secretary of state and the President of the United States to keep the American people secure. We’re aimed to achieve that.”
The problem is Trump never used that turn of phrase, and as Pompeo’s verbal gymnastics showed, there’s no coherent argument to be made to counter the President’s Twitter feed. However, that a previously well-respected public servant would be reduced to making misleading claims to protect his President is reflective of the dangerous state of our political affairs.
Of course, it’s become routine for the President’s team to refute allegations, even when they can offer no concrete evidence or competing set of facts to the contrary.
Take press secretary Sarah Sanders’ categorical response to a new lawsuit alleging Trump forcefully kissed Alva Johnson, a former campaign aide. Given the President’s remarks on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape and the numerous allegations of sexual harassment already against him (all of them he denies), a reasonable person would proceed with caution. Sanders simply said, “This never happened” and that the claim could be refuted by multiple witnesses. However, she did not name those witnesses, leaving us to wonder who they are and if they would ever come forward.
Like Pompeo, Sanders displayed true Trump style, arguing boldly for something she cannot be certain is true, and in the process made herself seem less credible. This is nothing new for Sanders, whose tenure has earned her wide criticism, including a recent headline in the Guardian referring to her as the “liar-in-chief.” But still, the audacity of her response suggests that on the road to 2020, the Trump team will go to great lengths to keep the President in office.
As an enabler of the President, Sanders seems to have been drawn into his method – but she is not Trump’s equal. In his distortions, Trump is automatic, wide ranging and perfectly comfortable exploiting nearly anyone in the service of a useful claim.
The claim of all those jobs supposedly created by his daughter offers a case in point. Though last summer Ivanka Trump was appointed co-chair of the National Council for the American Worker – which asks US companies to commit to hiring US workers – it is untrue she has actually created millions of new jobs from that effort. At best, she has secured pledges to do so from leading companies. For her father to then attribute job creation to his daughter, and invite more scrutiny of a sore subject, is not only deceptive – it’s cruel.
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Ivanka Trump is likely unfazed. She has lived with her father’s propensity for misdirection all her life. However, America is just getting accustomed to the Trump method. For centuries, the country has been led by men who, despite partisan leanings, generally adhered to facts. This meant that we gave them the benefit of the doubt, and since Trump assumed the same high position, we felt the desire to give it to him, too.
Having refused at every turn to be a real-world president, the sober-minded – former economic adviser Gary Cohn, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – have fled his administration, leaving behind only Trump’s enablers.
Trump and those who remain around him, by consistently distorting the truth, are making the 2020 choice easy. Stick with Trump and his lies, or reject them in favor of someone who believes that facts must come first.