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(CNN Business) —  

Either you reject the lies, or you accept the lies.

Of all the divides in American life today, this is the divide I keep thinking about. President Trump and his allies lie with reckless abandon. They make dishonest politicians from the past look like amateurs. When they get called out, they lie about the lying. Trump did this on Wednesday after Robert Mueller contradicted several of the president’s fictions about the Mueller Report. When PBS “NewsHour” correspondent Yamiche Alcindor pointed this out to him, citing Mueller’s own words, Trump denied it and insulted Alcindor.

I’m often told that people are “numb” to Trump’s noise and nonsense. But let’s examine this for a minute:

Why is there not more outrage?

Some people, primarily fans of Trump, excuse or rationalize the lies for various reasons. Other people simply cannot. So much of the anti-Trump outrage from progressives and anti-Trump conservatives and columnists and pundits boils down to “He’s deceiving you. He’s lying to your face. Don’t you care?”

And the press is right smack dab in the middle of this because advocating for facts gets you labeled “fake news.” Which is, again, another lie.

Old-fashioned tenets of the news business fade away in this fog of disinformation. For example: “What the president says is news.” I still think that’s true, but when he’s telling you not to believe your own eyes and ears, is it really news?

Mueller’s best moments

Robert Mueller was probably the most-criticized man in America on Wednesday. And I’ll get to that shortly. But I thought his strongest moments as a witness were when he debunked Trump’s claims about Russia, WikiLeaks, the special counsel probe, etc. This CNN banner summed it up perfectly: “Mueller: Trump was not exonerated, Russia’s election attack was no hoax and investigation was no witch hunt.”

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller arrives to testify about his Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election during a House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill.
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller arrives to testify about his Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election during a House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill.
PHOTO: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The hearings also reminded viewers about the remarkable number of Trump associates who were caught making “false statements” to the authorities.

Mueller’s repeated affirmations of reality led NBC’s Jonathan Allen to tweet, “One thing that gets lost because we’ve become so accustomed to it is the number of things the president has said to the public that Mueller has said his investigation found were lies, from hoax to having no business dealings in Russia. Lying to the public used to hurt presidents.”

Rationales for the lies

“Lying to the public used to hurt presidents,” Allen wrote. Well it HAS hurt Trump too – he’s never been able to crack 50% in reliable approval rating polls, and about two thirds of voters describe him as dishonest, which means even some of his supporters know that he’s deceitful, and they accept it.

What are the explanations and excuses for the Pinocchios? I’ve heard many:

– Some Trump supporters say he is speaking to a “larger truth,” even though he’s not getting the smaller facts right. Example: When he tells stories about illegal voting, he’s calling attention to a threat they perceive to be real and looking out for their votes.

– Other Trump supporters openly accept his personality flaws, and sometimes tepidly criticize his worst impulses, in exchange for long-sought-after policy achievements.

– Some backers also say “all politicians lie,” ignoring the fact that Trump’s lies are in a league of their own.

– They also excuse some of his deception as trolling, you know, “owning the libs.”

– And there are two powerful words that make it a lot easier to look the other way: “We’re winning.”

– Academics typically note that the conservative media machine doesn’t do a lot of fact-checking, preferring to promote even the president’s most unhinged statements.

– Influential members of the pro-Trump media dismiss fact-checking as liberal propaganda, further insulating the base.

– Hardcore members of “the resistance” like to say Trump fans are members of a cult.

“Motivated reasoning”

I asked political scientist and Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan about this. “We often struggle to tell why people believe stuff,” he told me candidly. “There’s a lot of research on ‘motivated reasoning’ including my work that finds people apply less scrutiny to information that affirms their priors and more scrutiny to information that contradicts them. Other theories are that people affirm things they know to be false at least to some extent to express their political feelings/affiliations or that doing so is a way to signal your loyalty to a leader.”

Thus, a profoundly important probe into a Russian attack on the US election becomes a “hoax” because the leader says so…

Does the brain adapt?

I also called up Tali Sharot, the director of the Affective Brain Lab and the author of “The Influential Mind.” Along with several colleagues, she looked at how people adapt to lying over time. “When they lie, they have a negative emotional arousal in the mind,” she said, akin to self-punishment. But emotion “really adapts quite quickly.” The more people lie, the less they feel that emotional reaction.

Sharot wonders: As a person lies more egregiously, do the people around them adapt, too? “It kind of becomes a norm,” she suspects. When I brought up Trump, she said, “I think many people get used to the lying and they no longer see it as negative as they did a few years ago.”

Trumpworld even lies about the lies!

This exchange happened outside the W.H. on Tuesday:

Reporter: “The President said that he had been asked by Indian Prime Minister Modi to mediate between India and Pakistan. India says that is not even close to truth. Did the president just make that up, sir?”

Larry Kudlow: “No, the President doesn’t make anything up. That’s a very rude question, in my opinion. I am going to stay out of that. It is outside of my lane.”

The lying should be front and center

Reject the lies or accept the lies. That’s the divide. But there IS a third option: Report. Document all of the deception. That’s what journalists like Daniel Dale, now of CNN, do. He wrote about one of Trump’s falsehoods on Wednesday evening.

But Dale is still the exception. Most media outlets still aren’t putting the lying front and center most of the time. Many news outlets are still wary of using the word. And I get it – not everything is a lie – but many of the president’s tweets and quotes can fairly be described as misleading, manipulative or illogical even when not completely fact-free. A growing number of White House correspondents, broadcasters and columnists are forthright about that. But there’s still a reluctance in some newsrooms to tell that truth. (Look at the recent debate over whether to label his racist tweets racist.) The result: The bar is set far lower for Trump than for other political leaders.

The end of the impeachment debate?

Oliver Darcy writes: When the history books are written, I think Wednesday will likely be remembered as the day that any chance of an impeachment inquiry stemming from the Russia probe was put to bed. Republicans already did not believe Mueller, and there was little chance he could say anything to change their minds. Mueller’s testimony needed to compel Democrats into action, and persuade the minds of Americans who live in the political middle. It didn’t.

Mueller’s report might be damning, but his performance was anything but. His lackluster testimony – during which he often appeared befuddled and confused – actually aided Republicans and Trump allies in aiming to delegitimize Mueller’s findings. Clips of Mueller looking puzzled are already flying around in the right-wing media universe and being hyped by Trump. So while it’s unlikely the testimony will move the needle for Democrats in Congress or people in the center of the country, it will certainly work to harden Trump’s base…

The “optics” debate

All over social media on Wednesday, there were complaints about pundits who were commenting on the “optics” of the hearings. It’s become a meme now.

Chuck Todd came in for particular criticism because he tweeted that Mueller’s answers were substantively newsworthy, “but on optics, this was a disaster.” CJR’s Maria Bustillos responded: “Politics isn’t entertainment, it is not a performance to be critiqued. Reporting on national politics is a public trust of solemn importance that affects hundreds of millions of people.” But here’s the counterargument via Politico’s Jake Sherman: “In scheduling this hearing, Democrats TOLD us it was about optics. Bringing the report to life, they said. They told us very little new would be learned, but having mueller say it would be impactful. House Democrats said it was about optics.”

“Important” without being “exciting”

Brian Lowry writes: During the first session, MSNBC legal analyst Chuck Rosenberg issued what felt like a rebuke to some of his colleagues: “There’s a difference between exciting and important. There are things that are exciting that are not important, and there are things that are important that are not particularly exciting.”

It¹s fair to say many people took Rosenberg’s statement as being directed at Chuck Todd, but it could easily apply to any number of people who were characterizing the testimony as a “disaster” almost as soon as it began, or those getting too carried away with “report is the book; this is the movie” analogy.

Clearly, the audience that has been highly engaged with the Trump presidency has had a bad reaction to the assumptions that today’s hearings needed to bring glitz or showmanship to the narrative. In a way, it all dovetails with the notion that the impact from the day will come less from the hours watched live than the way the individual points and assertions reinforced by the testimony are recycled and spun — a process, admittedly, which will see people receive that information through their customary news bubbles…

Notes and quotes

– “With a six-week August recess looming and the views of most Americans fixed on what is now a two-year-old story line, a lasting shift in public opinion appears unlikely,” the NYT’s Nicholas Fandos wrote.

– Susan Glasser’s recap for The New Yorker: “Concerns about Mueller’s performance are not mere theatre criticism. He was unable to defend his report and its findings beyond referring to the text, over and over again. He needed to explain in clear terms the conclusions he reached and why. He didn’t.”

– “After watching Mueller’s frequently halting, monosyllabic testimony come far short of Democrats’ hopes for a made-for-TV moment that might catapult a case for impeachment, the President’s demeanor shifted from irritation to triumph,” CNN’s Jeremy Diamond reported.

– Rachel Maddow’s message on Wednesday night: “I hope that members of Congress, in particular the leadership in Congress, recognizes that OPEN HEARINGS, open hearings before the cameras, are really important for the country, in terms of dealing with even the most controversial issues.” She added: “I hope these are the first of many.”

Compare and contrast

Trump looked like a fighter when he was seen pacing back and forth and fielding Q’s from the press. He repeatedly said “you’re fake news” and called a questioner “one of the worst.”

One hour later, Nancy Pelosi spoke like a friend while speaking at a press conference. “President Lincoln said public sentiment is everything. Well in order for the public to have the sentiment, the public has to know,” she said. “So I hope you will be messengers of the truth to the public. We think today was really a milestone, in making that sentiment be more informed.”

For another compare and contrast, I tweeted out Trump’s “no obstruction” poster from May and Pelosi’s “no exoneration” poster from Wednesday…

How it was covered on Fox

“There was the potential for the testimony to be especially significant for Fox News Channel viewers,” the AP’s David Bauder wrote, “since the network’s opinion hosts had repeatedly derided Mueller over the course of the investigation and gave Trump frequent opportunities to wrongfully declare the report had cleared him. Unvarnished hearing coverage could give many Trump fans in the audience a chance to hear what they hadn’t before.”

But “the reaction from Fox’s on-air personnel Wednesday: There’s nothing to worry about. Fox’s Chris Wallace, during the first break in the Judiciary Committee hearing, said, ‘This has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.’ The remark was transcribed and quickly tweeted by Trump…”

What Hannity said

Rudy Giuliani started and ended his day on Fox – pre-spinning the hearing on “Fox & Friends” and then taking a victory lap on Sean Hannity’s show.

The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Andrew Kirell noted that several House Republicans grilled Mueller with “Hannity’s questions…” Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” produced a mash-up along the same lines, featuring Devin Nunes…

>> And this was just announced by Fox: Trump will call into Hannity’s show Thursday night. Fox is billing it as an “exclusive interview…”