President Donald Trump called himself “instinctual” this week, but the word he must have been groping for was “untruthful.” He lies incessantly, shamelessly, perhaps even pathologically, and his lying corrodes and dishonors our democracy.
Of course we’ve had presidents who lied – to name a few, Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, Richard Nixon about Watergate, Bill Clinton about Monica Lewinsky. But the key word in these examples is “about.” Other presidents had comprehensible though illegitimate reasons for lying about specific things. Trump often lies for no discernible purpose other than to pump up his own fragile ego.
He even lies about his own lies. In an interview with Time magazine, he made the “instinctual” claim and portrayed himself as a modern-day Nostradamus. “I predicted a lot of things,” he claimed. “Some things that came to you a little bit later. But, you know, we just rolled out a list.”
His list begins with Sweden. At a rally in Florida last month, Trump made an ominous reference to “what’s happening last night in Sweden.” In fact, nothing remarkable had happened in Sweden the previous night; Trump apparently saw a news report about immigration issues there, and must have mistakenly thought he heard a reference to a specific recent event – an honest mistake, for most people.
But Trump can’t admit it was a mistake at all. Two days after his remark, Sweden did see unrest in immigrant neighborhoods. So he counts that as a win, as if he had somehow seen the future.
Trump often uses clairvoyance as a justification for falsehoods. The most vivid recent example – and perhaps the most damaging to the dignity and credibility of the presidency – was the string of tweets that began with this: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
A host of present and former intelligence officials, including FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, state categorically that there is no evidence any such thing took place. Trump initially sent press secretary Sean Spicer out to stand by the claim and demand a congressional investigation. The White House finally admitted that one version of the allegation came from a Fox News legal analyst who was promptly refuted by his own network and pulled off the air.
But on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., dashed to the White House to tell Trump he had learned – from unnamed sources – that there may have been some “incidental” collection of intelligence from members of the Trump transition team. Asked by reporters if this supported Trump’s wiretapping claim, Nunes acknowledged that no, it did not.
Not one of the “facts” Trump claimed was backed up – there is no evidence that President Obama ordered anything, no evidence that Trump Tower was wiretapped, no evidence that any of the “incidental” information was collected “before the victory.” But the president continues to insist he was right, because “a lot of information has just been learned, and a lot of information may be learned over the next coming period of time. We will see what happens.”
Trump offered to Time that same I’m-a-soothsayer defense for his ridiculous claim that millions of people voted fraudulently in the election, thus causing him to lose the popular vote. No election official in any state has reported seeing voter fraud of this magnitude, or in fact of any magnitude. It did not happen.
Except, of course, in Trump’s imagination. “You have tremendous numbers of people” who committed fraud, Trump said. “In fact I’m forming a committee on it. … We’ll see after the committee. I have people (who) say it was more than that.”
Trump also claimed that “I predicted Brexit,” except I can find no record of any such thing. When asked beforehand whether Britain would vote to leave the European Union, he said he didn’t know what would happen. That’s a shrug, not a forecast.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, a conservative bastion, had this to say Tuesday: “If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world? We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.”
The president’s response: “I thought it was a disgrace that they could write that.” But no, Mr. Trump, the disgrace is all yours.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.