On Tuesday, White House communications director Hope Hicks did what for the Trump White House was extraordinary, if not unprecedented: She admitted to lawmakers that working for President Donald Trump required her to lie.
On Wednesday, she announced her resignation.
There was no connection made between those two events by Hicks or by the president in announcing her departure, which was characterized as entirely voluntary and under consideration for some time. Yet, whether the two events were connected or not, Hicks had done something that is incompatible with serving in this administration: She told the truth about the lies.
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Trump has been racking up whoppers faster than Norwegians won Olympic medals. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker team, which has had to staff up to keep pace with the prodigious presidential output, clocks him averaging nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day. Those around him, in turn, are forced to lie as they repeat the president’s untruths, or to justify his falsehoods. There are lies, damned lies – and then there is the Trump administration.
Perhaps inadvertently, Hicks drew attention to this when the 29-year-old former model and fashion adviser to Ivanka Trump, who had no experience in politics before joining the Trump campaign, spoke about lying for Trump. To be sure, Hicks admitted only to telling “white lies,” as the New York Times put it, and “after extended consultation with her lawyers” she asserted that she had not lied about the Russia probe.
Still, this is a considerable admission, for when you are the communications director for the president of the United States, your white lies are rather more consequential than the usual white lies of the “yes, I’m listening,” “you look great” and “I was stuck in traffic” variety.
What’s important is Hicks recognized she was lying.
It’s exceedingly rare for an official in the Trump White House to admit to making a false statement, and even then it is almost always blamed on incomplete information. To admit to lying – that is, knowing the truth but saying the opposite – means Hicks knew the difference between fact and fiction.
The president, I’m convinced, doesn’t see such a distinction. He believes what he is saying in the moment – whatever it is – even if it is easily disproved or contradicts what he has said previously. Hence, he isn’t necessarily “lying.” He just may not know truth from fiction – which is hardly reassuring.
This is how Trump can say, with apparent sincerity, that a record number of people attended his inauguration, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because of fraud, that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, that the tax cuts would cost him a fortune, that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey, that there are 30 million immigrants in the United States illegally, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.
But if the president is confused about reality, that can’t be true of all the people around him and supporting him who surely know better but are moved to falsify.
Lying spreads like influenza among those in Trump’s orbit. Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Rick Gates pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Alex van der Zwaan pleaded guilty to lying about his communications with Gates. Paul Manafort has been indicted over alleged lies to banks. Jared Kushner couldn’t get a security clearance after repeated failures of disclosure.
Then we have the likes of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, joining with Trump in a feedback loop of falsehood. “'School shooting survivor says he quit @CNN Town Hall after refusing scripted question,’” Trump tweeted last week after hearing this allegation on Carlson’s Fox News show. “… Just like so much of CNN, Fake News.”
But the question wasn’t scripted. The survivor’s father, Glenn Haab, has now admitted he doctored an email from CNN to make it look that way. CNN had said the allegation was bogus last week, but Carlson – and Trump – didn’t much care what the truth was as they amplified the false charge.
That’s why, under the category of baby steps, the admission by Hicks that she was lying for Trump was heartening. She knew that there was such a thing as truth, and that she was not telling it.
And, just like that, she’s gone.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.