Politics

Donald Trump Is Losing His War on Truth

Voters who don’t care what he’s done with Russia or with Stormy Daniels will care about what he’s doing to America.

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump, and Paul Manafort.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Don Emmert /AFP/Getty Images, and Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Donald Trump and the people around him made a wager: They thought they could beat the truth. They lied their way to wealth and power. For a long time, the bet paid off. But on Tuesday, reality roared back in the form of Paul Manafort’s conviction, Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, and Rep. Duncan Hunter’s indictment.

Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, lied to banks and the government. He stashed millions of dollars in fake corporate accounts overseas. He deceived lenders by fabricating income, and he evaded taxes by hiding wealth. But he couldn’t erase all the records of what he’d done. Nor could he silence his former accountant who knew the truth. On Tuesday, a jury found Manafort guilty of bank fraud and tax fraud.

Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, also lied about his debts and income. He deceived lenders and the IRS. Shortly before the 2016 election, he helped pay off two women to silence their stories about affairs with Trump. But the government got hold of Cohen’s records as well. On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud, and making illegal campaign contributions.

Trump’s allies in Congress are on the run, too. Two weeks ago, Chris Collins, the first congressman to endorse Trump, was indicted for insider trading for allegedly passing a stock tip to his son, who used it to dump massive equity losses on unsuspecting buyers. Then, on Tuesday, Duncan Hunter, the second congressman to endorse Trump, was indicted for allegedly diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to pay for personal expenses. Collins is accused of lying to federal agents; Hunter is accused of falsifying finance reports.

Trump is surrounded by proven liars and alleged liars because, as any cop knows, men of low character are drawn to one another. The liars lie, the crooks cheat, and eventually, if there’s enough investigation, the conspiracy unravels. In October, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to deceiving the FBI about his conversations with Russian intermediaries. In December, former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to agents about back-channel talks with Russia. In February, former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates pleaded guilty to fraud and false testimony. Eventually, it all comes out.

Some of these cases lead directly to Trump. In the past year and a half, we’ve learned that he knew more than he admitted about Flynn’s deceptions. We’ve learned that prior to firing then–FBI Director James Comey, Trump unsuccessfully pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn. And on Tuesday, Cohen directly implicated the president, telling the court that as Trump’s attorney, he had illegally used campaign funds to silence Trump’s sexual accusers “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.

Like a vampire recoiling from daylight, Trump rages at every discovery. He denounced the release of Comey’s memos about Trump’s attempts to corrupt the former FBI director. He sniped at the federal raid that captured Manafort’s records. He excoriated the raid that captured Cohen’s records. On Wednesday, after Manafort’s conviction, Trump attacked the Justice Department on Twitter for prosecuting a “12-year-old tax case.” Trump called the prosecution part of a “witch hunt.”

Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says Cohen’s plea has nothing to do with the president. “As the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time,” Giuliani says. But Trump is part of that pattern. He has already been caught lying about the payments to women, and he’s been caught on tape talking about those payments with Cohen. Court documents released as part of Cohen’s plea indicate that the Trump Organization used fake accounting to cover its role in the payoffs.

Trump’s whole presidency has been a tower of lies: that Mexico would pay for a border wall, that man-made climate change is a hoax, that workers would get the money from corporate tax cuts, that trade wars are easy to win, that North Korea is dismantling its nuclear program. At a rally on Tuesday night, the president lied to West Virginians, telling them that the coal industry was coming back. Trump’s followers love these fantasies. But eventually, truth does to his lies what the ocean does to sandcastles.

Trump’s political success has infuriated and alarmed people who detest him. They can’t believe that so many Americans voted for, and continue to support, such an egregious fraud. His critics worried that his base would ignore most of his fabrications, and they were right. No one is going to punish Trump for falsely claiming, as he did at the West Virginia rally, that Hillary Clinton “said there’s no such thing as manufacturing jobs anymore.”

But Trump’s bigger lies can be falsified, and the falsification hurts. When crop prices plummet, interest rates rise, health insurance premiums go up, coal jobs don’t come back, and shareholders take the tax cuts, Trump voters feel it. The mounting evidence that Trump approved and covered up pre-election payoffs to his accusers is just the beginning of his exposure. Voters who don’t care what he’s done with Russia or with Stormy Daniels will care about what he’s doing to America.

Some people worry that Trump’s presidency, with its propaganda about “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “truth isn’t truth,” has plunged us into a post-truth era. But it’s much more likely that truth will cruelly reassert itself. That’s not because the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. It’s because the amoral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward hope. There’s a fabric of reality out there—evidence, witnesses, meteorology, economics—and you can’t hide it forever. It brought down Cohen and Manafort. It will bring down Trump, too.