Jurisprudence

Lies Liars Tell Can Still Be Illegal

The lies that come out of Trump World have become the water we all swim in. But they still matter to the law.

Donald Trump speaks in front of some flags.
President Donald Trump speaks at the Pentagon in Washington on Thursday.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

On Thursday evening, BuzzFeed News published an explosive new report suggesting that not only did President Donald Trump direct his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, but that there is substantial documentation to prove it. Faced with the strongest claims we have seen to date that the president has suborned perjury and obstructed justice, Trump’s response was to say that Cohen is a lying liar.

And here is his other attempt to diffuse:

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.

If the BuzzFeed reporting proves true, there is documentary evidence and witness testimony backing up the claim that Trump ordered his lawyer to mislead Congress. In other words, it matters not at all that Cohen is a serial liar. What matters is that if there is proof that Trump told anyone to lie to Congress, Trump has committed the sorts of crimes for which both Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were impeached. It’s no use for Rudy Giuliani—who went on television this week to tell two lies, one about the Trump campaign colluding with Russia and the other about the scope of the illegal conspiracy—to say that Cohen is a liar. But if we know anything at all about how Team Trump will stack up against the justice system, it’s that liars lying about lies can still be illegal.

As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tweeted on Friday morning, if what BuzzFeed is alleging is true, there are serious felony implications for the president. Those include: “criminal obstruction of justice (18 U.S.C. 1505, 1512), subornation of perjury (18 U.S.C. 1622), conspiracy (18 U.S.C. 371) and likely aiding and abetting perjury (18 U.S.C. 2).” In some sense these are all crimes of lying or inducing others to lie. In a way, it is perfectly apt that these are the crimes for which this president may be tagged.

Back in 2016, when we were still trying to acclimate ourselves to the fact that the Republican nominee told repeated, checkable falsehoods, we were warned by Anthony Scaramucci—now of Celebrity Big Brother fame—not to take Donald Trump “literally” but to take him “symbolically.” We were also schooled on “alternative facts” by Kellyanne Conway and later told by Rudy Giuliani that “truth isn’t truth.” The country is still reeling from the erosion of the norm that baldfaced lies are bad. The president still logs multiple demonstrable lies per day. The lie counters are telling us the president has lied 7,645 times during 710 days in office. The public knows the president is untruthful—62 percent of Americans polled believe he is not telling the truth about Russia. But the lies are repeated, even when disproven, and they gain rhetorical force with repetition. We’ve come to take the lying for granted. In a sense, we’ve come to take the lying to be true.

The problem is that Trump’s whole raison d’être is still to persuade the American public that he might not be truthful, but nobody else is truthful either. The sole aim of his repeated lies about the press, the FBI, the courts, and the Mueller probe is that, at best, the public loses faith in all those institutions, and at worst, the public loses faith in everything. That’s the playbook.

One of the reasons the current news cycle is so wearying is that each new revelation no longer feels all that new. “He Lied” no longer feels like enough for a headline. It barely even feels like a revelation. Every new blockbuster seems to be confirming things we knew in 2016 and 2017, though we expend a lot of energy trying to parse what’s different. Often, the only thing that is different is the new lie being told to cover up the old thing we all basically knew. (That’s why Giuliani’s TV performance this week was so astounding. We’ve heard them sing the “there’s actually no such thing as collusion” song before, but defining collusion as only conspiring with Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee? Now that’s kind of new.)

We’ve always known that the entire Trump brand was built on a gossamer castle of fictions: the “I was self-made” bits and the Art of the Deal bits and the master negotiator bits. That was all just words to cover the serial bankruptcies and stiffed contractors. This month, we’ve also learned that the one thing we were sure was a metaphor or symbol—the wall—was in fact the one thing that was a literal promise. The rest, from the size of the inauguration crowd to the policies on family separation, is just words tossed into the wind.

The good news? Nobody is surprised anymore that the president is a liar. The bad news? Nobody is surprised anymore that the president is a liar. So when the headline is that a liar lies, the hard part is determining that this is the lie we don’t just swallow—that this is the lie about which we actually demand a consequence. By that metric, this one is a really big deal.

Maybe the real shift we’re seeing is that those who are ordinarily tasked with defending the president have mostly just stopped trying: The White House deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, on Friday refused to deny that Trump had instructed Cohen to lie. If you can follow this twisty pipe-cleaner logic, I think that means Gidley was content to keep asserting that Cohen was a liar and BuzzFeed was lying rather than deny that Trump would have told him to lie. He’s trying to put a bunch of sand in the gears. Fortunately, it doesn’t cure the underlying fact.

We’ve grown so hopelessly accustomed to a journalism reduced to daily fact checking, and a politics reduced to daily fact checking, and fact checking reduced to daily white noise that we forget that there is more to daily public life than endlessly correcting the record. Reality still exists behind our current mess. Cohen’s congressional testimony may well have been a lie, told by a liar, coached by another liar. But the truth is still knowable, and verifiable—it’s just going to take us a whole lot of manual labor to get everyone there.

For those of us who are trying desperately to quit smoking all the smoking guns, it’s hard to know when a revelation is really a revelation. But if Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress, and Trump’s defense is merely that Cohen lies, that’s still a big fat smoking gun. That’s a smoking gun that implicates separation of powers, and all the lies in the world won’t change that. The truth is still out there, even if it comes in the form of liars telling liars to tell lies.