War Stories

For Trump, Lying Is a Reflex

Whether it’s the Mueller report or North Korea, the president twists the truth before he even knows what it is.

Donald Trump winks.
Donald Trump winks during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House on Monday. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s main tactic, when confronted with a challenge, is to lie, about everything, indiscriminately: not so much to obscure the truth (though that’s part of it) as to render the concept of truth irrelevant.

Team Trump’s instant reaction to Attorney General William Barr’s four-page letter summarizing the Mueller report is the most obvious case in point from the past few days. Not only did Trump tout Barr’s conclusion that there was no collusion with the Russian government; he and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, also proclaimed that it “exonerated” him from the charge of obstructing justice, when in fact, the letter explicitly said the report “does not exonerate him” of that charge.

But, also in the past few days, there was another instance of lying—less high-profile but no less illustrative of the general pattern and, in its own way, very damaging to our policies and politics.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department blackballed two Chinese shipping companies for evading sanctions on North Korea. National security adviser John Bolton hailed the measure, imploring the maritime industry to “do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices.”

The next day, Trump tweeted, “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!” In a brief statement, Sanders explained the reversal: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

Many commentators (including me) expressed outrage and befuddlement at this course of events. Then, later that same day, administration officials explained this had all been a misunderstanding. Trump, they said, had canceled “large-scale sanctions” that Treasury was about to impose directly on North Korea. This clarification was noted, without skepticism, in news stories about the sanctions—thereby rendering the stories barely newsworthy. Some critics on Twitter even commended Trump for blocking a provocation instigated by Bolton and other hawks, which could have intensified tensions and possibly led to conflict.

Then, on Tuesday, Bloomberg News, citing “five people familiar with the matter,” reported that this explanation was false—a cover story to make the White House look less messy and Trump seem more in control of policy. It turns out there were no large-scale sanctions in the works. What Trump reversed in his tweet were the previous day’s sanctions against the two Chinese shipping firms—as originally reported.

As of Tuesday afternoon, other news agencies, which recited the phony clarification, have not yet followed Bloomberg’s lead—and it would be surprising if they did, except maybe in a two-inch squib. The whole tale is too complicated and it would require reopening a story that hadn’t been much of a story anyway—but it seemed not to be much of a story only because of the “clarification,” which turns out to be false. So the lie persists, and the picture of an utterly disheveled White House and a chaotic foreign policy emerges a little foggier than it should.

Liars keep lying when they see they pay no penalty—and, more often than not, incur benefits—for lying. The entire Trump-doused Republican Party is leaping in. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it’s “deeply disturbing” that President Barack Obama didn’t do more about Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election while he was still in office—when, in fact, Obama tried to get bipartisan support for taking measures but McConnell refused to cooperate; so Obama, in order to avoid appearances of partisanship, took less action than he should have. Unless McConnell has amnesia, he knows that he’s lying. He doesn’t care. Whatever works.

Ballsier still is the Trump team slapping the liar label on the reporters and news analysts who have been tracking corruption, obstruction, and other malfeasances allegedly—and, in many cases, indisputably—committed by Trump and his entourage. Some of these analysts probably inferred too much from the lines they drew between suspicion and certainty. But many of these malfeasances are as clear as day. For some, we don’t yet know what the Mueller report says because—it bears repeating over and over—Barr’s four-page letter is not a précis of the Mueller report, nor could it be, even if he’d written it with the best intentions (which can’t be assumed). Still other charges, especially those dealing with finances, lie outside Mueller’s purview, which was to examine links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Finally, Mueller was said to be working on two reports, or at least two parts of a report: one on criminal activity, the other on counterintelligence. Barr’s letter seems to deal entirely with the former. Will we ever hear anything about the latter? Will its conclusions vindicate Trump’s Monday morning victory lap?

The main point of Trump’s celebration, and his condemnation of all those who still resist it, is to close off further inquiry, to make it seem that the Barr letter is the end of the story, to make future investigations—the release of the Mueller report itself, any probes by the House committees, any indictments by the Southern District of New York—seem, at most, mere appendages to the “narrative” the Trump White House constructed in the wake of the letter. Whether or not it was Barr’s intent, his letter will now be used as a bludgeon to discredit every criticism of Trump, in every sphere, as fake news and witch hunts. Many people will believe them, and many others will hesitate to disagree.