By almost any measure, this was a disastrous week for President Donald Trump.
What went wrong for the president? On Monday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign “coordinated” with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. By Wednesday, CNN reported that associates of Trump “communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Then, Trump suffered a major political and legislative setback on Thursday when leaders of the House, worried they didn’t have enough support, decided to delay a vote on the healthcare bill that Trump has endorsed. To get enough votes, the president needed to convince members of his own party to support it, but both conservative and moderate-leaning wings of the GOP refused to get behind it. Thursday night, Trump resorted to what some might see as political bullying, telling House Republicans they had to hold the vote on Friday, and if the bill fails, they’re stuck with Obamacare for good.
For a candidate, who promised voters that “we’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning,” this can’t be what he had in mind.
What went well for the president? Amidst all of this not winning, Trump and his team are actually achieving a lot of success in one area: making the press, and therefore the public, work really hard at keeping track of what’s true and what’s bogus.
So far, their hard work is paying off: Trump’s slanderous accusations and wild claims are being debunked, fact-checked and refuted right and left. But that effort is taking up energy, time and resources — in newsrooms, on Capitol Hill and in people’s brains. It’s exhausting, and there are opportunity costs for all of us.
Take the Comey hearing as an example. In a stunning moment of U.S. history, the director of the FBI told the American public that there is an ongoing counterintelligence investigation looking into whether the president’s campaign coordinated with a foreign government’s interference in the election.
But the hearing couldn’t focus on this bombshell alone. In addition to Republican members steering the conversation toward the problem of leakers, the committee also had to deal with Trump’s evidence-free claim, which he issued in a series of tweets, that President Barack Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped” during the campaign. Both the chairman and the ranking member addressed the issue in their opening statements. And in a line that we may be hearing again (and again), Comey said, “I have no information that supports those tweets.”
Since Trump first tweeted his baseless charge on March 4, members of Congress have had to respond to it, reporters have had to write about, and behind the scenes, the Justice Department has had to figure out how on earth it was going to deal with it. At the end of all of this scrambling, nothing has changed: It’s still not true.
But, it’s taken so much effort to arrive back at the very place where we started: a baseline grasp of reality. Whether it’s eating up valuable minutes of a congressional hearing, when oversight of real wrongdoing should be taking place, or forcing journalists to run it down versus working on another story, there are real costs to Trump’s circuitry of lies.
Of course, he’s not alone. Other members of his administration are misleading, obfuscating, and sometimes straight-up lying, also provoking an exhaustive and needless effort just to keep them on the level.
Reporters have had to work like mad this week to keep White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer honest just about the role Paul Manafort played on Trump’s campaign team.
Trump hired Manafort in March of 2016 to run his campaign. He worked for the campaign, unpaid, until he resigned in August. And why did he have to leave the campaign? Because his lobbying work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs came under intense scrutiny. After he resigned, Manafort, who owns an apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan, has maintained a very low public profile, but he is in the hot seat once again. This week the AP reported that beginning in 2005, Manafort made at least $10 million working to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.” Agents working for the Treasury Department are also scrutinizing Manafort’s possible transactions in Cyprus, a country whose banks have a reputation for laundering Russian billionaires’ money, the AP reported Thursday.
Faced with these reports, Spicer tried every which way to obscure the fact that Manafort played a central role in the campaign during a critical time that included the Republican National Convention in July. Meanwhile, reporters struggled to keep this basic truth front and center during the week’s press briefings.
On Wednesday, after a reporter described Manafort’s position on the campaign as “important and prominent,” Spicer said he was hired “to count delegates.”
The reporter refuted this description saying, “He was chairman of the campaign.” To which Spicer said, “No, no. After what, May 19 or something.”
The next day, Spicer reduced Manafort’s role to: “a gentleman who was employed by someone for five months.”
Of course, Spicer set the tone initially as press secretary for the new administration by telling a giant, easily refutable lie. He angrily took the podium the day after Trump’s inauguration to tell reporters that it had been the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
Since then, he’s continued to tell big and little lies. Sometimes, he even reinvents the very definition of words, creating brand new “#Spicerisms.”
After Trump described efforts to deport undocumented immigrants from the US as “a military operation,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly had to set the record straight and tell the public that, in fact, the military was not being used in deportations.
Rather than admit the president misspoke, Spicer tried to create a new understanding for how that phrase can be used, saying, “The president was using that as an adjective. It’s happening with precision and in a manner in which it’s being done very, very clearly … and in a flawless manner.”
In a separate, mind-bending case, on March 8, Spicer told reporters, definitively, “There is no reason to believe that the president is the target of any investigation,, whatsoever.”
But when it was revealed that the Justice Department had given the White House no such assurance, Spicer refused to admit he’d overstated the White House’s confidence and instead chose to redefine what “no reason to believe” means. Here’s just a snippet of his exchange with CBS’s Margaret Brennan when she challenged him on his changing statements:
QUESTION: The Justice Department is saying, though, that they never gave you the assurances that you gave us.
SPICER: OK. No, the assurance I gave you, Margaret, was that I’m not aware and that is 100 percent accurate.
QUESTION: So when you said “no reason to believe,” it was “I’m not aware there’s an investigation…”
SPICER: …That’s right. Right, I mean I don’t know that they’re not interchangeable. I’m not aware, I don’t believe. Look it up in a thesaurus and find some other ways, but I don’t know that there’s a distinction there that’s noteworthy. But we’re not aware, I don’t believe that that exists.
The latest in this topsy-turvy world where words don’t mean what they used to is the idea put forward that because Trump put “wire tapping” and “wire tapped” in quotes, the president was not actually accusing Obama of wiretapping him, but of conducting any kind of surveillance. This was a thinly veiled attempt at weaseling out of the original absurd accusation. But it ignores Trump’s tweet that said, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process.”
Trump asserted this seemingly made-up rule of grammar just this week in an interview with Time Magazine. “When I said wiretapping, it was in quotes,” he said. “Because wiretapping is, you know today it is different than wiretapping. It is just a good description. But wiretapping was in quotes.”
Trump was being interviewed by Time for its cover story, “Can President Trump Handle the Truth?” It was just one of several articles this week that focused on Trump, the liar.
Writing for the New York Times, David Leonhardt offered a stunning, but partial, list of the things Trump has lied about:
“among many other things — Obama’s birthplace, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Sept. 11, the Iraq War, ISIS, NATO, military veterans, Mexican immigrants, Muslim immigrants, anti-Semitic attacks, the unemployment rate, the murder rate, the Electoral College, voter fraud and his groping of women.”
And the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board did not hold back either. On Trump’s wiretapping claim, the newspaper wrote, “The President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims.”
These pieces show that while clearly Trump’s lies have costs for all of us, even Trump can’t escape the damage he’s doing. As I noted at the outset, this week has been mostly a disaster for him. Neil Gorsuch, his nominee for the Supreme Court, had a largely successful week of Senate hearings, but that news has been drowned out by the FBI’s Russia investigation, the healthcare bill debacle and the wiretapping claim that will not die. He has painfully low approval ratings, and now, his legislative agenda is in question.
Still, his disconnection from the truth continues apace and, as The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote in his piece, “How to Build an Autocracy,” “It’s hard work to ascertain what is true.”
This is one thing that Trump has in common with Putin, Masha Gessen wrote back in December. “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.”
This means that in Trump world, you have to run just to stand still to understand what is true and what is not. They say the truth eventually catches up with you, but at this point it’s still a race to see how long the public and dogged reporters will have the energy to keep up at this pace.