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The raging controversy over whether to call Trump’s lies “lies,” explained

It’s not the word you use that matters — it’s whether you extend him the benefit of the doubt.

Rev. Billy Graham Lies In Repose In U.S. Capitol Rotunda Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a liar. Not just in the sense that we are all fallible human beings who probably say things that aren’t true sometimes — he has made flagrant disregard for the truth a hallmark of his approach to business and politics.

He wrote about his strategic use of dishonesty in The Art of The Deal. He admitted to routinely lying about important matters in a sworn deposition. And of course it’s obvious to anyone who’s followed his political career that he has continued to exhibit a flagrant disregard for the truth as he pivoted from real estate developer to celebrity brand licenser to president. A core belief of his is that lying is a good way to get ahead, which is why he lies so much.

In addition to being a liar, Trump is unusually ill-informed about public policy for a president, so he plausibly says some things that aren't true out of genuine lack of knowledge. This leads to a natural caution on the part of some journalists who cover the White House about calling a lie a lie, with phrases like “demonstrable falsehood” instead.

Even in a news analysis piece about Trump’s strategic promotion of conspiracy theories, the New York Times euphemistically referred to “unconfirmed accusations” rather than baseless conspiracy theories.

This preference for euphemism over straightforward language is silly, so it’s attracted considerable social media criticism. New York Times journalists, meanwhile, are fiercely loyal to one another in public. The institution is congenitally unwilling to accept any form of criticism. And so Times reporters have responded as they often do, not by engaging on the substance of the criticism but by questioning the critics’ motives.

The good news is that euphemisms are not nearly so harmful as their critics fear. The thing that Trump does is lie, and whether we call the lies “lies” or “demonstrable falsehoods” is ultimately not that important either politically or journalistically.

The bad news is the fact that Donald Trump is a liar remains incredibly important and yet poorly integrated into ongoing coverage of his administration. Every politician I can think of has, at some point, said something that isn’t true. But almost all of them seem to mostly adhere to at least defensible interpretations of the facts. They do so to avoid obtaining a reputation for dishonesty, in part because they fear that obtaining a reputation for dishonesty would hurt their future efforts at communication.

Trump, thus far, has avoided this penalty. He says untrue things. The falseness of his statements is revealed and reported on. And then his future pronouncements are nonetheless treated as deserving the same presumption of truth that we grant to normal people.

That’s a big mistake. Presidents naturally end up making representations about things where the facts are not fully knowable to the public. When Trump does that, we need, as a country, to remember that our president is a huge liar.

Donald Trump’s love of lying, explained

Generally speaking, for a statement to be a lie, it needs to be false and it needs to be something that the speaker knows to be false. That distinguishes it from a wide range of other kinds of false statements that people make:

  • “The Cavaliers have a shot against the Warriors in this year’s NBA finals” is false, but the sentiment is probably wishful thinking rather than a deliberate effort to mislead.
  • “Michael Jordan was a better basketball player than LeBron James” is ridiculous and flies in the face of the evidence, but appears to be sincerely believed in good faith by a large number of people whose minds have been ravaged by nostalgia.
  • “Michael Jordan won the most championships of any player in NBA history” is not just provably false (he’s in a four-way tie for 10th) but is a piece of misinformation a casual basketball fan might have picked up from overhearing arguments about how Jordan’s six championships (to just three for James) make him the greater player.

This last one is a “demonstrable falsehood,” though to know whether or not it’s a lie, you would have to know, subjectively, what the person saying it knows. Since this is impossible in most cases, it serves as an argument for journalists to avoid the ascription of knowledge and intent inherent in the word “lie.”

But while this is true on a case-by-case basis, we really can know that Trump lies deliberately because he says so himself.

“A little hyperbole never hurts,” Trump writes in his first book, The Art of the Deal. ”People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”

It’s a theme he returns to in his most recent book, Crippled America, where he asks, “When was the last time you saw a sign hanging outside a pizzeria claiming ‘The fourth best pizza in the world?”

Beyond simple hyperbole, The Art of the Deal also explains in some detail a fraud Trump ran in 1982 to get the Holiday Inn corporation to go in as his partner on his first Atlantic City casino. Before the board would approve the deal, they wanted to see the site. Trump was worried he’d get turned down because so little progress had been made, so he asked his construction crew to round up “every bulldozer and dump truck he could possibly find” and literally pretend to work for as long as the board was on site:

I wanted him to transform my two acres of nearly vacant property into the most active construction site in the history of the world. What the bulldozers and dump trucks did wasn’t important, I said, so long as they did a lot of it. If they got some actual work accomplished, all the better, but if necessary he should have the bulldozers dig up dirt from one side of the site and dump it on the other.

In Trump’s eyes, it worked. “The board walked away from the site absolutely convinced it was the perfect choice,” he writes. “In reality, I wasn’t that far along, but I did everything I could, short of going to work at the site myself, to assure them that my casino was practically finished. My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.”

Trump, in short, lied for personal gain and not only isn’t ashamed of it but actually bragged about it repeatedly in books. During depositions taken as part of a 2007 libel lawsuit against Trump biographer Tim O’Brien, Trump admitted to lying publicly more than 30 times in order to avoid lying under oath and perjuring himself.

In other words, while it’s hard to know the mental state behind any particular untrue thing Trump says, it’s easy to know that Trump is a person who knows the difference between telling the truth and lying. He knows how to tell the truth when it suits him but frequently prefers to lie.

Euphemism is not the issue

These days, the term “ethnic cleansing” is uniformly understood to be a synonym for genocide. But it originated as a euphemism, deliberately deployed by its proponents to try to muddy the waters. Way back in a 1982 article about the early stirrings of ethnic unrest in then-Yugoslavia, the New York Times quoted Becir Hoti, executive secretary of the Communist Party of Kosovo, as saying “The nationalists have a two-point platform: first to establish what they call an ethnically clean Albanian republic and then the merger with Albania to form a greater Albania.’’

The concept was later picked up by Serbian nationalists and circulated widely in the Western press, and since it was associated with horrifying atrocities, has now become a phrase that means horrifying atrocities rather than a euphemism.

By the same token, if we all start calling the thing Trump does “demonstrable falsehoods” or “unconfirmed accusations,” then those phrases will simply start to pick up some of the current condemnatory meaning of “lie.” It would probably be simpler to just cut to the chase and call a lie a lie, but it’s also probably immaterial in the long run.

The important thing about Trump’s habit of lying isn’t that we use the word lie; it’s that we remember that he is a liar the next time he goes and says something. After all, presidents say things all the time that outsiders cannot immediately verify or debunk. Most presidents, through their habit of mostly not lying, earn the right to the benefit of the doubt in such cases. Trump, with his habit of constantly offering demonstrable falsehoods, has earned the opposite.

Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless

The economist and occasional political commentator Daniel Davies once memorably wrote that “fibbers’ forecasts are worthless,” citing it as an example of a simple business school lesson with ample application to politics.

“If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster,” he wrote, “you can’t use their forecasts at all. Not even as a ‘starting point.’”

Trump frequently makes representations about things where it’s simply not possible to immediately know for sure whether he’s telling the truth, typically because they refer to his private plans or activities. As president, for example, Trump has said that he would develop a plan to provide every American with health insurance, that the North Korean government had agreed to denuclearize, that he would promote a “bill of love” to help DREAMers, that he would take on the National Rifle Association to reduce school shootings, and that he would develop a tax plan that rich people would not benefit “at all” from.

None of this was true. Critically, none of it was demonstrably false at the time Trump said it. But equally critically, a reasonable person would have known better than to believe in any of it because Trump lies all the time.

Yet the troubling thing about media coverage of Trump isn’t that the press has failed to label lies as lies once they are proven to be lies. It’s that these kinds of statements continue to be taken at face value when they are made, as if they were offered by a normal, reasonably honest person. But Trump is not a reasonably honest person. He is someone who flings around unconfirmed accusations and demonstrable falsehoods with abandon — and who does so, by his own admission, for calculated strategic purposes.

Nobody can stop him from acting this way if he wants to, but we don’t need to act naive about it. When a hardcore serial liar says something new, treat his claim with the extreme skepticism it deserves.

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