Donald Trump is a liar.
Before he became president, Trump lied about everything from his personal wealth to his TV ratings to the number of floors in his condo towers. Once in the White House, he started out lying about the size of his inauguration crowd, and super-sized his lies from there.
So now that Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus, who are we going to trust for information about the state of his health?
For the very near-term, we are triangulating: There are the official pronouncements from Trump and his White House circle, and there are reports from outlets with good access to Trump’s orbits. We can combine the two — and add in what we know about Covid-19 — and get a decent idea of what might actually be happening, for the moment.
Earlier Friday morning, NBC, the New York Times and other outlets reported that Trump was experiencing “mild symptoms” from the disease; shortly after that, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said the same thing, on the record. After Meadows spoke, Trump’s wife Melania tweeted that she had the same symptoms.
But that status — where we’re able to share a common reality, shaped by a combination of official pronouncements melded with independent reporting — won’t last long, if at all.
Part of it is because we haven’t had a common reality for some time now. Americans who follow the news get their news from different sources, which shapes their perception of basic facts. Most Americans don’t follow the news at all, and an alarming number of people get their understanding of the world from the internet, where very sharp armchair experts sit side by side with deranged conspiracy theorists.
And some of it is because Trump himself has conditioned us not to believe a single thing that he, or anyone in his orbit, says.
This is the scenario — a fast-moving, potential catastrophe where we need real faith in federal leadership — that we’ve been worrying about since the first days of the Trump presidency, when then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer hectored reporters and insisted that they had falsely reported on the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.
It was a petty claim, and one that was chilling because it was so easy to debunk. If you start your presidency lying about something so transparently false, what does that mean when you talk about stuff we can’t see with our own eyes?
And it has continued through then, at more or less a daily rate. Trump and his circle lie reflexively. They lie about enormously consequential stuff, like Trump’s repeated assurances that the coronavirus wasn’t anything to worry about, though he was privately acknowledging that it was “deadly stuff.” Most recently, the president has repeatedly lied about the threat of election fraud in a transparent attempt to sow doubts about the results of November’s election.
And they lie about the smallest things. This week, Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany falsely claimed that Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was a Rhodes scholar (she didn’t receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, but instead graduated from Rhodes College).
Getting accurate information about the health of the president of the United States has always been a problem, both because presidents and their advisers weren’t eager to tell anyone that America’s leader may be unwell, and because reporters around them often kept quiet.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, asked photographers not to publish images of him struggling to walk because of polio-induced paralysis. Reporters like Lesley Stahl kept concerns about Ronald Reagan’s mental fitness to themselves; years after leaving office, Reagan announced that he had Alzheimers, but he never indicated whether it affected him at the time.
Those kinds of questions about a president’s health would be nearly impossible to keep quiet today. We’re in a much different media environment, with a much more aggressive press, and much more access to information.
But even now, we know that we’ve known very little about Trump’s health. Recall, for instance, the letter Trump’s private doctor released in 2015 announcing that if Trump was elected he would “be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” — which turned out to be dictated, word for word, by Trump himself. Or more ominously, Trump’s unplanned and still-unexplained visit to Walter Reed hospital nearly a year ago.
But past presidential health concerns — including Trump’s dissembling about his own status — were also long-term problems that didn’t necessarily have to be grappled with immediately.
Now, though, we have a real-time crisis: We’re well aware that Trump has a disease that is particularly deadly for older, overweight men, but we have no reason to trust anything the White House says about the state of his health. What happens if Trump is truly incapacitated, or worse? Who will we trust to relay that information?
The one saving grace about the Trump administration’s attempt to conceal the truth from the world, about everything, is that it has been terrible about it. Some of the lies, like Spicer’s crowd-size fiction, can be debunked on the spot; others are quickly surfaced by the many leakers in and around the White House, who relay different versions than the Trump-dictated reality to reporters. And some become clearer over time, like Bob Woodward’s recent book Rage, which meticulously details Trump’s lies about the early months of the pandemic using taped, on-the-record conversations with Trump himself as the primary source.
But even top medical professionals with state-of-the-art equipment and unlimited resources — the ones who will be caring for Trump now — run up against the limits of knowledge when trying to assess someone’s health. And that’s even more true with a virus that we’re still learning about, less than a year after it surfaced in China.
And it certainly isn’t something the general public can assess on its own. Even if Trump appears in public at some point to assure us, we won’t have any idea what’s actually happened or happening to him.
So we can only hope that Trump tells us the truth, but there’s no reason to think that will happen. We can also hope that reporters in and around the White House can provide a more accurate understanding of what people in and around the White House think is happening. But fundamentally, we’re going to be in a haze, hoping it all works out. It’s a terrible place to be.