Does Donald Trump Win the War Against the Truth?

At least it was a lie you can have fun with. According to Donald Trump, it is completely untrue that he made Queen Elizabeth wait during his visit to Great Britain last month. It was the other way around, he said on Thursday during an election meeting in Pennsylvania: “I’m waiting. I was about 15 minutes early and I’m waiting with my wife and that’s fine. Hey, it’s the queen, right?”

But up north in Canada, in a country where Elizabeth II also reigns, news magazine Maclean’s made short shrift of his excuse. It was on display on TV screens across the globe how the queen consulted her watch and uniformed dignitaries rushed to withstand her apparent annoyance. It was only a small matter of protocol; what does it matter if the president of the United States tries to save face in front of a crowd of cheering supporters? But there was more serious lying last week as well, and serious lies came to light.

Lying During Formal Ritual

Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of the Lawfare blog which provides opinions and information about national security, received a letter from the Department of Justice. According to Wittes, that letter proves that the president told an untruth during one of the most formal rituals known to American politics: the yearly presidential speech to both chambers of Congress on February 28, 2017.

“According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 [2001] came here from outside of our country,” Trump said. With these words, he defended his plan to tighten control over who enters the country and to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

But Wittes did not believe one bit of it. He asked the Justice Department for the data that, according to Trump, they had sent to the White House. Initially, he did not receive it, but after he initiated a lawsuit, the department caved. A settlement was reached, in which it was agreed precisely which type of documents the department would look for. This week the answer came — nothing had been found. “No, the Justice Department letter does not come out and say what it clearly means,” Wittes writes, “that President Trump, early in his tenure, was untruthful …”

No Longer Relevant

This week, a similar lawsuit brought clarity to the Trump government’s attempts to supervise more strictly the course of elections. In theory, there is nothing prohibiting strict checks to ensure everyone who comes to vote is allowed to vote, but in practice this is controversial. Among those who do not have an identification card, for example, many are poor and minorities, who more often vote Democrat than Republican.

The Democrats do not think stricter rules are necessary because in practice fraud hardly takes place. To refute that argument, Trump created a commission that had to inventory the problem. That commission was short-lived and ended its existence with a lie. “Substantial evidence of voter fraud” has been found, press secretary Sarah Sanders said in January of this year. But because many states did not want to cooperate, the work of the commission was no longer relevant.

Empty Pages

The first part of that statement surprised Matthew Dunlap, secretary of state for Maine, who presides over government elections in Maine. He was one of the Democrats in the commission and he had never seen that “substantial evidence.” He requested all documents in which that evidence could be found and concluded this week that they do not exist. What is more, in concept versions of the never-released final report, chapters had been reserved for “improper voter registration practices” but those pages were still empty.

Now, untruths often come from the mouth of the president’s press secretary and this week it happened once again. During the press conference that Sanders gives from time to time — the time of almost daily briefings is over — she was asked whether she agreed with Donald Trump’s often repeated statement that the press, with the exception of some sympathetic media, is the enemy of the people. She avoided the answer. She basically had no choice because, while she has a semi-collegial relationship with the journalists — she answers their questions and passes along requests to the White House — she can hardly be disloyal to the president. She, therefore, did what every spokesperson knows to do best: she changed the subject slightly. The press sometimes does more bad than good, she said, for example in the 1990s, they wrote about Osama bin Laden’s use of satellite phones. That leak, via the right-wing newspaper Washington Times, prevented his killing before he could organize the attacks of September 11, 2001.

4,229 Untruths

But that story is false. It was once taken seriously, in books and reports, but journalistic research in 2005 concluded that the media regularly reported that bin Laden used a satellite phone. Sources included, among others, the Taliban, who reigned over Afghanistan, and bin Laden himself.

The journalist who investigated this, Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, is now chief editor and checks claims made by politicians. He revealed a mind-boggling statistic this week: since his inauguration in January 2017 to July 31, 2018, Trump has made 4,229 statements that were not true. Half of those were made in the past year. The number of untruths per day — on principle, The Washington Post does not speak of lies — increased from an average of five in 2017 to 16 in the past two months.

The increase can be a sign that Trump has gained more self-confidence in those one and a half years and cares less about the warnings of his advisors not to go too far overboard. But it can also be a symptom of rising concern over the outcome of the elections in November, in which he badly needs his loyal supporters to maintain the majority in both chambers of Congress.

It is for those supporters that he makes all these dubious statements, during campaign meetings he visibly enjoys, and where he seems to select his words based on the applause they score, whether they are true or not. His followers still want to believe him, opinion polls show, no matter what the “fact-based media” say and write. And Trump explained how they can continue to do so during a speech in Kansas City last month: “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people — the fake news. (….) What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

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