Advisers to President-elect Donald Trump have given the press and the public some remarkable advice: to take “seriously” but not “literally” the words of the next leader of the free world.
This formulation – first articulated by reporter Selena Zito – was originally an effort to explain why so many of Trump’s obviously outlandish statements didn’t seem to bother his supporters (“he doesn’t really mean to build a wall…”). But it’s since become the mantra of Trump’s boosters to justify the mix of half-cocked 3 a.m. Twitter rants, conspiracy theories, half-truths and outright falsehoods that seem to comprise the bulk of Trump’s communications with the public. As Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, put it: “This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything Donald Trump said so literally. And the problem with that is the American people didn’t.”
It’s one thing for politicians to make grandiose promises on the campaign trail that they’re unlikely to be able to keep (e.g., that wall). It’s another to make statements of “fact” that poison our democracy, worsen political divisions and put vulnerable people at risk. Moreover, the worst of these falsehoods don’t appear to be the “off the cuff” pronouncements of a flamboyant showman. Rather, they reflect a calculated cunning aimed at the amassing and abuse of power. These are the words that Trump does in fact want taken both seriously and literally by his followers – and thus most deserve to be firmly debunked.
The most egregious – and most dangerous – untruths promoted by our president-elect to date are what seem to be the deliberate lies – the ones intended to undermine Trump’s opposition, shore up his base and sow the dissension and chaos that help to consolidate his hold on power. They are red flag markers of his authoritarian tendencies, and they’ve been happening with distressing regularity. So far, Trump has managed to generate at least six such serious untruths in just the first five weeks after his election:
Trump: “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” (Trump transition team statement, Dec. 11, 2016)
Truth: Trump’s electoral college victory ranks 46th out of 58.
The Trump transition team made this claim after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Russian interference in the election was intended to help Trump win. Trump also claimed, in an interview on Fox News, that his victory was a “massive landslide.”
The reality is something the opposite. Claremont McKenna political science professor John J. Pitney, Jr. has posted all of the electoral college results from past elections on his blog, Epic Journey, and found that Trump is actually one of the worst-performing electoral victors in history. According to Pitney’s list, Trump not only won fewer electoral votes than Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, he also did worse than much more forgettable presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Martin Van Buren (though he did manage to slightly outperform George W. Bush). PolitiFact rated Trump’s claim of a “massive landslide” as “False.”
Why it matters: Trump’s insistence on a “landslide” is intended to suggest a broader popular mandate than he actually has, which he can in turn use to justify whatever actions he takes. Moreover, the followers who believe in a Trump mandate may feel empowered to act accordingly, including through whatever ex parte means they think necessary to suppress the opposition.
Trump: (On the hacking of the DNC) – “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place.” (Fox News Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016)
Truth: U.S. intelligence officials know exactly which Russian officials were behind the hacking of the DNC.
The New York Times reports that U.S. officials made their conclusions about the attempted Russian influence on U.S. elections based on “overwhelming circumstantial evidence.” As part of this evidence, reports the Times, intelligence officials were able to identify the specific Russian officials believed to be responsible, including two Russian hackers known as “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” to security experts. The CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security also spent months on these investigations, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Why it matters: “Never before has a President or President-elect spoken so dismissively of the CIA,” says the New Yorker. By undermining the credibility of U.S. intelligence, Trump is, among other things, undermining Americans’ confidence in the ability of these agencies to keep the nation safe. By adding to Americans’ anxieties and further eroding trust in government, Trump is perhaps hoping that Americans will put their trust in him. If so, that’s a move straight out of the authoritarian playbook.
Trump: “I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” (Twitter, Nov. 30, 2016)
Truth: Trump’s business empire is staying in the family.
Trump has been under increasing pressure to address mounting concerns over conflicts of interests between his businesses and his presidency. But two weeks after his announcement to leave his business “in total,” he said he would delay sharing the details until January. He also said he would hand over the reins of his business to his adult sons before his inauguration and promised “no new deals.”
All of this, however, falls far short of the full divestiture that the federal Office of Government Ethics says is the recommended route for avoiding conflicts of interest. What Trump should be doing is handing over all of his assets into a blind trust, to be administered by a third party over whom he has no control and about whose decisions he has no knowledge.
Former White House counsel John Dean writes that even President Richard Nixon – whom Dean notes was “not known as a historical model for ethical behavior” – sold all of his stocks and bonds after his election and “insisted on a strict code of conduct for his White House and Cabinet throughout his presidency.” Of all the scandals that led to Nixon’s downfall, none were the result of conflicts of interest, writes Dean.
Trump has also failed to release his tax returns – the first president in modern history to do so. This makes it impossible to understand the full extent of his holdings and how they might intersect with his decision-making in the White House.
Why it matters: Trump’s changing array of vague pronouncements, reassurances and seeming commitments seem designed to keep people guessing about his plans. As a result, they have the potential to distract from the real issue: what Trump is actually doing – if anything – to address legitimate concerns that he’ll be using the office of the presidency to enrich himself and his family. One clue: Trump said he was too busy to hold his originally scheduled press conference about this business dealings. Less than a day later, however, he found the time to meet with rapper Kanye West.
Trump: “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!” (Twitter, Dec. 6, 2016)
Truth: There is no current contract for this amount with Boeing.
In response to Trump’s Tweet, Boeing issued a statement that it is under contract for $170 million “to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the President of the United States.”
While the cost of building a new Air Force One could run into the billions (an expense that earlier budget estimates put at $1.6 billion, not $4 billion), there’s good reason. As Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg, the plane is “an airborne White House,” designed to survive a nuclear war. There are no other planes like them in the world. Moreover, the current planes are more than 25 years old and nearing the end of their lifespans.
Why it matters: Boeing’s stock plummeted 1.4 percent after Trump’s tweet before it eventually recovered. And coincidentally – or not – Trump’s tweet about Boeing followed 22 minutes after the publication of an op-ed by Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg implicitly critical of Trump’s policies on trade.
Given the close attention Trump appears to pay to the news, it’s impossible to believe that he isn’t aware of the market-moving impacts of his remarks. Not long after the Boeing incident, Trump also criticized the F-35 stealth fighter via tweet, which caused Lockheed Martin’s stock to drop by $4 billion in the immediate aftermath. These moves are a blatant display of power – an effort to bully the CEOs of companies bigger than his own (Boeing’s market capitalization is $95 billion) with a weapon he didn’t have before – the presidency.
There are collateral consequences as well. In another troubling development, Wall Street traders are already trying to figure out a way to profit from the volatility caused by Trump’s tweets (Bloomberg, for example, now offers the ability to have tweets appear right on your Bloomberg terminal). Author Peter Cohan points out another disturbing possibility in Forbes: “Anyone who knows the contents of the President’s tweet before it becomes public may be in possession of market-moving information on which they might be tempted to trade.” All of this turmoil also potentially puts workers’ livelihoods at stake. All but about 25,000 of Boeing’s 160,000 employees work in the United States.
Trump: “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” (Twitter, Dec. 2, 2016)
Truth: Trump’s call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was months in the making with cooperation from both sides.
Though Trump’s tweet seemed to imply a spontaneous congratulatory call by the Taiwanese president, both the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that the call was in fact carefully orchestrated after months of planning. According to the Times, former Sen. Bob Dole – working as a foreign agent representing Taiwan – worked for six months behind the scenes to establish a relationship between Trump and the Taiwanese government.
Why it matters: Trump’s call with Taiwan appeared to depart – in a highly cavalier way – the “One China” policy that has governed U.S.-China relations since 1979, when the U.S. government broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province, and Trump’s call with its president was enough to prompt China to lodge a formal protest on Dec. 3. A Communist Party paper in China also called Trump “ignorant as a child.” If this escalation continues, national security experts warn that Trump risks a serious conflict with China, which – by the way – is a nuclear power.
Foreign policy experts have expressed puzzlement at Trump’s moves on China, but as pure displays of raw power, they make perfect sense. By overturning decades of carefully considered policy, Trump is not only challenging the judgment and legacy of his predecessors in the White House, he is out to challenge the one power that might be stronger than himself: China.
Trump: “…I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” (Twitter, Nov. 27, 2016)
Truth: There is no evidence whatsoever of any sort of widespread voter fraud.
Trump presented no evidence of this claim – because there simply isn’t any. PolitiFact rated this one “pants on fire.”
Why it matters: At last count in mid-December, Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, was ahead of Trump on the popular vote by roughly 2.8 million votes. Trump’s claim is an attempt to delegitimize the popular vote count and, again, suggest a broader mandate he does not have.
What’s most dangerous about these larger lies is that they are embedded in a welter of bombastic attacks, minor untruths and trivial kerfuffles that, in their sum, threaten to lull the public into accepting a new normal of Orwellian doublespeak on every issue. And by breathlessly covering Trump’s attacks on a magazine for trashing the Trump Grill with the same level of intensity as the Russian hacks, the media reduces both incidents to the same level of triviality in Americans’ minds. Yes, Trump should be taken seriously – and his strategy of deploying lies in the service of power should be taken most seriously of all.