What If Trump Isn’t Intentionally Lying?

For over a week now Donald Trump has been raging on twitter and at campaign rallies that the Obama administration placed a spy in his campaign for political purposes. But it’s worth noting that his most vocal congressional enabler, Rep. Devin Nunes, has been suspiciously silent since a briefing on the topic was conducted by DOJ for congressional leaders. Last night Rep. Trey Gowdy went on Fox News and completely debunked the whole story.

“President Trump himself in the Comey memos said if anyone connected with my campaign was working with Russia, I want you to investigate it, and it sounds to me like that is exactly what the FBI did,” Gowdy told host Martha MacCallum. “I think when the president finds out what happened, he is going to be not just fine, he is going to be glad that we have an FBI that took seriously what they heard.”

“I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump,” Gowdy said.

Apparently Trump’s off-site chief of staff, Sean Hannity, wasn’t buying what Gowdy had to say.

On his Fox News show Tuesday night, the conservative commentator stood behind Trump’s baseless spy claims, saying, “Robert Mueller’s out-of-control Russia probe has now lost all sense of legitimacy.”

Obama’s Justice Department, Hannity said, “utilized at least one informant to spy on multiple Trump campaign officials and associates during the 2016 election. And by the way, the media is lying about it.”

It will be interesting to watch what happens to #spygate now. The originator of the story, Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, was still tweeting about it yesterday morning, but hasn’t said anything since Gowdy blew up her conspiracy theory. Trump himself has not commented either. We can be assured that he won’t retract what he’s said in the past, but it remains to be seen whether he will join Hannity in continuing to tell the lie.

Given that a lot of people in the media have been wringing their hands about what to call Trump’s lies, we are now at a moment in the whole #spygate fiasco where that question comes into play. For a lot of reporters, the use of the word “lie” indicates intent to mislead. In other words, they only use “lie” when someone knows they aren’t telling the truth. That is why they are more comfortable with words like “falsehood.”

So was #spygate a falsehood? Was Trump telling falsehoods when he touted 9/11 truther claims, or when he suggested that Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, or when he went all-in on birtherism about Barack Obama? If the president didn’t knowingly lie about those things, what does that tell us? Here’s what some of his aides reported to Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman:

Former aides to the president, speaking privately because they did not want to embarrass him, said paranoia predisposed him to believe in nefarious, hidden forces driving events. But they also said political opportunism informed his promotion of conspiracy theories.

What they are suggesting is that the president actually believes these lies for two reasons: (1) he’s paranoid, and/or (2) they are politically expedient.

Given that the fact-checkers tell us that Trump lies 5-6 times per day on average, we have two choices for understanding him. Either he is a sociopath who knowingly lies and doesn’t care, and/or he is a paranoid narcissist who thinks everyone is out to get him and believes anything that feeds his political ambitions. I’m not sure that assuming Trump tells “falsehoods” constantly is any less damning than calling them lies.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.