Over the years, I’ve been frustrated enough times by the performance of high-profile fact checkers like Politifact and Glenn Kessler’s Washington Post operation, that I’ve become wary of appealing to them for an objective measure of the truth. Nonetheless, they serve a vital purpose and while their conclusions can sometimes bend over backwards to credit obviously deceitful assertions or raise unwarranted doubts about truthful ones, they usually do a decent job of laying out the available record.
It looks like Kessler has grown frustrated too, at least with the president, as The Fact Checker will now offer a new rating that is worse than the previous booby prize: the Bottomless Pinocchio. Kessler was inspired by Trump’s decision to lie 86 separate times while campaigning for Republican midterm candidates about funding for his border wall with Mexico.
As Kessler points out, Trump originally insisted when he ran for president in 2015-16 that he would force the Mexican government to pay for a border wall, but he dropped that plan almost immediately and asked Congress to give him the money. That’s not the inspiration for the Bottomless Pinocchio, however.
Shortly after becoming president, Trump dropped the Mexico part, turning to Congress for the funds instead. When that, too, failed — Congress earlier this year appropriated money for border security that could not be spent on an actual wall — Trump nevertheless declared victory: “We’ve started building our wall,” he said in a speech on March 29. “I’m so proud of it.”
Despite the facts, which have been cited numerous times by fact-checkers, Trump repeated his false assertion on an imaginary wall 86 times in the seven months before the midterm elections, according to a database of false and misleading claims maintained by The Post.
The lie that inspired the new rating is the assertion that Trump has already secured funding for his wall and that construction has begun. For Kessler, this lie is so brazen and has been repeated so many times that it distinguishes Trump from every other lying politician in the country.
The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: The claims must have received three or four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times. Twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong. The list of Bottomless Pinocchios will be maintained on its own landing page.
The Fact Checker has not identified statements from any other current elected official who meets the standard other than Trump. In fact, 14 statements made by the president immediately qualify for the list.
Kessler also explains why he thinks Trump’s record-breaking dishonesty is so problematic.
Trump’s willingness to constantly repeat false claims has posed a unique challenge to fact-checkers. Most politicians quickly drop a Four-Pinocchio claim, either out of a duty to be accurate or concern that spreading false information could be politically damaging.
Not Trump. The president keeps going long after the facts are clear, in what appears to be a deliberate effort to replace the truth with his own, far more favorable, version of it. He is not merely making gaffes or misstating things, he is purposely injecting false information into the national conversation.
To accurately reflect this phenomenon, The Washington Post Fact Checker is introducing a new category — the Bottomless Pinocchio. That dubious distinction will be awarded to politicians who repeat a false claim so many times that they are, in effect, engaging in campaigns of disinformation.
In some senses, Trump really does merit his own category for mendacity, but the Republican Party as an institution has long deserved this kind of rating for a long list of repeated sins. Off the top of my lead, I am thinking of their Laffer Curve supply-side economics, their refusal to acknowledge the role of carbon in climate change, their Benghazi conspiracy theories, their nonsense about Uranium One and the Clinton Foundation, their obsession with almost nonexistent in-person voter fraud, and their insistence that the Affordable Care Act created death panels.
We already have a term that predates Trump for this right-wing phenomenon: the Zombie Lie. These are lies that resurface despite being easily debunked over and over again, proving that they cannot be killed. At this point, you can put the idea that the GOP genuinely cares about the budget deficit and our national debt in that category.
So far, Zombie Lies have proven largely invulnerable to fact-checkers, so adding a new, more emphatic rating like the Bottomless Pinocchio seems unlikely to breach any previously impregnable walls of deceit. But we do have to keep trying, even if the effort can be easily repelled with charges of “Fake News!”
I do think that attempting to establish a baseline for truthfulness that is as objective as possible is vitally important, and I believe that the truth is ultimately more powerful than lies, even in times like these. It’s not the only way to combat disinformation, or perhaps even the most effective way. And I wish the people who are making a living doing this work would do a better and more consistent job. But all political lies need to be challenged and there needs to be landing places for people who want to separate good reporting from junk.
If ultimately, Trump’s most positive legacy is that he inspired the Bottomless Pinocchio, it will be a better credential than anything else he has so far accomplished. I have higher ambitions for him, though.
I hope he inspires a new era of political reform like we experienced in the 1970s, on everything from how we vote to what kinds of financial entanglements we will tolerate from our president. I hope we’ll establish stronger standards in many areas where we had been relying more on norms and traditions. I want to define what the Emoluments Clause permits and does not permit, and what family members can and cannot do in the White House (with or without security clearances). I want to know who in the Justice Department the president can fire when he’s under investigation and which witnesses and coconspirators he can pardon to protect himself.
In the end, I hope his removal from office will send the most important message and set the most important precedent of all. As we begin our journey in that direction, I know the fact-checkers will be busy and that they will awarding more Bottomless Pinocchios.