Politicians lie a lot. But the best, most successful politicians who lie do so in a way that is hard to immediately debunk: Their lies require dogged persistence to fully untangle, because they are phrased to sound quite true, or involve twisting numbers just so, or otherwise stand up to an initial round of light scrutiny.
Donald Trump is not one of those liars. His lies — which occur with astounding frequency, even by the standards of a presidential campaign — tend to be very easily debunked. One particularly noteworthy subgenre of these lies involves interactions he has had — or claims to have had — with other people. If you tell a reporter you talked to Mr. X, it is very easy for that reporter to then go to Mr. X and say, “Hey, do you remember this conversation?” This is a foolish sort of thing to lie about, in other words, because you are practically begging journalists, even lazy ones otherwise averse to putting in extra reporting effort, to earn a quick scoop with a five-minute phone call.
Trump has not learned this lesson. Over and over, he has claimed to have had interactions with people and institutions — sometimes very big, powerful ones who don’t like to be misrepresented — only for basic fact-checking to suggest that it’s very unlikely those interactions actually occurred. Here are six examples. In all likelihood, this is an incomplete list, so let me know via Twitter if I’ve left out other major examples.
Trump’s claim: He turned down a chance to be interviewed by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. This one comes from a tweet:
In an interview excerpted in the below video, Trump also mentioned having been invited onto Oliver’s show “four or five times.” That is a lot of times.
Why it probably never happened: Oliver and his staff said so. First, Last Week Tonight’s Twitter account quickly denied having invited the Donald onto the show:
A few months later, in his now-legendary “Drumpf” segment, Oliver went into more detail, explaining that he was so taken aback by the confidence of Trump’s assertions that he had been invited that “I even checked to make sure that no one had even accidentally invited him, and of course they hadn’t.” As Oliver explained, “I’m not even sure he knows he’s lying — I think he just doesn’t care about what the truth is.”
Trump’s claim: The National Football League sent Trump a letter bemoaning the debate schedule. Over the last few days, Trump has been seemingly laying the groundwork to either back out of debating Hillary Clinton or to spread the idea that the debates were set up in a rigged or unfair manner and that Clinton and the Democrats are responsible — despite the fact that the dates were set by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates in September of last year.
In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Trump said the scheduling was so outrageous that he had heard from the NFL: “I got a letter from the NFL saying, ‘This is ridiculous. Why are the debates against—,’ because the NFL doesn’t want to go against the debates.”
Why it probably never happened: ABC News has the whole story. When journalists reached out to the NFL to ask about this supposed letter, the league responded in a statement, “We did not write a letter, but we obviously prefer the debates on a different night than scheduled games.” To which a “Trump campaign” source changed the story a bit, telling ABC News, “Mr. Trump was made aware of the conflicting dates by a source close to the league. It’s unfortunate that millions of voters will be disenfranchised by these chosen dates.” Disenfranchised! Sad!
Trump’s claim: The Koch brothers wanted to meet with him, but Trump, having too much integrity, basically said, “Screw you, Koch brothers.” On Saturday, Trump tweeted a pretty Trumpian tweet about how conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch wanted to meet with him, but Trump turned them down because he is a man of the people:
Why it probably never happened: Almost as quickly as Trump tweeted that, it was shot down by the Kochs. “[T]op officials to the Koch operation threw cold water on that Saturday afternoon, saying they had no knowledge of a meeting request,” Melanie Mason of the L.A. Times reported on Saturday. As Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs explained, Trump’s aversion to the Kochs seems to be a brand-new development: “The Koch team met last month with the Trump team at Trump aides’ request. There have been no follow-up meetings, [a Koch aide] said.”
Trump’s claim: He is being advised on foreign policy by Army colonel Jack Jacobs. About a year ago, on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Trump who his “go-to” advisers were on military affairs. Trump said that Jacobs, who is a frequent face on NBC and MSNBC, was one of them. “Col. Jack Jacobs is a good guy,” Trump told Todd. “And I see him on occasion.”
Why it probably never happened: Because Jacobs said so. “He may have said the first person who came to mind,” Jacobs told David Corn of Mother Jones. “I know him. But I’m not a consultant. I’m not certain if he has a national security group of people. I don’t know if he does or if he doesn’t. If he does, I’m not one of them.”
Trump’s claim: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called him after his primary win in New York. Back in May, around the time of peak drama over whether Ryan (who is plainly not a Trump fan) would endorse him for the presidency, Trump reported that he was “blindsided” that Ryan was withholding the nomination, given that Ryan had called him to congratulate him on his April 19 win in the New York GOP primary. The statement gave the impression that Ryan was somehow not being forthright with Trump, and that it was unfair of him to have not yet endorsed him.
Why it probably never happened: Because a Ryan aide said so. “They talked in March about our agenda but not since then,” Brendan Buck told the New York Times. In a bit of foreshadowing of the Koch incident, Ryan’s office also disputed Trump’s characterization of a call that had occurred between the two men in March: “Mr. Trump had said publicly that Mr. Ryan had called him,” noted the Times. “But Mr. Ryan, who had been critical of Mr. Trump’s more divisive comments, said he was responding to a request for a call by Mr. Trump.”
Trump’s claim: He met Vladimir Putin. Trump has claimed on multiple occasions to have enjoyed some chummy in-person interactions with Russia’s president. During a GOP primary debate in November, Trump said of Putin, “I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates,” he said. “We did well that night.” Most observers interpreted that to mean the two men had hung out in the so-called “green room” prior to the show’s taping. And at a 2014 National Press Club event, Mother Jones recently noted, Trump said he’d met Putin when Trump’s Miss Universe competition was held in Moscow in 2013. Trump said he “spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer, and we had a tremendous success.”
Why it probably never happened: The ironclad laws of space and time pose a major challenge to Trump’s 60 Minutes story. As Time explained, 60 Minutes doesn’t have a green room, and, more important, Trump and Putin “weren’t even on the same continent” at the time: “Trump was interviewed by CBS’s Scott Pelley in his New York City penthouse for the season premiere of the hour-long docu-series, while Charlie Rose travelled to Moscow to interview Vladimir Putin.”
As for the Moscow meeting, Politico reported in May that after Trump expressed excitement about the prospect of meeting Putin during that 2013 trip — “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow - if so, will he become my new best friend?,” Trump tweeted shortly before the competition — Putin didn’t show up to the event itself, and that “Trump isn’t saying whether he [actually] met with the Russian leader” at some other point during his trip to Moscow. Probably not, if NBC’s reporting from last week is any indication: The network, relying on a source with connections to an oligarch who is in turn connected to Putin, reported that while Putin sent his regards to Trump and wanted to meet with him, scheduling issues prevented a sit-down: “The Trump and Putin meeting in Moscow never happened.”
But either way …
Bonus reversal: Last week, a steadily increasing drumbeat of think pieces and columns criticized Trump for his cozy ties to Putin and Russia; Trump didn’t help matters by openly rooting for Russian hackers to obtain and release more emails damaging to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. So on Wednesday, Trump changed his Putin story: “I never met Putin, I don’t know who Putin is,” he said during a press conference in Florida. “He said one nice thing about me. He said I’m a genius. I said thank you very much to the newspaper and that was the end of it. I never met Putin.”
For those keeping track at home, Trump has been recorded on video, on multiple occasions, saying he met Vladimir Putin, including one meeting that couldn’t possibly have taken place. Now that their ostensibly close relationship has proven to be a political liability, he is denying, also on video, that they ever met.
Again: Not everyone is a gifted liar.