Donald Trump’s habitual dishonesty is a trait well understood by the entire mainstream news media, and even many members of the conservative media. But it is not fully understood. Trump manages to lie in ways that hardened cynics never anticipated. The last few hours alone have brought news of fresh new forms of Trumpian dishonesty that have managed to shock even the people who were looking for it.
When Trump produced an absurd letter in 2016 declaring he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” everybody assumed it had been written by his absurd doctor, Harold Bornstein. That was the scandal: Trump was being “treated” by a hilarious quack. Last night, we learned we had been far too naïve. The truth was that Bornstein never even wrote the letter, whose actual author was Donald Trump. The most skeptical assumptions about Trump somehow proved too credulous.
Second, and more significantly, on Monday the New York Times revealed a list of questions that Robert Mueller had, ostensibly, drawn up to ask the president. Shortly after this news broke, a furious Trump denounced the leak. (“So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were ‘leaked’ to the media.”) Trump proceeded to insist the questions showed Mueller had no leads on collusion with Russia, and was instead luring him into a perjury trap or prosecuting the secondary crime of obstruction of justice without an underlying offense (“No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see…you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information.”).
Reporters immediately rebutted this charge by noting that Mueller’s questions included many queries into his campaign’s collusion with Russia. But it turns out, once again, we all assumed far too much good faith. The Washington Post now reports the questions were compiled not by Mueller but by Trump’s own legal team, based on topics proposed by Mueller.
What’s more remarkable is that the leak came from Trump’s side, so that Trump could blame the leak on Mueller.* “The president and several advisers now plan to point to the list as evidence that Mueller has strayed beyond his mandate and is overreaching,” two advisers tell the Post. The “disgraceful” leak was planted by Trump’s own staff — probably at the direction of Trump himself — in order to concoct evidence of wrongdoing by Mueller, in order to advance Trump’s claim that Mueller is supposedly setting him up.* The Trumpian dishonesty we were all engaging with merely concealed more bad faith buried at a much deeper level.
Bear this lesson in mind when you process the following. In December, the administration allowed the sale of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Supporters of the administration held up the sale as evidence that Trump could not have colluded with Russia — here he was, arming Russia’s enemy. “The year that began with the narrative of Trump-Russia collusion is ending with an unexpected plot twist — the Trump administration is confronting and cracking down on Russia,” reported Fox News. The Wall Street Journal editorial page mocked “people who say President Trump colluded with Mr. Putin to win the election and wants to appease him now.” Skeptics merely saw the sale as evidence that the foreign policy bureaucracy operated at some distance from Trump’s whims.
Today’s New York Times suggests a darker interpretation altogether. In response to the missile sale, Ukrainian officials have frozen out the Mueller investigation. Ukraine’s government had previously cooperated eagerly to expose the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — providing, among other importance evidence, ledgers detailing payments to Paul Manafort by the Russian-backed Ukrainian party he had advised.
Now Ukraine is withholding cooperation from Mueller, and Ukrainian officials are not even hiding the fact that they’re doing so because of the missile sale. “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” one Ukrainian lawmaker says. “We shouldn’t spoil relations with the administration.”
It is of course possible that Ukraine reached this decision on its own, completely independent of any suggestion from Washington. It is far more likely that somebody in the administration proposed a quid pro quo, and Ukraine quite rationally decided it would rather have weapons to defend itself against the next Russian aggression than participate in an investigation that the president of the United States regards as a mortal threat.
The latter possibility cannot be assumed as fact, of course. But it is striking that when the missile sale came up in December, almost nobody even considered the possibility that it might be used as a bribe to shut down Ukrainian cooperation with Mueller.
Not long ago, Jonathan Greenberg wrote a fascinating confessional story about the role he played inadvertently burnishing Trump’s legend. Greenberg, then a young reporter for Forbes, was assigned to investigate Trump’s assets in compiling the magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans. He knew at the time Trump was lying, and worked diligently to expose those misstatements, and believed he had succeeded by arriving at a figure at about one-fifth as high as Trump insisted. Decades later, he learned that even the massively downgraded sum he published was far too generous. “I have gone through my career in national media with a misinformed sense of satisfaction that, as a perceptive young journalist, I called Trump on his lies and gave Forbes readers who used the Rich List as a barometer of private wealth a more accurate picture of his finances than the one he was selling.”
We may think we comprehend the depths of Trump’s venality. We continue to learn that there is no bottom. The number one rule in understanding Trump is that the lies are usually covering even worse lies.
*Update: The Post is not reporting that the list was leaked in order to to discredit Mueller, only that it was leaked and is being used that way.