just asking questions

Daniel Dale on Whether President Trump Believes His Own Lies

Not always wedded to the truth. Photo: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Daniel Dale, the Washington correspondent at the Toronto Star, has carved out a particular journalistic niche since 2016. On Twitter, where he has hundreds of thousands of followers, and on the Star’s website, he has developed a reputation for calmly but firmly documenting President Trump’s mistruths in real time — from big ones, like his claim that 3 million voters cast illegal ballots in the presidential election, to relatively small ones, like his fudging of countries’ financial contributions to NATO. Dale compiles all the lies in a database and tracks the president’s dishonesty over time, taking a quantitative approach to a presidency that often feels impossible to classify. Intelligencer spoke with him about why Trump lies, whether American journalists give him too much leeway, and his favorite presidential falsehood.

Almost every time Trump holds a rally, you’re live-tweeting it. And you recently wrote in the Washington Post that you do most of your fact-checking on your own time, “spending weekday nights and painful Sundays staring at rally transcripts in my pajamas.” I was wondering if you’ve taken up heavy drinking, or maybe prescription drugs, to help you cope.

I’m a teetotaler — I’ve had like two drinks in my life, and I don’t use drugs. I mean, it is very tiring. Without complaining, just as a factual matter, it’s a lot, because there are a lot of lies. So it’s physically tiring, and sometimes it can be mentally tiring when fact-checking his false claim about the trade deficit with China for literally the hundredth time. You know, you just kind of sigh. But the thing I tell people when they express intense empathy for me is that I get so much validation. You don’t go into journalism to have people compliment you, but I get so much nice email. I get people expressing such gratitude that I’m doing this thing that’s objectively not that hard on the scale of things that journalists put themselves through. So, it’s fine and I’m fine.

What was the thinking behind tracking the president’s lies in this methodical way? Did you come up with it yourself, or was that an institutional decision by the Toronto Star?

The Star has been hugely helpful, but it was my call to do this attempt at comprehensive tracking. It started very accidentally. It was September 2016, late in the campaign, and I was just frustrated that it seemed like Trump’s incessant dishonesty wasn’t being treated as a central story. Reporters would sometimes fact-check him on Twitter, but if you were to read the next day’s paper, or watch cable news or network news, the dishonesty just wasn’t being discussed as a story in and of itself. And so I just did an informal list, like a screenshot I posted on Twitter. And I did that for a couple days, and it got a huge response. And then I decided I’ve started and I should just keep going. And I thought Clinton would probably win and I’d be done having to do this much fact-checking, although she would require some, of course. But Trump did, and I knew that I’d have to resume upon inauguration.

It’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the constant stream of dishonesty and scandal emanating from the White House. Do you think that your approach has resonated so much because your just-the-facts approach cuts through that clutter, that shroud of misinformation hovering over everything?

It’s hard to know, exactly. I think for a long time, and even now, when those people see coverage that doesn’t even acknowledge this very obvious and very important thing that they’re seeing, it bothers them and makes them feel like their media entities are failing them. So just to have someone at a mainstream media outlet pointing out what these people are noticing, I think, is a relief for a lot of people. And I think for others, they simply want to know the information. So even if they know that Trump is a serial liar in general, they may not know like how he’s deceiving them in particular about immigration or about NAFTA. And so I have a lot of people being like, “Thanks for explaining that.” I think a lot of people feel it’s an educational service that helps them better understand what’s going on in the government and in the White House.

You’ve documented the fact that Trump’s lying seems to be getting worse over the course of his presidency. You tweeted recently that it’s up to six per day on average, as opposed to 2.9 through 2017. Do you have any theories why?

I think part of it is just that he’s talking more. And I’ve looked at this — the number of words that he averages in a day has increased between the beginning of his presidency and now. And part of it is the kind of talking he’s doing. Early in his presidency, he was on scripts much more frequently, I guess, as he was getting comfortable in the job. Now, as you know, he’s comfortable. He’s much more frequently just being Donald Trump. And he’s doing supposed official events that are de facto campaign rallies.

The biggest change in his frequency that I’ve observed came right before the midterms. I post a weekly graph on Twitter, and it just dramatically accelerated in the month or month and a half leading up to the midterms. I think his peak was 240 false claims in a week. I think in many cases, he’s lying just because that’s how his brain works. He’s been a liar for decades. But I think with the midterms, it was a concerted, strategic effort to use dishonesty as a campaign strategy, especially on immigration. So I think that was a big cause for acceleration.

After observing him so closely, do you think that’s true of most his lying —  that it’s strategic? Or is just a reflex because he’s been doing this his whole life?

I think most of it is nonstrategic. He says things like, “My father was born in Germany,” and you’re just like, “Why? What is the point of that?” I think something that distinguishes Trump from other political liars or dissemblers is how trivial and needless many of the lies are. These are not lies about him being caught in a scandal and trying to spin his way out, or where he’s trying to win some policy debate. A lot of it is just like Trump being Trump in ridiculous ways. To the extent that there’s a strategy, I think it’s often him just trying to escape a given ten seconds. Maggie Haberman has noted that he tries to escape or win a particular transactional exchange with no regard to what he said in the past, no regard to what he might have to say ten seconds or ten minutes in the future. He’s just trying to get out of the moment. It’s pretty remarkable to witness.

This is a question that comes up whenever we deal with someone who consistently doesn’t tell the truth: Do you think Trump believes most of his lies in the moment he tells them, or do you think he’s consciously aware that he’s not telling the truth?

There are a lot of cases where I feel like I can tell that he knows he’s making it up. And there’s some where he clearly knows. One example that comes to mind: At campaign rallies, for a while he’d be bashing the media and he would look to the cameras in the back of the room and point and be like, “Look at that, CNN just turned its camera off. You see, the red light just went on …”

Of course, that didn’t happen. That has never happened, to my knowledge. CNN has never angrily turned off its camera when he was criticizing CNN or the media. And so he’s literally looking his supporters in the eye and pointing at something in the room that is not happening and telling them that it’s happening. And so for people who say, “Oh, he believes all these, he’s just delusional,” I think there are cases like that where he’s clearly deliberately making it up.

You’ve long lamented on Twitter that reporters don’t challenge Trump directly on his dishonesty enough when they’re interviewing him or asking him questions at a press conference. I do sometimes feel like there’s this fantasy that if someone would just ask him a particular “gotcha” question, like “How does Obamacare work?,” the scales would fall from America’s eyes and his supporters would see him for the con man he really is. But of course he’s a master deflector and dissembler. Do you think the approach you describe him would actually get results?

It’s hard to know exactly, but I think we have to try at least once, or at least a couple times. There have been literally dozens of interviews where the attitude has been, “Let’s just let him talk. Our job is to find out what’s in his brain.” I think, at this point, four years into his current political life, the returns from that approach have been exhausted. Like, why not one time — it doesn’t have to be your exclusive interview where you’re worried about him storming out of the room or kicking you out of the Oval Office — why not during one of his informal gaggles, when he’s boarding Marine One, challenge him on the lie he told the day before, or challenge him in the moment on the lie that he’s telling then? And even little ones, I think, would be educational. “Mr. President, why did you say your father was born in Germany when he was born in New York?” I think it would be educational just to hear what he had to say. I don’t expect that a more confrontational approach would result in him being dramatically exposed and no one supporting him anymore. But I just think we can learn something from it, and it just hasn’t been tried.

Do you think American journalists are more deferential in their approach than their Canadian or international counterparts?

I don’t think American journalists are generally more deferential — the U.S. has some of the most fearless, aggressive reporters there are. I think there’s a level of deference, though, with the presidency that you don’t often see in Canada with anyone. There’s something that seems to happen when people go into the Oval Office or when they’re dealing with him, where you call him “sir” a lot, you sort of gently prod him if he says something wrong, but never directly. And I don’t know if it’s relationship management, wanting to get the next interview, or a concern about being seen as biased by his supporters or being blasted by him on Twitter, but I think it’s been consistently softer than I think it needs to be, at least when it comes to one-on-one interactions with him.

Since Trump came onto the scene, there’s been a lot of debate among journalists about when to call what he does “lying.” Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, said last year: “The word ‘lie’ is very powerful. For one thing, it assumes that someone knew the statement was false, another reason to use the word judiciously is that our readers could end up focusing more on our use of the word than on what was said. And also, using ‘lie’ repeatedly could feed the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides. That’s not our role.” What do you think of that justification?

I think our job as journalists is to call things what they are. And so if someone commits 100 crimes, you don’t say, “We’re gonna call the first two ‘crimes’ and the second one” — I don’t know what the softer word would be — “‘non-legal behavior.’” The thing with Trump is that his relentlessness in lying works to his advantage, precisely because of that mind-set: You if we use the word “lie” 100 times in a week, you know, people are gonna think we’re biased or the word is gonna lose its power. But, to me, if there’s 100 lies, you use the word “lie” 100 times. I myself use the term “false claim” a lot. My database is “The Database of False Claims,” because I do think it’s fair to say we don’t know in every case that he’s deliberate rather than just ignorant of the policy or confused about something. But if there are 100 lies, then I think we need to use the word. And I think to not do it out of some fear that it’s gonna lose its power or we’re gonna be wrongly accused of bias, I think that lets him win with lying.

Are you in this for the long haul if he wins reelection? Are you going to be doing this the full eight years?

I don’t know. There would be a need for it if he were to win. I don’t know if I could do it until … what would it be, 2024? Yeah, it just seems like a long time to be doing it. I’m not sure. I’ve spoken to other people who cover Trump, and I think my sense of the consensus is that a lot of people will think at that point about how long they can deal with the Trump show, whether they’re fact-checking or just covering the Trump White House. If he were to win, I think a lot of people would sort of ask themselves, you know, that question at that point. So we’ll see.

Do you have a favorite harmless, unnecessary lie that Trump tells?

Yeah, the one that I cite frequently is when he was criticized for his speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree, where he was sort of bizarrely political. And he was asked about this criticism, and he said something like, “No, no, the head of the Boy Scouts called me and told me it was the greatest speech that had ever been given at the Boys Scout Jamboree.” And so I emailed the Boy Scouts, thinking they wouldn’t respond because big entities tend to not want to contradict the president, but they emailed me back and they were like, “No one ever called and no one ever said that.” I think the president might be the honorary chairman of the Boy Scouts, he’s got some role, some quasi-official role with the Boy Scouts. So to have the president lying about the Boy Scouts of America was amazing to me.

The other one that stands out is an interview he did with The Wall Street Journal. He was boasting about the impact of his tariffs. Then, a bit later in the interview, the Journal asked him about some of the criticism of his tariffs, and he said something like, “No, no, I don’t have any tariffs. What tariffs? I’ve threatened tariffs, but I haven’t imposed any.” And so he just went from literally boasting about this policy to claiming it doesn’t exist, because, you know, those two things suited those particular moments better. And so, to me, it was just a really revealing example of how his mind works with regards to dishonesty.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Daniel Dale on Whether President Trump Believes His Own Lies