interesting times

Donald Trump and the Art of the Lie

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

“I like the truth. I’m actually a very honest guy,” President Trump told a slightly incredulous George Stephanopoulos this week. Like almost everything Trump says, it was, of course, a lie. But it was a particularly Trumpish kind of lie. It was so staggeringly, self-evidently untrue, and so confidently, breezily said, it was less a statement of nonfact than an expression of pure power.

For Trump, lying is central to his disturbed psyche, and to his success. The brazenness of it unbalances and stupefies sane and adjusted people, thereby constantly giving him an edge and a little breathing space while we try to absorb it, during which he proceeds to the next lie. And on it goes. It’s like swimming in choppy water. Just when you get to the surface to breathe, another wave crashes into you.

This particular lie was in the context of a report from the New York Times this week, independently confirmed by ABC News, that Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio had found Trump lagging Joe Biden in most of the states he needed to win — even in Texas. The Times reported that Trump had instructed his staff to lie about this polling. When asked about it by Stephanopoulos, Trump simply followed his own advice. “No, my polls show that I’m winning everywhere,” he said blithely. And when you hear him, it sounds as if he is telling the truth. He’s gooood.

In Michael Wolff’s new book, Siege, Steve Bannon recounts on the record several bald-faced lies Trump told him to his face. About Trump’s trip to Moscow, where the alleged and likely chimeric pee tape was supposedly made, Trump insisted repeatedly that he had spent only a day there, and hadn’t stayed overnight, so couldn’t have employed any prostitutes at all. “This story was told to me a dozen times, maybe more, and the details never changed,” Bannon noted, even as evidence emerged that Trump had indeed spent two days and two nights there.

On the affair with Stormy Daniels: “Never happened,” he told Bannon. And when Trump insisted on these things, he was in the moment believable. This preternatural capacity to lie convincingly even when the truth is obvious is a very rare skill. Which is why it works, of course. You simply assume that a grown man with real responsibility wouldn’t behave that way. And you would be wrong. Bannon, Wolff writes, came to understand that the lies were “compulsive, persistent and without even a minimal grounding in reality.” This is not to deceive the public. This is simply the way Trump behaves — in private and public. It’s why I have long believed he is mentally unwell.

It is not true that all presidents lie in this fashion. Take that famous liar, Bill Clinton. Bubba’s lies were infamous —  but he was always calibrating them to avoid telling an outright whopper. A ridiculous parsing of the definition of “sexual relations” or “is” is different than outright denying reality and daring people to correct you. Clinton accepted reality and tried, in lawyerly fashion, to spin his way out of it.

In retrospect, the presidency of George W. Bush was a Trump harbinger of sorts. Recall this famous passage from Ron Suskind, reporting on the Bush White House for the Times:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create reality. And while you are studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

The joke, in the end, of course, was on them. Reality destroyed them, as it often does. In that time period, however, it also destroyed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

No, Trump’s only rival in this department — denying what everyone can see is true — was Sarah Palin, the lipsticked John the Baptist of the Trump cult. During the 2008 campaign, gobsmacked that this lunatic could be in line for the presidency, I began to keep track of everything she said out loud that was provably, empirically untrue. In the two months she was running to be vice-president, I catalogued 34 demonstrably untrue statements, which she refused to correct. She compiled nowhere near Trump’s volume of lies — it’s close to inhuman to lie the way he does — but her capacity to move swiftly on from them, along with the press’s supine failure to keep up, was very Trumpy. The short attention span of digital media has made this worse. And she got away with it. The base didn’t care; the media couldn’t cope.

Trump, too stupid to ape Clinton, and far more accomplished a liar than Palin, combines the sinister Bush-era kind of lie — “We do not torture” — with the Palin compulsion to just make things up all the time to avoid any sense of vulnerability. What Trump adds is a level of salesmanship that is truly a wonder to behold. He is a con man of surpassing brilliance and conviction, and every time he survives the fallout of a con, he gets more confident about the next one.

At some point, the law usually catches up with this kind of con artist, and Trump has had quite a few close calls over the years (and paid out a lot in settlements). But a presidential con man at this level of talent, legitimized by public opinion, enlarged and enhanced by the office and its trappings, is far harder to catch. It seems to me we had one shot of doing this definitively —the Mueller investigation — and we failed. Trump’s lies about the report, and his attorney general’s genius move of lying about its conclusion before the rest of us could check it out fully, helped. So did conservative media’s blackout of the actual substance of the report. Trump’s Roy Cohn tactic of accusing his accusers of the same flaw — it was Hillary who colluded with the Russians! — was another masterstroke of distraction. But it’s hard to deny at this point that in the battle between Trump and Mueller, Trump just won.

Wolff’s analysis is that Trump actually intimidated Mueller, who refused to enter the public fray out of a sense of responsibility but also because no sane person who isn’t in elected office wants to become the next piñata. And battling Trump is very hard for sane people, with a solid reputation, to sustain. You never come out okay. For Mueller to fight back would have dragged him into an insufferably vulgar mire. He demurred, assuming that Congress would immediately spring into action.

No such luck. Speaker Pelosi is convinced impeachment would be counterproductive, and fruitless, given the Senate’s tribal backing of Trump, and so she keeps punting. I see her political point but not her constitutional one. Accusing a president of a criminal cover-up and obstruction of justice and not impeaching him smacks of weakness — and Trump smells weakness like a beagle can smell that treat in your pocket. The Democratic congressional leadership is thereby, it seems to me, guilty of appeasement, of putting politics ahead of the more fundamental duty to protect the Constitution. For the Congress to do nothing about proof of a president’s repeated obstruction of justice — not even a vote of censure — is an abdication of constitutional duty. Pelosi took an oath to defend the Constitution, not to win the next election.

So, of course, Trump has upped the ante again. Why wouldn’t he? He has proven that he can obstruct justice and get away with it, so now he is not only refusing to comply with any subpoenas and barring critical witnesses from testifying, but claiming, through his lawyers, that the only branch of government that can investigate the president’s compliance with the law is the executive branch itself, over which the president has total control: “Congress is simply not allowed to conduct law-enforcement investigations of the president.” Congressional oversight of possible crimes by the president “improperly impinges upon and hence interferes with the independence that is imperative to the functioning of the executive branch.” The president, they argue, is the only person who can determine if the president breaks the law. The only possible exception, Trump’s lawyers grudgingly concede, is in an impeachment proceeding — which they well know Pelosi doesn’t have the guts to invoke.

If the president is judge and jury in his own case, he is a monarch, not a president. To add to this, we also have both Trump and his Botoxed dauphin, Jared Kushner, recently express the belief that they did nothing wrong in inviting, welcoming, and encouraging a foreign enemy of the United States to interfere in an American election. Trump, contradicting his own FBI director, told Stephanopoulos this week he’d be open to receiving dirt on a political opponent from a foreign power again in 2020. Hey, why not? “If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it,” the president said. He might tell the FBI, or he might not. I know we’re used to this kind of thing — he openly invited Russia to intervene in 2016, after all, and they did — but it is vital to repeat that this is about as impeachable a statement as could be uttered by any president.

The worry about a president receiving assistance from a foreign country, let alone inviting it, was one of the central concerns of the Founders when they came up with the mechanism of impeachment. It need not be a conspiracy or a crime. It was about violating the integrity of the American political system — to the advantage of another country. They were thinking of Britain and France, their equivalent of Russia and China. And they were understandably paranoid about it. “He might betray his trust to foreign powers,” Madison worried about waiting for the next election to call a president to account. Combine the blithe ease with which Trump considers this impeachable offense with his now-demonstrated attempts to obstruct justice, and now add a legal claim that the Congress cannot oversee what might be presidential criminality … well, you have a situation that impeachment was specifically designed for.

It is worth adding to this, for good measure, that, all the while, the president has been attempting to buttress Republican — and essentially white — power, by rigging the census to deny Democrats future seats, and thereby resources. We now have incontrovertible proof that this was the intention behind adding a citizenship question to the Census — thanks to a leaked hard drive. Put all this together and you begin to get a sense of how contested the result of the next election could be. Trump is deliberately undermining public confidence in its integrity. He did this rhetorically as a candidate. Doing it as an incumbent president is an even graver assault on our liberal democracy. Imagine Bush v. Gore, but with an incumbent president who controls the executive branch and has the Supreme Court in his pocket, and you begin to see the risk we are taking by leaving him in place.

He will do anything, we have to understand, to protect his psychic attachment to his own self-interest. Anything. I’ll repeat what I believe: He will not leave his office if he narrowly loses in 2020. He’ll fight — and rally his supporters to fight with him. He’s not Nixon. He’s Erdoğan. When, since becoming president, has Trump conceded anything?

A tyrant’s path to power is not a straight line, it’s dynamic. Each concession is instantly banked, past vices are turned into virtues, and then the ante is upped once again. The threat rises exponentially with time. If we can’t see this in front of our own eyes, and impeach this man now, even if he will not be convicted, we are flirting with the very stability of our political system. It is not impregnable. Why is Putin the only person who seems to grasp this?

My Old Chum Boris

Boris Johnson will be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. In an almost perfect representation of deep polarization, the next British general election will be fought between a Tory Etonian performance artist and Jeremy Corbyn, the Marxist anti-Semitic leader of the Labour Party. Despite a wide consensus among his fellow parliamentarians that Johnson is an opportunistic, incompetent, lazy, and unbearable shit, he nonetheless won a huge victory yesterday — 114 votes to his nearest rival’s 43 — in the first round of voting by the Tories in Westminster. There will be further rounds of voting, as various rivals get eliminated, but his lead is so big he’ll certainly be in the final two, and then the 124,000 members of the Tory Party will vote. Johnson is a rock star to his base, who massively favor him over the other candidates. It’s basically over now.

I knew Boris at Oxford. He was at Balliol and I was at Magdalen, but we were both debaters in the Oxford Union, and he became president of the Union in 1986, three years after I did, in 1983. We overlapped in his freshman year and, as president, I always loved calling on him to speak before the House, because it was never dull. Union politics back then was cutthroat but also huge fun, and I became quite fond of him because it was hard not to. He charms. He amuses. He has a certain charisma, and always has. That messy mop of blond? The same as when I knew him.

His full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, and I was a little wary at first. Back then, and maybe still today, Oxford students were divided between those who came from what are called in England “public schools,” (which, in American English, are actually the private schools for the aristocracy, costing a fortune to attend) and those of us who came from the state sector, what Americans would call public schools. The “public school” boys arrived with a sublime sort of self-confidence, already ensconced in the elite, seeming to fit in naturally among the dreamy spires of that lovely place. The rest of us, bewildered and enchanted (in my case) to be in this Hogwarts of a place, had to prove ourselves. They coasted.

Boris was so posh it was funny. At least that’s how I saw it. And what marked him as different from the other Etonians was his decision to embrace this, and make fun of himself in the process. Others came rather insecure about their privilege and played it down — think of fellow Etonian David Cameron who decided to call himself “Dave.” Not Boris. Alongside party-boy Darius Guppy and Charles Spencer, Diana’s brother, he reveled in it. As sitting president, I did my small part to help him gain his footing, despite a certain amount of class resentment I’m not really proud of.

He belonged, for example, to the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive upper-class fraternity that specialized in hosting expensive restaurant dinners for themselves, in white tie and tails no less, with members eating and drinking till they were stuffed and thoroughly shit-faced and then proceeded to puke on the floors and vandalize the joint, smashing tables and chairs and china, breaking windows and the like. Daddy would always pick up the price for repairs. I remember feeling a mixture of contempt and awe at this. Before going up to Oxford, I could count on one hand the number of times I had eaten at a restaurant. My resolution was to outsmart and outperform them.

This reputation hurt Boris in hunting for votes to be president of the Oxford Union, and he lost the first time around to someone called Neil Sherlock who was a nerdy state school kid. Legend has it Johnson kept reinventing himself politically and playing down his Toryism and poshness — with the help of then-student Frank Luntz, believe it or not — and eventually it worked and he won. I have to say I found him hugely entertaining, and great company, but could never really take him seriously. He has a first-class wit but a second-class mind and got a second-class degree. If you want to measure the quality of his scholarship, check out his deeply awful biography of Churchill, a thinly veiled attempt to redescribe his own career as a Second Coming of Winston.

I lost track of him afterward, which is why perhaps I still like him. But I’m struck by how so many who have followed his career since despise him. My friend, the journalist Nick Cohen has a splendid little rant in the Spectator, the magazine Johnson once edited: “Johnson believes in the advance of Johnson. That’s all there is. There’s nothing else.” Fired by the Times in 1988 for simply making shit up — he fabricated a quote from his godfather, a historian — Johnson went to the Telegraph as a Brussels correspondent and made more shit up. He was still at it this year. Stories about the “EU punishing the rubber industry for making undersized condoms or ordering the straightening of bananas” were total Stephen Glass material, but Tory readers lapped it up.

Boris in due course became a classic Cameron-type liberal Tory when it was cool, and then, sensing a moment of opportunity, suddenly backed the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, stabbing his friend Dave in the front. His support for Brexit was a critical moment in the credibility of the Leave campaign. It’s not a huge leap to say that without him, it might not have happened.

And that’s why the impossible conundrum of Brexit is now rightly in his ample lap. Unlike May, he voted for it (or said he did). Panicked by the rise of the Brexit party, the Tories believe he will bring the faithful back and get out of the E.U. definitively by Halloween — even though there is no parliamentary majority for it, and if Boris thinks he will have more luck negotiating a better deal with the E.U., he’s crackers. You think Macron will go easier on Boris than May?

He once said, with characteristic brio, that “my chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.” That was as colorful as it was untrue. But there is some sweet cosmic justice in Boris having to take responsibility for the Brexit he backed. It may be a catastrophe, but it will be his, and, for him at least, it sure will be fun.

The Meaning of Asylum

Asylum is one of the noblest contributions to the world that a free society can offer. And America in many minds is almost defined by it. People fleeing persecution because of their politics or religion or identity should always have a place here. It’s part of what America is for. The USCIS defines asylum thus: “Refugee status or asylum may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

For many years, I was on the board of a group called Immigration Equality, which in the past helped rescue binational gay couples who were separated because the U.S. would not recognize their unions, and now continues its work, especially with asylum cases for gay, lesbian, or transgender people who are subject to persecution and violence and terror at home because of their identity. We won — and the group continues to win — almost every case. Meeting someone who has been given asylum here is a very moving thing. It is, at its core, about the right to be who you are, believe what you believe, and not be subject to persecution for it. If any Chinese Uighur were to find her way to the shores of this country, she should be admitted with open arms. That’s what asylum is for.

Now check out this story of someone who is intending to claim asylum in the U.S. He’s a Guatemalan coffee-bean farmer who is leaving his homeland because of a sharp drop in the price of coffee. Kevin Sieff reports:

Here in western Guatemala, one of the biggest factors in the [migrant] surge is the falling price of coffee, from $2.20 per pound in 2015 to a low this year of 86 cents — about a 60 percent drop. Since 2017, most farmers have been operating at a loss, even as many sell their beans to some of the world’s best-known specialty-coffee brands. A staggering number of those farmers have decided to migrate … Gustavo Alfaro, who sells coffee to Starbucks and several other American specialty companies, said half of his workforce has migrated in the past year alone.

This is a completely understandable reflex. Sympathizing with people whose livelihoods have vanished is entirely the moral thing to do. But unemployment and poverty are not the same as persecution, and the migration is self-evidently economic. Nonetheless, Sieff’s central figure in the story is going to claim asylum when he reaches the border. In other words, the generosity of America in providing asylum for the persecuted is being fraudulently exploited by hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

An asylum claim is not immediately granted, of course, but it is an immediate guarantee of entry to America, because we recognize that people genuinely seeking asylum need refuge immediately. But that’s not what’s happening here. The current crisis in immigration is, in fact, a giant and flagrant abuse of the very meaning of asylum. Just as illegal immigration is an affront to legal immigration, so blatantly fraudulent asylum pleas trivialize and exploit those who genuinely need our help.

I have yet to see or hear any Democratic candidate object in any way to this abuse. As core principles of American law and decency are openly flaunted, they really, really don’t seem to give a damn.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Donald Trump and the Art of the Lie