Eichenwald: Can Trump Tell the Difference Between Truth and His Lies?

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U.S. President Donald Trump listens to remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast February 2 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty

This is more important than a few executive orders signed by President Donald Trump. It’s more important than his nominations for positions in his administration. It’s even more important than who gets appointed to the Supreme Court, or whether Obamacare gets repealed.

Nothing in the headlines these days is more important than this: The President of the United States is divorced from reality, unable to tell the difference between the truth and what he wants to be true. In August, much of the American press finally broke out the word “lie” to describe many of Trump’s statements, but that’s not enough. Reporters must now press the president to explain if he believes these statements to be true and why. Plenty of politicians deceive, but one who cannot discern reality from fiction is dangerous.

Lies, Lies, Lies

On January 21, Trump demanded that White House press secretary Sean Spicer inform the public they could not believe their lying eyes about the size of the crowd at his inauguration because photographers were intentionally deceptive, the reporting was deliberately false, magnetometers kept people out of the back areas (they weren’t used there), white grass-protectors that gave false impressions of the size of the crowd had never been used before (they have been), and on and on. That same day, Trump brought an applause team with him to the CIA’s Memorial Wall, which honors 117 CIA officers who died in the line of duty, where they clapped and whooped in a desecration of that sacred place as Trump spun more fantasies: that he had been on the cover of Time magazine more than anyone else (not even close: He’s been on the cover 11 times; Richard Nixon was on 55 times; Barack Obama was on it 12 times in 2008 alone); that God looked down and said He wasn’t going to let it rain when Trump gave his inaugural speech (it did); and, again, about the size of the inaugural crowd. On Meet the Press the next day, White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway explained that, in analyzing the size of the inaugural crowd, the Trump team had “alternative facts”—just a small step away from an alternative reality.

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Then Trump made it worse. In a private meeting with congressional leaders, he continued complaining about the press reports on the attendance for his inaugural. Then, as part of his effort to deny he lost the popular vote in November (he did, by nearly three million votes), Trump spent 10 minutes complaining that up to five million undocumented immigrants cast ballots in that election. Two days later, after a deluge of criticism that he was lying about that, Trump announced he was ordering a national, taxpayer-funded investigation into voter fraud.

The following week brought more such moments. The most discombobulating came after Trump’s executive order banning travel for 90 days into the United States by people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. As immigration officials detained legal residents and people traveling with valid visas, as major corporations such as Google issued emergency orders for executives from those countries who were traveling for business meetings to come back to the United States immediately, as protesters swarmed airports across America, Trump tweeted that “all was going well” with the ban.

The irrationality of Trump’s statements is astonishing. On the voter fraud claims, for example, government data shows there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. By Trump’s five million voter estimate, that means undocumented immigrants had a huge turnout rate in the 2016 elections, and every one of them voted for Hillary Clinton. For all voters, the turnout was 57 percent.

So, in Trump’s world, close to half of all undocumented immigrants in the United States risked being caught and deported by turning up at polling places at a rate close to that of Americans whose only risk was they might be late for dinner.

Can Trump Acknowledge Reality?

No rational person could believe this. That leaves two possibilities: Trump intentionally dispenses falsehoods any smart person knows will be detected as lies, or worse, he cannot discern between reality and what he wishes was true. During his first White House interview, Trump told ABC News that two people were shot in Chicago as former President Barack Obama gave his farewell speech; the Chicago Tribune proved there were no such shootings. Then there are his statements of undeniable falsity, such as when he asked in a tweet on December 12 why no one had brought up the issue of Russian interference in the presidential election until after he won. But he stood on a stage 54 days earlier dismissing the intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian hacking. Was he knowingly lying? Or is Trump’s memory so poor that he could not remember a statement he made—or even that a discussion had taken place—about whether America was under cyberattack by a foreign power? Or, worst of all, did he not know what he said and tweeted was untrue?

As Newsweek reported during the campaign, Trump has made innumerable false statements under oath. That’s obviously important—former President Clinton was impeached because he lied under oath once to hide an affair; Trump did it numerous times, and usually just to puff himself up. He testified to Congress in 1993 that he had never tried to arrange any business deals with Indian casino operators; Newsweek discovered phone records, memos and an affidavit proving that was a lie. He said in a sworn deposition he had been paid $1 million for a speech when he had only received $400,000—he attempted to explain away the falsehood by saying the pre-speech publicity was worth $600,000 to him. He told Deutsche Bank in loan applications in 2004 he was worth billions; the bank concluded that was a lie and set his net worth at $788 million.

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Of Trump’s many past fantasies, two stand out for what they reveal about how his mind works. He claimed to own 50 percent of a real estate project although he owned only 30 percent. When asked about the discrepancy in a deposition, he did not say he’d simply made a mistake; instead, he said, “I’ve always felt I owned 50 percent.” In another instance, he said that he knew companies had decided not to bring proposals to him after a journalist publicly questioned his net worth; when asked under oath what businesses had declined to deal with him, he said he could not name them because none of them had told him they’d made this decision, but he just knew they had snubbed him.

Think about that: the President of the United States said under penalty of perjury that he knew people had refused to bring him business even though he did not know who they were, had no facts to confirm they existed, and could not explain what deals their decisions involved. And he said that a contractual ownership of 30 percent was in fact 50 percent because that was how he felt.

Motives to Lie

This is not normal. This kind of story-telling does not fit with what scholarly, peer-reviewed studies have concluded are the motives and methods of lying. “To be told, a lie must be certain to achieve some valuable end,’’ Dr. Dale Hample, an associate professor at the University of Maryland wrote in a 1980 study on liars. “The liar knows that lies should not be told at all and so lies only when rewards are both assured and large.”

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and probably every politician ever has used spin or told some whoppers to achieve a specific goal. But the benefit from the stories Trump has spun recently was not only zero, it harmed him. No rational person could possibly have cared how many people attended Trump’s inauguration; anyone could see the same photographs and read the same data about television viewership and Washington’s mass transit usage as everyone else. None could have reasonably believed that the most incredible voter fraud campaign in American history had just taken place, with millions of illegal votes cast for Democrats, particularly when Republicans won most of the key Senate races in that election and maintained control of the House. He could have said nothing about those two topics and no one would have thought the worse of him. But if he knows he is lying, he not only accomplishes nothing, he harms himself by showing he will lie over irrelevant trivialities. And that raises the question of whether he knows when he is lying.

“Although deception is in almost everyone’s social repertoire, it is generally employed as a tactical or strategic option of last resort,’’ said Dr. Timothy R. Levine, a communications professor at Michigan State University who co-authored a 2010 report on experiments about lying. ”Absent psychopathology, people do not deceive when the truth works just fine.”