Is Donald Trump the most pathological liar of the modern presidency? The Washington Post thinks so, reporting that Trump made 3,251 “false or misleading claims” during his first 497 days in office. That’s an average of more than 6.5 “falsehoods” a day. The New York Times agrees, providing what it called a definitive list of “outright lies” during the president’s first 10 months that amounted to a daily public “lie” for the first 40 days of his presidency.
Trump’s “narcissistic lies,” wrote a George Mason University professor of government, vastly exceed the lies of previous presidents — striking “at the very heart of democracy.” According to an in-depth Politico article, Trump is not just a liar, he’s the prince of liars, combining Richard Nixon’s compulsion to lie, Joseph McCarthy’s cynicism, and Ronald Reagan’s disregard for the facts.
Twenty-seven mental health professionals were so concerned they contributed to a book titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” that concluded: “We warn that anyone as mentally unstable as Mr. Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency.” Indeed, their concern was so great that every one of the “professionals” diagnosed Trump without ever meeting him — a serious breach of medical ethics.
Their long-distance diagnosis brought to mind the 1964 presidential campaign, when 1,189 psychiatrists said that conservative Republican Barry Goldwater was “psychologically unfit” to be president, although not one of them had ever spent one minute with the senator from Arizona, a two-star general in the Air Force reserves who routinely passed annual physical examinations while flying the latest jets.
Reviewing a book about the role of falsehood in the “Age of Trump,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews let it all hang out, declaring that the president “lies the way a woodpecker attacks a tree: compulsively, insistently, instinctively.” It feels, he wrote, “as if something has ripped in the fabric of reality of America at this moment.” He labeled Trump a “demagogue,” using the reigning cliché of the mainstream media about the president.
And yet Trump’s approval rating has reached a new high of 45 percent in the latest polls, some 10 points higher than at the beginning of the year. He continues to draw large, almost giddy crowds wherever he speaks in the American heartland. Much of his popularity can be attributed to continuing economic growth — the GDP was up 4.1 percent in the last quarter — and the lowest unemployment rate in a decade. Inflation remains flat and the stock market is nearing an all-time high.
But economics is not the whole story. Trump is doing what he said he would do during the campaign — cut taxes, appoint originalists to the Supreme Court, eliminate needless government regulations, push to build a wall along our southern border, substitute fair trade for so-called free trade, strengthen our armed forces. All the while he engages in what he calls “truthful hyperbole,” like his insistence that “we are the highest taxed country in the world.” According to the Tax Policy Center, taxes on personal income and business profits made up 49 percent of U.S. tax revenue in 2015, significantly higher than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 34 percent.
What the media rarely include in their assessment of Trump’s truthfulness is that all presidents lie. In fact, since John F. Kennedy, every president has lied about far more serious things than Trump’s embellishments about his wealth, his girlfriends of decades ago or the size of his inaugural crowd.
The monumental presidential lie of the last half century is President Nixon’s denial of White House involvement in the Watergate burglary. Nixon lied until he was forced to release tapes that proved his part in the cover-up, which forced him to resign.
Some historians have tried to equate Reagan’s Iran-contra affair with Watergate, but Iran-contra was not Watergate redux. Reagan did not try to cover up Iran-contra, but directed his attorney general to conduct an immediate and thorough inquiry. Unlike Nixon, Reagan did not approve wiretaps, did not direct the IRS to examine people’s tax returns, did not compile an enemies’ list, and did not attempt to manipulate the FBI and the CIA in their investigations. Reagan approved the arms-for-hostages deal to save American lives — Nixon tried to contain the Watergate scandal to save himself.
As we now know, President John F. Kennedy covered up his precarious health (he had Addison’s disease, a serious hormonal condition), denied his many extra-marital affairs with gangster molls and Hollywood stars, and lied about a non-existent “missile gap” in the 1960 presidential race. Once elected, he allowed the Pentagon to announce that no missile gap existed.
President Bill Clinton narrowly escaped impeachment for lying about his Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). President Obama lied almost daily about his health care proposal, promising, “If you like your health care plan you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.” That lie helped secure the passage of Obamacare and compelled four million Americans to seek another health care plan.
The most consequential presidential liar was Lyndon B. Johnson, who repeatedly promised during the 1964 presidential campaign, “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” At the very same time and with Johnson’s approval, the Pentagon was drawing up plans to send the first wave of more than 100,000 American servicemen to Vietnam. Johnson’s macho determination not to “lose” Vietnam led him to keep increasing the number of American troops until they reached over 500,000. His strategy produced ever mounting U.S. fatalities, reaching a total of 58,000 by the time fighting ended in 1973.
Trump is not guilty of any lie, falsehood, fabrication, false claim, or toxic exaggeration that equals the lies of one past president whose Alamo-sized ego caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and another chief executive who denied his serial adultery. Most Americans can see the difference between an out-and-out lie and self-evident hyperbole, even if the mainstream press and Trump’s political opponents cannot or will not.