Days after President Trump was inaugurated, Fox News host Tucker Carlson engaged reporter John Haltiwanger on his attacks on the mendacity of the new administration. Why wasn’t Haltiwanger, Carlson wanted to know, as critical of the untruths spread by the previous White House occupant? “I think there’ve been some falsehoods coming out of the Trump administration. I’m not here to defend them,” said Carlson, using a patented misdirection tactic. “It’s not unique to them. So, we just had eight years of administration where they said things like, I don’t know, ‘If you want to keep your plan, you can keep your plan.’ … I’ve got a whole list of untrue things that the president said. And not about dumb things like attendance at a rally but things about, I don’t know, the steel industry or Benghazi or the war in Iraq. I mean, like, real things and like all presidents, he lied.”
On Thursday, the New York Times’s opinion section lay that false equivalency to rest, with this graph:
The title of the New York Times piece reads, “Trump’s Lies vs. Obama’s.” And this idea alighted on the newspaper: “After we published a list of President Trump’s lies this summer, we heard a common response from his supporters. They said, in effect: Yes, but if you made a similar list for previous presidents, it would be just as bad.”
Journalists have struggled with the matter of Trump’s lies because of the attendant evidentiary challenges: A state of mind — the intent to deceive — must be established before attaching the “L” word to a statement. As a result, some news organizations have been hesitant to fling the word around too much. “I think the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you,” said former NPR news boss Michael Oreskes back in January.
To address the matter, the Times placed on that chart only “demonstrably and substantially false statements.” That standard hews close to the one that BuzzFeed adopted for Trump-lie purposes: a statement that “contradicts clear and widely published information that we have reason to think [Trump has] seen.”
Whatever standard is chosen, Trump looks awful. “He makes misleading statements and mild exaggerations – about economic statistics, his political opponents and many other subjects – far more often than Obama,” the Times notes under the bylines of David Leonhardt, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Stuart A. Thompson. Here, The Post’s Fact Checker puts some numbers behind the notion. One month ago, the Fact Checker team’s Glenn Kessler, Meg Kelly and Nicole Lewis counted 1,628 false or misleading claims over 298 days.
The New York Times team notes that comparisons with George W. Bush and earlier presidents are difficult because fact-checkers hadn’t yet arrived at the scene. But Bush, they write, tended to stop making false statements when he was apprised of his mistakes. “Trump is different,” notes the story. “When he is caught lying, he will often try to discredit people telling the truth, be they judges, scientists, F.B.I. or C.I.A. officials, journalists or members of Congress. Trump is trying to make truth irrelevant.”