The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Interviewers cannot let Trump’s lies fly by

Consider this exchange on ABC’s “This Week”:

STEPHANOPOULOS: As I said, President-Elect Trump has been quite active on Twitter, including this week at the beginning of this week, that tweet which I want to show right now, about the popular vote.
And he said, “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
That claim is groundless. There’s no evidence to back it up.
Is it responsible for a president-elect to make false statements like that?
PENCE: Well, look, I think four years ago the Pew Research Center found that there were millions of inaccurate voter registrations.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, but the author of this said he — he has said it is not any evidence about what happened in this election or any evidence of voter fraud.
PENCE: I think what, you know, what is — what is historic here is that our president-elect won 30 to 50 states, he won more counties than any candidate on our side since Ronald Reagan.
And the fact that some partisans, who are frustrated with the outcome of the election and disappointed with the outcome of the election, are pointing to the popular vote, I can assure you, if this had been about the popular vote, Donald Trump and I have been campaigning a whole lot more in Illinois and California and New York.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And no one is questioning your victory, certainly I’m not questioning your victory. I’m asking just about that tweet, which I want to say that he said he would have won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally. That statement is false. Why is it responsible to make it?
PENCE: Well, I think the president-elect wants to call to attention the fact that there has been evidence over many years of…
STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s not what he said.
PENCE: …voter fraud. And expressing that reality Pew Research Center found evidence of that four years ago.
STEPHANPOULOS: That’s not the evidence…
PENCE: …that certainly his right.
But, you know…
STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s his right to make false statements?
PENCE: Well, it’s his right to express his opinion as president-elect of the United States.
I think one of the things that’s refreshing about our president-elect and one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country is because he tells you what’s on his mind.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But why is it refreshing to make false statements?
PENCE: Look, I don’t know that that is a false statement, George, and neither do you. The simple fact is that…
STEPHANOPOULOS: I know there’s no evidence for it.
PENCE: There is evidence, historic evidence from the Pew Research Center of voter fraud that’s taken place. We’re in the process of investigating irregularities in the state of Indiana that were leading up to this election. The fact that voter fraud exists is…
STEPHANPOULOS: But can you provide any evidence — can you provide any evidence to back up that statement?
PENCE; Well, look, I think he’s expressed his opinion on that. And he’s entitled to express his opinion on that. And I think the American people — I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what’s on his mind. And I think the connection that he made in the course…
STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether it’s true or not?
PENCE: Well, they’re going to tell them — he’s going to say what he believes to be true and I know that he’s always going to speak in that way as president.

(Reince Priebus used almost the exact same words to defend Trump in a “Face the Nation interview.)

Republicans are actively helping Trump weaken our democracy with his lies

The media must be willing to undertake this painstaking examination when Trump officials choose to abandon any pretense of telling the truth. Administration officials who declare the president has the right to make up stuff — lie — to the American people should be hammered. Imagine if Democrats had said that President Obama was just offering an “opinion” when he said people could keep their doctor under Obamacare. Republicans would have been livid. They’d have made the point that when the president of the United States speaks he has the obligation to be candid or accurate. If he wants to propound theories based on nothing more than crackpot innuendo he should say flat out that he has no factual support for his remarks.

Later in the interview with Pence there was an exchange in which he denied that Trump was practicing crony capitalism and picking “winners and losers” in bribing Carrier to keep several hundred jobs in the U.S. “I don’t think it’s picking winners and losers at all what — what — what the president-elect did with Carrier was simply reach out one American to another and just ask them to reconsider.” It’s just, you know, picking one company to call and offer $7 million to change a business decision. What?! This is double-talk that insults the American people’s intelligence.

Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway defend Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen during talk show appearances. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Whether it is his top aides or the president-elect interviewers would be well advised not to let falsehoods, deception and double-talk go unaddressed. Governing by deliberate lies is the stuff of autocrats who demand their people believe them rather than reality. John Paul II understood this about Communist Poland:

He never overtly espoused any particular political agenda, but he lived his life according to the famous saying of the 19th century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid: “A man is born on this planet to give testimony to truth.” As a bishop and then as pope, Wojtyla kept urging his countrymen and everyone else to “live in truth.” Nothing could be more subversive in a communist system based on lies. His credo proved to be a highly contagious idea picked up and expanded upon by dissidents like Adam Michnik in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.

Trump’s assault on the truth goes a long way toward explaining his unhinged attacks on the media. He and his advisers scream bloody murder when the press reports his own words. That’s not “dishonest” or “liberal bias” as he says — it’s reporting on the objective reality (what came out of his own mouth), something that threatens Trump’s stranglehold on the national conversation. His bizarre notion that we should not take him “literally” (i.e., expect him to believe what he says) sums up the Orwellian world in which he operates.

All politicians shade, spin, exaggerate and from time to time lie. Never have we had a president, however, for whom lying is the essential component to his governing strategy. Normally, we would say that it is up to the media and to honest officials of both parties not to let a president get away with national gaslighting that enables him to avoid honest debate and scrutiny. Unfortunately, Republicans have a severe shortage of honest, brave souls and Democrats are written off as partisans. Conservative media resorts to explaining how the lies don’t matter or how they do matter rather than focusing in on the lies themselves. No wonder Trump attacks the media — it’s the only thing preventing him from absconding with reality.