The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maybe Trump isn’t ‘lying’

The inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)

CNN’s Jake Tapper provided the best evisceration of President Trump’s claim that massive voter fraud, namely millions of illegal immigrants casting votes, threw the popular vote to Hillary Clinton:

The media, understandably, try to understand why Trump would tell such an easily debunked falsehood. Why lie when he is president anyway, by virtue of the electoral college? Why get this badly off track?

Other Republicans are not going down his road to oblivion, despite years of beating the bushes looking for fraud as the basis for passing voter ID laws. “I’ve seen no evidence to that effect,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) told the press on Tuesday. “I’ve made that very, very clear.” When Trump reiterated his claim in a closed-door meeting with congressional leaders, Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) objected, as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) related to the media.

The supposition among pundits, elected officials and political insiders is that Trump, like his argument over the inaugural crowd size, “lies” to make himself feel better. His staff salutes, repeats his lies and then gets bashed. What if, however, he thoroughly, “honestly” believes his crazy, unsubstantiated claims? When he denies saying something, what if he honestly does not, cannot recall statements that now come back to haunt him?

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He seemed awfully sincere about his reprehensible birther conspiracy theories until it became inconvenient to say so. Before reverting to sycophantic form after his primary defeat, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), incensed about Trump’s assertion that Cruz’s father participated in the JFK assassination, called Trump a “pathological liar.” He said, “He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And he had a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook. His response is to accuse everybody else of lying.”

Putting aside the psychiatric lingo, Cruz’s essential point — Trump cannot tell what is real and what is not — surely looks right on point less than a week into the presidency. In the campaign, he became convinced, for example, that Arab Americans in New Jersey celebrated after 9/11. Now he becomes convinced of other, equally ludicrous assertions. Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer and others know what he is saying is nonsense (“Alternative facts“? Puh-leez.) They do not have the nerve to tell him that what he believes cannot be true. and therefore cannot be uttered by the president of the United States without raising questions about his mental/emotional stability. They are lying if they repeat his claim, but maybe he is sincere.

Nancy Pelosi criticized a Trump administration order to review potentially reopening "black site" prisons overseas. (Video: Reuters)

Schumer calls that a political problem. He gently offered, “In general you cannot run a country unless you know the facts. If you’re going to believe your own facts, whether it’s about what Putin is doing in the world or what jobs or companies are doing here, you aren’t going to be able to govern, so I worry about it.” The shorter version: If he cannot accept reality, he is not fit to carry out the duties of the president.

We are not calling — yet — for invocation of Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. (“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”)

We are calling for someone, perhaps his children, to see if they can prevail upon him to stop behaving in this way, for if not, legitimate worries will mount about whether he is able to carry out his duties. We also are saying that Republicans need to be pressed to state their view: Is he lying or is he unable to separate what he wants to believe and what exists, literally, in front of his eyes? The first makes him morally unfit, and was the basis upon which many #NeverTrumpers refused to vote for him. If the latter, they — and we all — have a constitutional crisis the likes of which we have never seen. With Trump, however, we have learned the past provides no guarantees.