Donald Trump's old campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, would like us to treat the president-elect's facts with all the seriousness of a guy at a bar who is two PBRs deep, riffing on current events. And that's not really that hyperbolic.
Here's what Lewandowski, who is now a CNN contributor, said Thursday night at Harvard's 2016 campaign postmortem forum:
This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.
So we should basically take nothing Trump says at face value. Or assume that his facts are, um, factual. Got it.
The brazen comment echoes what Lewandowski's fellow pro-Trump CNN pundit, Scottie Nell Hughes, said Wednesday on the Diane Rehm Show:
One thing that's been interesting this campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts -- they're not really facts. Everybody has a way -- it's kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There's no such thing, unfortunately anymore, of facts. And so Mr. Trump's tweet, amongst a certain crowd -- a large part of the population -- are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts -- amongst him and his supporters -- and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and there's no facts to back it up.
I write all of the below recognizing that it will be dismissed by Trump supporters as The Media Not Getting It and as proof of Lewandowski's and Hughes's theses. Trump won, and in the minds of supporters like Lewandowski and Hughes, that win vindicated this kind of nihilistic approach to the facts and to taking people literally. (I would certainly quibble with that notion, given how unpopular Trump is in spite of his win and the fact that the election was very close.)
That said: Whatever you think of just how literally Trump should be taken, this approach to the truth is an almost perfect cop-out for basically anything Trump says or does as president. His team is basically asking for a Get Out of Jail Free card that can be redeemed over and over again by the single most powerful person in the country.
This approach from the Trump campaign has created an adversarial relationship with the media, for sure. That's because the media's No. 1 obligation is to the truth, and when Trump says something that clearly isn't true, our first impulse is to say, "That's not true!" As it should be. Lewandowski and Hughes don't like this, because their favored candidate's grasp of the facts is not good.
I'll even admit here that I agree with them that Trump probably doesn't mean to be taken literally at all times. But if we're to adopt this approach to the Trump presidency, there is absolutely no accountability. If Trump doesn't follow through on something he promised to do over and over again -- like putting Hillary Clinton in jail -- he can just argue that this wasn't supposed to be taken literally. If Trump doesn't follow through on his promise to tax companies who move jobs overseas, he can just flash the Get Out of Jail Free card again. He didn't mean to say that thing he said over and over again, somehow. But this other thing that he actually succeeded on? He meant that one.
Campaigns are campaigns, and politicians often say things they don't mean. Republicans called Trump all manner of terrible things and then decided to back him, so clearly Trump isn't the only one whose words in this campaign proved to be hollow.
But as Trump found out with Carrier, sometimes the words he says are taken literally -- even by supporters -- in a way he doesn't seem to grasp. In this case, he was called out by Carrier workers who heard him say "We're not going to let Carrier leave" and understood it to mean "We're not going to let Carrier leave." Trump made this promise while in a state where thousands of jobs were on the line, and he didn't understand how that might be taken literally. It was, though, because peoples's livelihoods were on the line.
Now that he's president, his words matter much more. Peoples's livelihoods are on the line, and he is in the position of delivering on his many promises and Making America Great Again by doing the things that he says he would. He's also in the position of saying things that will be parsed endlessly by our allies and adversaries around the world. A stray word or fact here or there can have much bigger implications coming from President Trump than Candidate Trump, who was never supposed to win anyways, right?
Perhaps during the campaign we all didn't fully grasp Salena Zito's maxim that "The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." But Trump isn't a guy sitting in a bar shooting the breeze anymore.