“The Adam Carolla Show” has been named the most downloaded podcast in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. And while discussing the day's news, Carolla will often return to a theory called “Stupid or Liar.”
Basically, when a celebrity or politician says something preposterous, the question becomes: Are they actually lying about this, or are they just stupid? The point being that neither is a particularly good option.
An example was when famed lawyer Gloria Allred wagered on Carolla's radio show that “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards's racist rant at a comedy club could actually help his career. She was, of course, representing those allegedly victimized by Richards. Carolla argued that Allred was either lying because she wanted to get money, or she was stupid for believing the words that had come out of her mouth.
I keep coming back to this theory in the early days of the Trump administration. The seemingly nonstop series of over-the-top, counterfactual claims and misstatements — what some outlets are now flatly calling “lies” — that were a feature of Trump's campaign are now plaguing his administration. The false crime statistics. The baseless allegations of large-scale voter fraud. The shoddy claims about Trump's inauguration crowd. The “alternative facts” about basic events.
All of it, to me, betrays one of two things: deliberate deception or rank incompetence.
The most recent, high-profile example of what I'll more charitably call “Incompetence or Deception” is Michael Flynn. The now-former Trump national security adviser held a call with Russia's ambassador to the United States in late December. When the call became public two weeks later, Flynn told Vice President-elect Mike Pence that he and the ambassador hadn't discussed the U.S. sanctions regime against Russia, which would possibly have violated the law. Then, in an interview with The Washington Post last week, Flynn again denied discussing sanctions.
Except that we now know he did. When The Post reported this after the Flynn interview last week, Flynn's spokesman amended his boss's statement to say that he “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
There are basically a few options here: (a) Flynn flat-out lied or (b) a decorated former lieutenant general whom a top Republican this week called the “best intelligence officer of his generation” somehow simply forgot having discussed one of the most hot-button foreign policy issues with the country involved — on the same day that the Obama administration was announcing new sanctions. And even if we're to suspend our disbelief and grant that it's (b), there's still the matter of Flynn having chosen to discuss something that could violate the law in the first place.
Neither of those are good scenarios for Flynn and the Trump White House.
Another case is White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller's contention on Sunday that there is indeed large-scale voter fraud, as Trump has long alleged. Other members of the administration have played down Trump's fixation on this issue, but Miller doubled down on it.
“I can tell you this: Voter fraud is a serious problem in this country,” Miller said. “You have millions of people who are registered in two states or who are dead who are registered to vote. And you have 14 percent of noncitizens, according to academic research, at a minimum, are registered to vote, which is an astonishing statistic.”
The main problem with all of these allegations is that they rely upon evidence that doesn't actually say what Trump and Miller say it does. They have long equated faulty registrations — like dead people being registered and people being registered in multiple states — with voter fraud. Those aren't the same thing. Voter rolls are messy, and even many members of the Trump team and family are registered in multiple states. Until someone actually votes in two states, though, it's not fraud. Even Republicans acknowledge that there is no evidence of this on the scale Trump and Miller are talking about.
The second problem is that the study Miller cited doesn't actually prove that 14 percent of noncitizens are registered to vote — much less that they actually voted. Even the researcher behind the report says that.
So from there, we're left to decide between whether Miller is deliberately misrepresenting the data for political purposes and whether he simply doesn't comprehend it. Again, pick your poison.
We can debate all day whether the Trump administration is actually lying about any of this. But the fact remains that the alternative — that the president's team doesn't comprehend statistics, basic facts and can't figure out what is actually going on in its own administration — is also a very bad look.
It's always good to know a politician's true motivations. And if, as some contend, the Trump administration is really using all of this misinformation in a grand, Machiavellian effort to distract us all or make the media lose the will to call it out, that's certainly important to understand.
But the fact is that using bad information and facts reflects very poorly on the administration — regardless of whether it's deliberate. And even if we're not calling it lying, we should note the alternative.