For the entirety of Donald Trump's presidency and most of his 2016 campaign, his critics have implored the media with a simple message: Call a lie a lie. Trump has stated literally thousands of falsehoods by now, and his critics argue that to keep suggesting Trump might simply be getting his facts wrong gives him a pass. Journalists often resist the L-word because it implies intent.
The Post and Times stories both reveal falsehoods that Trump is telling his aides and senators in private, where Trump wouldn't necessarily expect they'd make their way into the public domain. His conspiracy theories about President Obama's birth certificate, polls and his loss of the popular vote persist in these settings. These theories have reportedly been joined by Trump's argument that the “Access Hollywood” tape might be a fake (despite Trump having repeatedly apologized for it and admitted it was him).
Trump has occasionally told senior advisers that the “Access Hollywood” tape could be fabricated or may not be real, according to two people who have heard him make the comments. At various moments — including during huddles with his aides at Trump Tower after he won the election and before taking office — Trump has sought to distance himself from the tape.
Trump has asked others whether they think the voice sounds like him, suggesting that it does not, and has wondered aloud whether perhaps the tape was doctored or edited in an unfair way to villainize him.
“He would just assert it, and people would kind of say, ‘Okay, let’s move along,’ ” said one person who had heard the comments. “There’s no point in sitting there and litigating it with him.”
A second person who has discussed the tape with Trump recalled, “He says: ‘It’s really not me. I don’t talk like that.’ ”
Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the “Access Hollywood” tape are part of his lifelong habit of attempting to create and sell his own version of reality. Advisers say he continues to privately harbor a handful of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in fact.
It's tempting to look at all of the falsehoods and see a guy who just can't stop lying — or, more charitably, “a savvy marketer protecting his brand, as any businessman or politician would,” as some aides described Trump to The Post. If that's what he's doing, critics argue, shouldn't we call a lie a lie?
But these stories and plenty more before them reinforce the alternative: Trump does not grasp basic facts. I've written before about the “Stupid or Liar” theory — basically, the idea that someone who spews such falsehoods is either being deliberately deceptive or has no judgment. The takeaway is that neither is a good option, and the latter might actually be worse, because it suggests an intellectual deficit.
Trump has invited these questions thanks to his propensity for falsehoods. Over at New York magazine, Jonathan Chait reasons that if Trump is saying these things to aides behind closed doors, it reinforces the idea that he may simply be divorced from reality — or “truly delusional,” as Chait puts it. Why would Trump say them in private settings, after all, if he didn't truly believe them?
I would argue that it's also possible Trump is merely hugely prideful and wants his aides to believe the best about him. It's also possible that he knows talking about these things in private will eventually leak out of the sieve that is the White House, and he doesn't want his aides to tell reporters that he secretly admits his own conspiracy theories and false claims are nonsense. It would require true devotion to stand by these claims in all settings, public and private, but Trump is nothing if not consistent in his personal branding efforts.
Regardless, we're still left with two competing explanations: Either Trump is lying or he truly doesn't grasp basic facts and the implausibility of his own conspiracy theories. Whatever you think about Trump, neither is a quality you want in the leader of the free world.