The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under oath, Trump is confronted with his ‘hoax’ hyperbole

President Donald Trump walks to board Marine One at the White House on Jan. 12, 2021. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
7 min

These charges have often been rebutted either in immediate response to Trump’s comments or, as in the case of his claims about the investigation into Russian interference, repeatedly and in a multitude of contexts. But Trump nonetheless continues to both present many of these situations as “hoaxes” and to classify various other things using the same word — to the point that it’s impossible to take such claims seriously.

In the abstract, Trump’s general lack of credibility on what may or may not be a hoax is not terribly important. But in the context of a lawsuit centered on allegations that he sexually assaulted author E. Jean Carroll several decades ago, Carroll’s lawyers found it useful to point out that Trump simply says everything is a hoax, even when he obviously doesn’t think it is.

As when he said that about Carroll’s accusations.

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A portion of Trump’s sworn deposition was published on Wednesday, offering insight into the questions being presented to the former president as he seeks to defend himself against the charge that he defamed Carroll in denying her assault allegations. The transcript also depicts an obviously angry and frustrated Trump lashing out at the questioners and disparaging various other perceived enemies, like New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).

At one point, Trump was presented with a social media post he published about the situation in which he declared that “it is a hoax and a lie just like all of the other hoaxes that have been played on me for the past seven years.”

“I take it what you’re saying there is Ms. Carroll fabricated her claim that you sexually assaulted her; correct?” Robbie Kaplan, a lawyer for Carroll, asked.

“Yes. Totally,” Trump replied. “100 percent.”

“Fair to say — you’d agree with me, would you not, that you use the term ‘hoax’ quite a lot?” Kaplan continued.

“Yes, I do,” Trump replied, later adding that “I’ve had a lot of hoaxes played on me. This is one of them.”

“How would you define the word ‘hoax’?” the lawyer asked.

“A fake story,” Trump replied — “a false story, a made-up story.”

This is fairly accurate, really. Trump obviously uses “hoax” not in the sense that most people do but, instead, to describe something that he would like to argue is overstated or inaccurate. That those things are generally not inaccurate or overstated but often at most included contested elements has certainly never prompted Trump to moderate his disparagement.

For Carroll’s lawyers, though, this is useful. Trump calls Carroll’s claim “a hoax” — just as he did other things that are obviously not hoaxes. Things that he was simply trying to dismiss or disparage because they were correct or accurate.

“Sitting here today, can you recall what else you have referred to as a hoax?” the lawyers asked Trump.

He could, in fact, recall some things.

“The Russia Russia Russia hoax,” he said. “It’s been proven to be a hoax. Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine hoax. The Mueller situation for two-and-a-half years hoax ended in no collusion. It was a whole big hoax. The lying to the FISA Court hoax, the lying-to-Congress-many-times hoax by all these people, the scum that we have in our country, lying to Congress hoax, the spying on my campaign hoax. They spied on my campaign, and now they admit it.”

So, quickly: The investigation into Russian interference was not in any credible sense a hoax, however useful it might have been for Trump’s opponents to highlight it. The investigation into Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to aid his 2020 election demonstrated quite clearly that he did precisely that. The claim that Trump’s 2016 campaign was “spied” upon depends either on treating an FBI investigation into possible connections between people on his campaign with Russian actors as “spying” or on a debunked claim that there was targeted digital surveillance of Trump Tower. In other words, these examples of “hoaxes” do not themselves hold up.

But Carroll’s lawyers wanted something more concrete to demonstrate his flippancy on such allegations. So they walked him through some.

“Isn’t it true,” an attorney asked, “that you also referred to the use of mail-in ballots as a hoax?”

“Yeah, I do. Sure,” Trump replied. “I think they’re very dishonest. Mail-in ballots, very dishonest.”

Then the lawyer struck: “Isn’t it true that you yourself have voted by mail?”

“I do. I do,” Trump admitted. Then, a bit of moderation: “Sometimes I do. But I don’t know what happens to it once you give it. I have no idea.”

You get the point. Oh, mail-in voting is a hoax — but you vote by mail. Ergo, if the Carroll allegations are a hoax …

A bit later, the attorney tried to bolster the point with another example.

“Isn’t it true, sir,” the attorney asked, “that you also have referred to global warming as a hoax?”

“Yeah,” Trump said. “I think it’s largely a hoax, yes.”

“When you say ‘largely a hoax,’” the lawyer followed up, “what do you mean?”

“Well, I think the whole environmental thing is destroying our country in so many different ways,” Trump claimed. “I think they’ve weaponized the environment, yeah. A lot of what they do is a hoax, yes. Absolutely.”

“But just so the record is clear,” the attorney pressed, “do you think the scientific consensus that the temperatures on planet Earth have been getting warmer and are continuing to get warmer is a hoax?”

This question is fascinating because it suggests that the attorneys believe that Trump’s position on the subject is rooted not in rejection of the science but, instead, in political opportunism. What the record shows, though, is that Trump has never shown a robust grasp of the nuances of climate science — and that his dismissal of climate change may, in fact, be largely sincere.

Which is what his answer suggested.

“I think they go both ways,” he replied, presumably meaning temperatures. A bit later he again claimed that climate change activists had stopped using the term “global warming” because “it wasn’t working” rhetorically. In reality, Republican consultant Frank Luntz recommended that conservatives adopt the term “climate change” to blunt the implications of “global warming.”

After his “both ways” response to the initial question, Trump quickly pivoted.

“I think it has nothing do with this case,” he complained. “I mean, why are you asking — other than you’re a political person, why are you asking this question? What does that have to do with this case?”

The answer is obvious. Trump’s statement rejecting Carroll’s allegations included what, coming from another person, would be a strong rejection: that the whole thing was a hoax. What Carroll’s lawyers showed, under oath, was something that was otherwise obvious to any outside observer over the past eight years: A claim from Trump that something is a hoax often means it isn’t — even if it doesn’t always effectively serve as an indicator that the thing is, in fact, quite legitimate.