How does Donald Trump lie? A fact checker’s final guide
Donald Trump lies like he tweets: erratically, at all hours, sometimes in malice and sometimes in self-contradiction, and sometimes without any apparent purpose at all. The Guardian has catalogued more than 100 falsehoods made by the Republican nominee over the last 150 days, and sorted them according to theme.
Hillary Clinton has been caught in more than a dozen falsehoods of her own, for instance about her email practices and her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Clinton often makes her falsehoods in dense legalese, making them hard to pin a motive on: many could as easily be errors as lies, careless exaggeration or deliberately misleading claims.
Trump, on the other hand, will say “wrong” when he hears his own quotes. His own lawyers met him in pairs to counteract his lying, court documents show. He has invented false statistics, fictional videos and sex tapes and a nonexistent man named “John Miller” to talk about his sex life. Months of fact-checking, however, reveal methods and, whether he means to or not, Trump’s guide to success through lying.
For decades, Trump has described America and its leaders in apocalyptic terms. He thought Ronald Reagan weak and “a disaster”, he lambasted George HW Bushand Bill Clinton’s policies, and after supporting George W Bush’s Iraq invasion, quickly dismissed that war as “a mess”.
In Trump’s world, crime is always rising (the national rate fell for decades), and African Americans are “living in hell” (they are not). Migrants are flooding in (more Mexicans are leaving than arriving), and they bring violence (there is no evidence that they do). Civilian and military leaders are always clueless (Trump received five deferments from Vietnam), except when they love him. We have no idea who refugees or undocumented migrants are, and they take our jobs (we know very well who they are; they include his wife).
Trump’s vision of the US has been, for decades, one of dystopia – he even described the 1990s as a crisis worse than the Great Depression. But amid all this desolation Trump gains three things. He fuels doubt and fear, leaving people vulnerable; he denigrates his opposition en masse, blaming the world on them; and he raises himself up above the nonexistent wreckage.
Embiggen big league
Like a man who once took a joke about the size of his hands too hard, Trump spends a lot of time trying to look as large as possible, from his never-proven $10bn worth (Forbes estimates $3.7bn) to crowds at his rallies and his success in meaningless internet polls.
This self-inflation is pierced throughout by paperwork. In March, the Guardian found that Trump valued a New York golf course at $50m in one document and at $1.4m in a court filing (he sued to pay lower taxes). On Thursday, the New York Times reported similarly huge discrepanciesin his reported income. The Washington Post has shown repeatedly that Trump’s boasts of charitable giving have virtually nothing behind them.
He has also falsely bragged of endorsements from federal agencies and claimed “many environmental awards”, and tried the ploy in reverse: he has called the millions his father gave him as “a small loan” and portrayed his $916m loss in 1995 as an example of “smart” tax avoidance.
This sort of exaggeration is a common sales technique: overstate the value of a product to make it more attractive and assume it will be bargained downward. In February Trump confessed “everything’s negotiable” about his statements, then quickly said building a wall on the southern border was “not negotiable” – the equivalent of a liar saying: “Everything I say is false, but not that.”
Whenever in doubt, Trump attacks what he calls “the dishonest media”, accusing reporters (without evidence) of bias, inaccuracy and a failure to show the size of his rallies. He ignores that reporters quote him extensively, call his campaign for comment, interview his supporters, his rival’s campaign and independent voters and experts. He often cites news stories about Clinton, and even praised fact-checkers in a presidential debate for catching her in a falsehood.
At every rally, Trump says the cameras refuse to show his audience, even though his campaign forces cameras to stay within a small pen, where they pan to show the crowd – as anyone at his rallies or watching online can see. Only one camera at each event stays fixed on Trump: the shared “pool” camera, whose footage networks share and which stays on Trump so as not to miss his speech.
Last week, NBC’s Katy Tur, a target for criticism from the podium, noted that Trump “has joked in private with reporters about how he understands how the pool camera works”.
“This is a shtick that he does to rile up his base,” she said, “to give them an excuse for polls that might not be in his favor, to give them an excuse to berate someone that’s not Donald Trump.”
Trump’s scorched earth insults, like his attacks on other institutions, try to delegitimize authority and leave only himself in its place. But while most Americans still respect other institutions that Trump has demeaned, the press was vulnerable. Decades of cable news punditry had already diminished opinionof the press, and the internet has sapped major newspapers of their powers to compete with openly partisan sites, fake news and social media networks. Trump tried to fill the vacuum.
Conspiracy smoke, fire not required
Trump’s most famous false conspiracy, about Barack Obama’s birthplace and who started birtherism, is only one of many.
There was Ted Cruz’s father and JFK’s assassin, drawn from a tabloid with ties to Trump; the climate change “hoax” that was “invented by the Chinese”; the Muslims who cheered September 11; the vaccines that cause autism; the Miss Universe “sex tape”; the political correctness of San Bernardino; the secret Muslim president and his secret terror agenda; and the antisemitism-tinged plot of bankers and the media.
This category includes what the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale calls “pointless” lies, the oddest of Trump’s falsehoods. These claims include an invented letter from the NFL about debates, the authorship of the poem The Snake, and that Frank Sinatra didn’t hate My Way his entire life.
Trump himself seems to get lost in the intrigue, and sometimes slips into a Dadaist jumble of anti-Clinton allusions – Whitewater, cattle futures, Benghazi, uranium, Blumenthal, “bleaching” 33,000 emails – that sound sinister when put together. This is apparently the desired effect: a haze of noxious sentiment, even if no one has found fire for all that smoke.
For more than 20 years, journalists and congressional Republicans have tried. The latter have spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars investigating the Clintons’ associations and careless email practices but have yet to find criminal conduct.
Arguably Trump’s worst conspiracy is his insistence that voter fraud has “rigged” the election, which merges his fringe claims with his attack on institutions. No evidence supports the claim of widespread fraud and the decentralized electoral college makes such a conspiracy functionally impossible – but the claim gives Trump something to blame failure on besides himself. Like his other conspiracies, it sows doubt and distrust, diminishing the nation so that Trump can portray himself as an authority.
Trump’s favorite escape from this maze is the phrase “there’s something going on”, which lets Trump suggest malevolence, claim ignorance and say nothing of substance at all.
When cornered by his own quotes or something he doesn’t know, Trump often lies with blunt denials – “wrong!” – or variations of the phrases “that’s very important” or “we’ll look into it”.
He also tries to wriggle out of uncomfortable situations with this tactic, most notably when he claimed ignorance of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who has professed approval for his policies, and white supremacists. Trump had disavowed Duke a few days earlier and denounced him in 2000, but in February he refused to condemn like-minded supporters, saying: “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
On the edge of pointless self-inflation and denial is Trump’s fixation with Vladimir Putin, whom he has claimed to know “very well”, to have spoken with “indirectly and directly”, and to have never met and “know nothing” about. Trump also falsely insists that Putin called him “a genius” (Putin called him “flamboyant”).
Not all Trump’s falsehoods are exotic. Like Clinton and many career politicians, he sprinkles misleading statistics into speeches, including on the murder rate, African American unemployment, poverty among Hispanic Americans, the deficitand taxes.
Trump also takes the tactic a step further, condensing whole arguments into outrageous soundbites. This is how a conservative argument about military presence in Iraq transformed into the claim that Obama “founded” Isis and how Clinton’s support for immigration reform became “open borders” .
Clinton has similarly oversimplified arguments into claims, for instance linking Bush-era tax cuts to the financial crisis.