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Trump Sits on a Throne of Lies

It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease.
April 19, 2019
Trump Sits on a Throne of Lies
(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest. Photo by Getty Images.)

Let’s start with the obvious: Every president lies. Maybe it’s a little fib. Maybe it’s “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” Maybe it’s actual perjury. After all, we live in a fallen world and saints typically don’t run for president.

All of that said, the sheer volume of falsehoods, fabrications, mistruths, and prevarications from Trump and his administration collected in the Mueller report should be disconcerting to pretty much everyone in America, regardless of party or creed. He lies to the press. He lies in official communications. He lies to his staff. He tries to get others to lie for him.

Here’s a small sample (all page numbers are from Vol. II):

Dinner with Comey

On January 27, 2017, James Comey had dinner with Donald Trump. The president said in his written response to Mueller’s questions that Comey requested this dinner for the purpose of begging for his job:

The President also indicated that he had not invited Comey to dinner, telling a reporter that he thought Comey had “asked for the dinner” because “he wanted to stay on.” (page 35)

This was not the only time Trump alleged that Comey begged for his job at the dinner meeting. In the official letter that Trump wrote on May 5, 2017, in the run-up to firing Comey, Mueller reports that

The letter stated that Comey had “asked [the President] at dinner shortly after inauguration to let [Comey] stay on in the Director’s role . . . (page 65)

Comey disputes this account. According to Comey, Trump invited him to dinner. At the dinner, according to Comey, “the President repeatedly brought up Comey’s future, asking whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director.” The president brought up Michael Flynn, who was then under FBI investigation. And then Trump said, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” (page 34)

Attempting to reconcile these wildly divergent accounts, the Mueller report finds that:

Substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account of the dinner invitation and the request for loyalty. The President’s Daily Diary confirms that the President “extend[ed] a dinner invitation” to Comey on January 27. … Comey documented the President’s request for loyalty in a memorandum he began drafting the night of the dinner; senior FBI officials recall that Comey told them about the loyalty request shortly after the dinner occured; and Comey described the request while under oath in congressional proceedings and in a subsequent interview with investigators. … Comey’s memory of the details of the dinner, including that the President requested loyalty, has remained consistent throughout. (page 35)

Robert Mueller’s Conflicts

After Mueller was appointed as special counsel, Trump sought to have him removed because of supposed “conflicts of interest.” Some of these alleged conflicts—for instance, that Mueller had disputed a fee as a member of a Trump golf course—were merely “ridiculous” (that’s Steve Bannon’s verdict on them, not mine, see page 81).

But one of them was particularly interesting:

[T]he President repeatedly told advisors, including Priebus, Bannon, and McGahn, that Special Counsel Mueller had conflicts of interest. The President cited as conflicts that Mueller had interviewed for the FBI director position shortly before being appointed as Special Counsel . . . (page 80)

Here is the report’s explanation of the truth of that “interview”:

As for Mueller’s interview for FBI Director, Bannon recalled that the White House had invited Mueller to speak to the President to offer perspective on the institution of the FBI. Bannon said that, although the White House thought about beseeching Mueller to become Director again, he did not come looking for a job. (page 81)

The Attempt to Fire Mueller

On June 17, 2017, the president called White House counsel Don McGahn and instructed him to call Rod Rosenstein and tell Rosenstein to fire Mueller. (You can read the summary here or start on page 85 of the report.)

The press eventually learned about this exchange and reported it. When reporters asked Trump about the story he replied, “Fake news, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake story.” (page 114)

That was just the first lie:

The next day, on February 5, 2018, the President complained about the Times article to Porter. The President told Porter that the article was “bullshit” and he had not sought to terminate the Special Counsel. (page 115)

And then, Trump undertook an attempt to coerce McGahn into lying to the press to contradict the truth. Trump had his personal lawyer call McGahn’s personal lawyer saying that “the President wanted McGahn to put out a statement denying that he had been asked to fire the Special Counsel …”

Trump then had Sarah Sanders contact McGahan and request that he dispute the Times story.

Then Trump “directed Porter to tell McGahn to create a record to make clear that the President never directed McGahn to fire the Special Counsel.” (page 115)

Fake News

Trump’s characterization of the NYT’s McGahn story as “Fake News” was, itself, fake news. And as the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi documents, a number of false statements to the press emanated from the White House.

For instance, after Comey was fired, Sarah Sanders’ claimed that “we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI” that they were “grateful and thankful” that Trump had sacked Comey.

This was simply not true:

Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from “countless members of the FBI” was a “slip of the tongue.” She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made “in the heat of the moment” that was not founded on anything. (page 72)

Sanders wasn’t the only staffer lying to the press on the president’s behalf.

During the transition, the Washington Post ran a story about Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russians in which they discussed sanctions. In response:

Flynn directed [Deputy National Security Advisor K.T.] McFarland to call the Washington Post columnist and inform him that no discussion of sanctions had occurred. McFarland recalled that Flynn said words to the effect of, “I want to kill the story.” McFarland made the call as Flynn had requested although she knew she was providing false information . . . (page 29)

There’s more. As the Trump Tower meeting story was breaking, Trump and his administration worked to put out disinformation. Not spin—actual false information. It was widely reported at the time that Trump himself helped draft a misleading statement from Donald Trump Jr. about the meeting. And then denied that he’d helped draft the statement. But that’s not all. Here’s how it went down on Air Force One:

Later on the flight home, [Hope] Hicks went to the President’s cabin, where the President was on the phone with one of his personal attorneys. At one point the President handed the phone to Hicks, and the attorney told Hicks that he had been working with Circa News on a separate story, and that she should not talk to the New York Times. . . .

Before the President’s flight home from the G20 landed, the New York Times published its story about the June 9, 2016 meeting. In addition to the statement from Trump Jr., the Times story also quoted a statement from Corallo on behalf of the President’s legal team suggesting that the meeting might have been a setup by individuals working with the firm that produced the Steele reporting. Corallo also worked with Circa News on a story published an hour later that questioned whether Democratic operatives had arranged the June 9 meeting to create the appearance of improper connections between Russia and Trump family members. (page 103)

Ever heard of Circa News? Curious as to why the White House would be working closely with a website you’ve never heard of to produce a story that is Just Asking Questions about how maybe it was the Democrats behind the whole Trump Tower meeting?

All White Houses spin. All White Houses lean on friendly news outlets. When is the last time you saw a White House constructing actual disinformation through a fly-by-night website?

Lies. Lies. Lies.

There’s so much more. There’s the shifting cascade of lies over the drafting of Don Jr.’s Trump Tower statement (which was itself a lie, page 105). There’s the moment where Trump clears the room so he can talk to Comey alone, and then lies about having done so (page 44). There’s the incident where Trump instructs Rod Rosenstein to call a press conference and lie in order to corroborate Trump’s lie about why he fired Comey (page 70).

At some point, the lies become so overwhelming that you start to feel sympathy for the people who work for Trump. They can’t ever know whether or not their boss is telling them the truth. Because of this, they can’t ever be 100 percent sure that they aren’t unwittingly communicating falsehoods themselves. And they are constantly on guard for the moment when their boss may demand that they publicly lie for him.

In the Trump White House, lying isn’t something that’s just done for rhetorical purposes. Or to push a policy. Or to get favorable press coverage. It’s everywhere. It’s everything.

And this lying creates a very real problem for the public.

Do you remember when Michael Cohen testified before Congress? The president’s supporters noted that Cohen was an admitted liar and that everything he said needed to be discounted, that he could not be afforded the presumption of truthfulness. That is not an unreasonable position.

And now we have to apply it to the president of the United States and a great number of people who work for him.

How is Sarah Sanders supposed to do her job now that she has been exposed as having made statements that were outright falsehoods, unfounded on anything?

How is the media supposed to treat official comments from the administration, when people from the administration have provided knowingly false statements? Every administration deserves a healthy dose of skepticism from the press but normal presidents try to be honest for the sake of establishing trust. Trump doesn’t care about that.

How is our government supposed to function when everyone in the executive branch knows that that the chief executive may be lying to them? When legislators cannot trust anything said by the president or his emissaries?

How is the public supposed to treat statements by the president when they know that he frequently lies not just to the press, and to his fellow citizens, but even to the people who are most loyal to him?

All presidents are politicians. Every president lies.

But not like this.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.