Donald Trump says things that aren't true — but it might not be his fault

This problem goes further than the president

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Friday 20 September 2019 19:45 BST
Trump says that tariffs are causing the US treasury to "take in billions and billions of dollars from China"

Reporters like me who have covered the Trump administration since its earliest days have documented unprecedented numbers of false and misleading statements coming from the mouth of the President of the United States.

Depending on the reporter or the publication he or she writes for, the statements are characterized as falsehoods, misstatements, and sometimes even as lies.

But aside from enacting a de facto jobs program for fact-checkers, Trump's disdain for facts has also raised the more troubling question of whether a given falsehood is the product of a deliberate, calculated decision to lie, or of a disturbing combination of ignorance and stubbornness.

Some of the President's more sycophantic advisors have denied that Trump lies about anything, ever. After the Indian government flatly rejected his claim to have been invited to mediate the Indo-Pakistani Kashmir dispute by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I asked National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow if Trump had simply fabricated the claim.

Kudlow, ever the good soldier, replied that Trump "doesn't make things up."

One of Trump's early cabinet picks — former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — had a different view.

After an attempt to brief Trump on the complexities of America's international alliances went sideways, Tillerson delivered a harsh verdict by characterizing the President as a “f**king moron."

Also happy to weigh in were two of the men Trump once described as "my generals” — Gen. John Kelly, who was initially Trump's Homeland Security secretary, then his Chief of Staff, and his former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis. According to author Bob Woodward, Kelly once said of Trump: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything." And Mattis, Woodward reported, evaluated Trump's demeanor and understanding of the world as no better than that of a fifth or sixth grader.

Sometimes, Trump says things that call into question whether he understands basic concepts that any world leader should understand, like the time earlier this month when he dismissed a question on whether he was worried about China retaliating for his trade war tactics by selling off US Treasury securities. Trump responded by suggesting that the US could easily "refinance" the debt owed to China, as if America's sovereign debt is no different from one of the many business loans he has defaulted on and refinanced over the years.

But sovereign debt and business debt aren't the same thing and Trump's conflation of the two shows that he doesn't know the difference, said former Harvard economics department head Jeffrey Williamson. "If at any time China decided to dump dollars on the world market, that would not be a happy time for us," he explained.

Williamson suggested that Trump "doesn't seem to realize that the world holds the dollar as its main currency and loves to send investments to the US and accumulate dollars." But he questioned whether the President's failure to do so was solely the result of his own failings. "People who attain eminence are surrounded by people who have knowledge and advise, but he's just surrounded by people who have the same opinion or reflexively tell him that they agree with him because they don't want to get fired," he said. "He's surrounded by people who will support Donald Trump as long as they make money doing it."

Another of Trump's most oft-repeated falsehoods made an appearance during Friday's joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In response to an Aussie reporter's query on whether Australia would suffer any ill effects from the tariffs he has levied on what many experts would call bogus "national security" grounds, Trump repeated the baseless claim that tariffs are causing the US treasury to "take in billions and billions of dollars from China," rather than from the American companies and consumers to whom the tariffs are charged.

Asked whether Trump's repeated false statements on economic matters stem from ignorance or dishonesty, former Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary for Economic Policy Bruce Bartlett said it would be easier to list the number of subjects Trump understands than the ones he doesn't understand. "Other than how to pander to right-wingers and get busty women to have sex with him, I can't think of anything [that he actually understands]," said Bartlett, whose service at Treasury came during the George H W Bush administration.

But Bartlett, who also served in the Reagan White House in the Office of Policy Development and on the staffs of Reps. Jack Kemp, R-NY and Ron Paul, R-TX, also concurred with Williamson's assessment that Trump's apparent ignorance was exacerbated by his advisers' sycophancy. "The real problem isn't Trump's ignorance and stupidity — it's that he is surrounded by people like [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin who are just as ignorant and stupid, or too cowardly to tell him when he's wrong.”

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