Trump’s Credibility Deficit

The day after the inauguration, Donald Trump sent his press secretary out in front of cameras to lie to the public. Spicer harangued reporters, telling them that the crowd that witnessed Trump’s inauguration was the largest to ever witness a presidential inauguration ceremony. Photos clearly showed this was not the case. Subway ridership for that day implied it was not the case. The administration could not point to any piece of real evidence that it was, in fact, a larger crowd than had attended inaugurations past.

Later that same month, Trump advanced the notion that 3-5 million people voted illegally, costing him the popular vote. He did this on Twitter, and in a private meeting with lawmakers. This claim has no basis in fact, but the White House sent out White House policy adviser Stephen Miller to defend it anyways. Miller pointed to alleged irregularities in New Hampshire to bolster the president’s claim, but failed to offer any further evidence when pressed.

In March, Trump tweeted, without citing evidence, that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. He sent Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders out to defend him. They argued that people should not press Trump for evidence, because they don’t have access to the information he does.

In May, Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Sanders, Vice President Mike Pence, and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein all came forward with the idea that Trump fired Comey based on the recommendation of Rosenstein (and not, as many assumed, in order to put a damper on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election), a story that didn’t seem plausible at the time, and one that completely collapsed after Trump went on TV and said that he was going to do it regardless of the advice he got from the Justice Department, and that he did it in order to stymie the Russia story.

Later that same week, Trump reportedly revealed classified information to the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador in the Oval Office. National security adviser H.R. McMaster went in front of cameras that night and declared the story false, but went on to deny only things that weren’t reported in the story. McMaster’s defense of Trump relied on the idea that Trump did not disclose “sources and methods” to the Russians (something the Washington Post story did not allege). Trump then, on Monday, revealed in front of cameras that Israel was the source (ironically, he did this in the midst of denying that he had revealed Israel was the source).

Trump does something. The media, naturally, has questions. Trump then sends out surrogates to lie or obscure the truth about it. Often, though not every time, Trump will then contradict his own surrogates’ lies with some other version of the story.

In the first three cases above, surrogates were mustered to defend falsehoods uttered by Trump. In the fourth, they were forced to defend a lie he admitted was a lie within 48 hours. In the last case, McMaster had to go to try and put out a fire Trump started needlessly, because he blabbed about highly classified intel to an adversary.

My question is, why would anybody want to work for this guy? He forces the people around him to tell lies to the public, and then does not even back them on those lies. Long-time surrogates like Conway and Sanders have no credibility left (Conway rarely appears on television now). Spicer spent most of his in service of a ridiculous invention. Pence, Rosenstein, and McMaster have all taken hits to their reliability as well. And for what purpose?

In all but one of the cases above, the purpose served by lying was to protect the president from the consequences of something he had done. In the other (the Spicer crowd-size debacle), it was to massage the president’s ego. The administration never would have had to expend its credibility had it not been for wholly avoidable decisions the president had made. Trump did not need to have the largest inaugural ceremony. He did not need to tweet about illegal votes or wiretapping. He did not need to fire Jim Comey or divulge secrets to the Russians. Clearly, he would have been better off had he decided against all of those actions.

It does not seem to be within Trump’s power to control himself, though, or to think strategically about what will be best for him long-term. He believes his base will stick with him, and he is probably right, but Trump needs more than his base to stick with him if he is to win reelection or strengthen his majorities in Congress. He needs more than his base if he ever needs to communicate important information to the public, or if he ever desires to explain the rationale of a controversial decision. It actually matters that people believe the president and his team when they speak. Right now, much of the country doesn’t believe Trump when he speaks, and they don’t believe him because he has a long, unbroken history of lying for personal gain. His people now have a similar track record, and their credibility issues ultimately fall at the feet of the president, because without him, there would be little need to lie so obviously or so loudly.

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