December 10, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Stop Dismissing Donald Trump’s Malicious Lies as Conspiracy Theory
The intent isn't just to deceive. It's to harm.
Michael Horowitz is the inspector general for the United States Department of Justice. He released on Monday a widely anticipated assessment of the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. I’ll leave legal and police procedural analysis to the experts. What matters to me is that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the president and the Republicans Party have been peddling a fictional narrative.
Donald Trump and his allies have been telling a story of a “deep state” in league with the Democratic Party, especially the Obama administration, that infiltrated and spied on the Trump campaign to bring down the future president. He triumphed in the end and against all odds, and now the true representative of the people has exposed “the truth.” America’s enemies within were conspiring to destroy a hero of the republic.
As CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin said, “Not true. Never happened.”
The press corps really can’t handle mass viral lying.
The Horowitz report does indeed call out the FBI for making serious mistakes in law enforcement. But as Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution wrote Monday, “the problems were not political in character. There was no effort to ‘get’ candidate Trump. There was no ‘insurance policy.’ There was no coup. There was no treason. … There was, rather, a properly predicated investigation that began when the FBI has always said it began and because of the information the FBI has always said triggered it.”
If you read the political press, you know that Trump and the Republicans are “challenging” the report’s findings. But as Jonathan Bernstein wrote this morning, “challenging” seriously understates what’s happening. The Bloomberg columnist said: “a lot of Republicans from the president on down are … flat-out lying about a report that debunked conspiracy theories that they’ve been running with for a long time.”
Bernstein said it’s up to the press corps to explain to the public what’s true and what’s false. He has more faith than I do. Political reporters continue to explain Trump’s lies as if they were delusions of grandeur or conspiracy theories easily dismissed. They are neither. They should not be dismissed no matter how crazy they make us feel. It’s one thing for normal people to believe lies. It’s another for the president, the Republican Party, and a massive right-wing media apparatus to promote lies knowingly. This isn’t only a fictional narrative, as Fiona Hill put it. It’s much worse. It’s a malicious narrative.
The president said Monday the IG report is proof positive of an “overthrow of the government, an attempted overthrow—and a lot of people were in on it.” Steve Scalise, who’s in the House Republican leadership, wrote on Twitter yesterday: “The IG report proves Obama officials abused their FISA power to trigger an investigation into @realDonaldTrump’s campaign. Just more evidence Dems will break any rule or law to rig an election against Trump. These crooked bureaucrats must be held accountable!”
That, my friend, isn’t just lying. It’s knowing and, thus, full of malice. The point is not only to deceive. It’s to injure. Injuring our faith in the truth benefits the president. It establishes a political pretext for justifying anything, including even more shameless lying without a shred of concern for one’s reputation. Or worse: political violence.
But it’s worse than that. Lies can have material consequences.
The Trump administration is right now trying to turn the president’s lies into policy, which will in turn bend political reality to his will. The US Attorney General, William Barr, said yesterday after the release of the IG’s report that he disagrees with its conclusions. He did not present evidence as to why, only that the investigation of the investigation is ongoing. His hand-picked investigator, attorney John Dunham, said he found evidence contravening Horowitz, but didn’t say what the evidence was. Barr and Durham are in effect giving cover to the right-wing media to continue peddling a fictional narrative that is really a malicious narrative that is fundamentally fascist.
The press corps is not equipped to handle such mass viral lying. It can fact-check, sure, but the lies pile up faster than battalions of reporters can debunk them. The press corps should be asking: At what point do we stop wondering whether Trump’s statements are true and start presuming, given our experience, that his statements are false? At what point do we stop giving a known liar the benefit of the doubt and start addressing his statements skeptically and demanding proof before repeating them?
From what I can tell, we are nowhere near that point.
We should be.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.