As a businessman, Donald J. Trump was a serial fabulist whose biggest-best boasts about everything he touched routinely crumbled under the slightest scrutiny. As a candidate, Mr. Trump was a magical realist who made fantastical claims punctuated by his favorite verbal tic: “Believe me.”
Yet even jaded connoisseurs of Oval Office dissembling were astonished over the last week by the torrent of bogus claims that gushed from President Trump during his first days in office.
“We’ve never seen anything this bizarre in our lifetimes, where up is down and down is up and everything is in question and nothing is real,” said Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity and the author of “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity,” a book about presidential deception.
It was not just Mr. Trump’s debunked claim about how many people attended his inauguration, or his insistence (contradicted by his own Twitter posts) that he had not feuded with the intelligence community, or his audacious and evidence-free claim that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because millions of people voted for her illegally.
All week long, news organizations chased down one Trump tall tale after another. PolitiFact, a website devoted to checking the veracity of claims by public officials, published 12 “of the most misleading claims” Mr. Trump made during his first White House interview. The Chicago Tribune found that Mr. Trump was incorrect when he claimed two people were shot and killed in Chicago the very hour President Barack Obama was there delivering his farewell address. (There were no shootings, police records showed.) The Philadelphia Inquirer found that Mr. Trump was incorrect when he said the city’s murder rate was “terribly increasing.” (The murder rate has steadily declined over the last decade.) The indefatigable fact checkers at The Washington Post cataloged 24 false or misleading statements made by the president during his first seven days in office.
But for students of Mr. Trump’s long business career, there was much about President Trump’s truth-mangling ways that was familiar: the mystifying false statements about seemingly trivial details, the rewriting of history to airbrush unwanted facts, the branding as liars those who point out his untruths, the deft conversion of demonstrably false claims into a semantic mush of unverifiable “beliefs.”
Mr. Trump’s falsehoods have long been viewed as a reflexive extension of his vanity, or as his method of compensating for deep-seated insecurities. But throughout his business career, Mr. Trump’s most noteworthy deceptions often did double duty, serving not just his ego but also important strategic goals. Mr. Trump’s habitually inflated claims about his wealth, for example, fed his self-proclaimed image of a business genius even as they attracted lucrative licensing deals built around the Trump brand.
Nearly 30 years ago, in his best-selling book “The Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump memorably extolled the advantages of “truthful hyperbole,” which he described as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” It is one thing when the hyperbole comes from a reality TV star exaggerating his ratings to a roomful of television critics. The stakes are infinitely higher when it comes from the leader of the free world, and this reality is provoking alarm from many across the political spectrum.
Steve Schmidt, who helped manage Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said in an interview that Mr. Trump’s cascade of falsehoods was “a direct assault on the very idea of representative democracy” in the United States. Mr. Schmidt said that when he heard Mr. Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway defend the Trump administration’s “alternative facts” on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, he thought of George Orwell’s “1984,” in which the Ministry of Truth is emblazoned with three slogans: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
“In a democratic government, there must be truth in order to hold elected officials accountable to their sovereign, which is the people,” Mr. Schmidt said. “All authoritarian societies are built on a foundation of lies and alternative facts, and what is true is what the leader believes, or what is best for the state.”
Mr. Lewis argued that the president’s untruths were a deliberate strategy to position the nation’s leading news organizations as the enemy of his administration. “Fact-checking becomes an act of war by the media,” he said.
Indeed, last Saturday, on Day 2 of his administration, Mr. Trump told hundreds of C.I.A. employees that he had “a running war with the media” and called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” The next day, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, accused the news media of trying to “delegitimize” the new president and promised, “We are not going to sit around and let it happen.” By Wednesday, Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief White House strategist, was referring to the news media as “the opposition party” during an interview with The New York Times.
“It feels like this was part of the plan all along,” Mr. Lewis said.