The controversy on the front burner at the White House this week is Donald Trump’s weakness towards Saudi Arabia, which the president justifies by pointing to a $110 billion arms deal that, in reality, does not exist. On a daily basis, Trump has pointed to the deal in staggeringly dishonest ways, lying about its size, its job impact, and the effort he invested in the non-existent agreement.
This is, by any fair measure, a powerful reminder that this president is a uniquely dishonest figure, not only in White House history, but in modern American public life. Trump lies about matters large and small as a matter of course – even when he doesn’t have to, even when the truth would be equally effective.
And yet, some on the right believe this is the wrong metric upon which to evaluate the Republican’s truthfulness. As odd as this may sound, some conservatives believe Trump’s lies and Trump’s honesty are two entirely independent things that need not overlap.
The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, for example, a former speechwriter in the Bush/Cheney White House, wrote a deeply strange column – which delighted Donald Trump – praising the current president for, of all things, honesty.
Donald Trump may be remembered as the most honest president in modern American history.
Don’t get me wrong, Trump lies all the time. He said that he “enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history” (actually they are the eighth largest) and that “our economy is the strongest it’s ever been in the history of our country” (which may one day be true, but not yet). In part, it’s a New York thing – everything is the biggest and the best.
But when it comes to the real barometer of presidential truthfulness – keeping his promises – Trump is a paragon of honesty.
Just so we’re clear, I didn’t edit this excerpt in a misleading way. Thiessen really did write, in successive sentences, that Trump “lies all the time” and that he may be remembered “as the most honest president in modern American history.”
And for the conservative columnist, this makes perfect sense.
Similarly, Politico spoke this week with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was asked if he’d consider the current president a role model to his young children. “I think he is a role model in that he’s actually following through on his promises,” the far-right congressman replied.
The painfully obvious problem with describing Trump as “honest” is that he’s staggeringly dishonest, and in English, those two words are supposed to be opposites. This president lies with such reckless abandon that more than a few observers have pressed the White House with awkward questions about Trump’s mental stability – because in too many instances, his false claims suggest he struggles to tell the difference between fact and fiction.
To hear Thiessen tell it, the word “honesty” is due for a rebranding – and in our new understanding of the word, flagrant and seemingly uncontrollable lying shouldn’t be seen as a deal-breaker. Trump is “a paragon of honesty,” the columnist asks us to believe, despite his routine deceptions, thanks to his record of kept promises.
It’s discouraging because it suggests we’ve reached the uncomfortable stage in our public discourse at which the left and right can no longer even agree on what “honesty” means.
But the argument is equally problematic because the idea that this president has kept his word by delivering on his promises is folly.
Remember when Trump promised to get Mexico to pay for a border wall? How about his promise to shrink the deficit and balance the budget? Or maybe his assurances that he’d repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something that would cover everyone at a lower cost? Or how about his vow to push a $1 trillion infrastructure package? Each of these promises were pillars of Candidate Trump’s message, and each have been broken.
Trump said he’d shield entitlements from cuts. He said he’d improve the United States’ international standing. He said he’d release his tax returns. He said he’d reform the tax code and ask the wealthy to pay more. He said he’d combat corruption in D.C. and reduce the influence of special-interest lobbyists.
In fact, the irony of the Trump-is-honest-because-he-keeps-his-promises pitch is that Trump insists he’s kept his promises – which is inherently dishonest in light of of his many broken promises.