When Donald Trump first spoke to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos this week, the president was preoccupied with reports about his poor standing in public opinion polls. Stephanopoulos asked why he was so bothered by the reports.
“Because, it’s untrue,” Trump replied. “I like the truth. I’m actually a very honest guy.”
It was his use of the word “actually” that stood out for me. The president must realize on some level that he’s seen as one of the world’s most flamboyantly dishonest people – a reputation he’s earned by lying so frequently, more than a few observers have raised concerns about his mental stability.
“I’m actually a very honest guy” is a hilariously false claim, but it comes with an unfortunate subtext: Trump almost seemed to suggest, “It might surprise people to hear that I’m honest, but…”
A day later, NPR’s Steve Inskeep sat down with Peter Navarro, a controversial White House figure who’s helping guide the president’s agenda on trade. The host inquired about Trump’s claims about a secret side deal with Mexico:
INSKEEP: I do have to ask … about this purported secret agreement. The president says he has one. Mexico says he doesn’t have one. Who’s not telling the truth?
NAVARRO: The president always tells the truth.
As best as I can tell, Navarro wasn’t trying to be funny. He actually expects people to believe that Trump is honest.
To be sure, it would be great if anyone could take boasts like these seriously, but in this presidency, it’s just not an option. Trump has proven himself to be untrustworthy. His lies are innumerable.
The result is a crisis of credibility that the White House may not fully appreciate, but which the president and his team are nevertheless being forced to confront.
In a brief exchange with reporters this week, Trump insisted that his secret side deal with Mexico is real. “I just give you my word,” the Republican said, as if his word were still believable.
It’s not. A recent focus group of Trump voters in Wisconsin found that they had a rather specific problem with the president: his brazen dishonesty.
It’s against this backdrop that the Trump administration is making a series of provocative accusations about Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials haven’t presented much in the way of proof, but they seem to believe the public can and should have confidence in their claims.
And in case this isn’t painfully obvious, it’s at this point that the White House needs to realize that its credibility crisis matters. Trump and his team don’t have the luxury of lying – about matters large and small – for years, getting caught, showing indifference to the very idea of objective reality, and then effectively saying, “Trust us.”
About a year ago, when White House press briefings were still a thing, there was an extraordinary moment between ABC News’ Jonathan Karl and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The reporter asked, “[W]hen the president so often says things that turn out not to be true, when the president and the White House show what appears to be a blatant disregard for the truth, how are the American people to trust or believe what is said here and what is said by the president?”
In a normal White House, such a question would be unthinkable. But in the Trump era, it was unavoidable.
Elections have consequences, but so too does an avalanche of mendacity.