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Why Trump keeps struggling with the meaning of 'exoneration'

Whenever Donald Trump uses the word “exoneration,” he’s lying. Take his amazing response to the Fulton County special grand jury, for example.


Donald Trump has spent months expressing intense public anxiety about a Georgia investigation into alleged election interference, and yesterday’s revelations didn’t do the former president any favors. While the Republican wasn’t directly referenced in released portions of a special grand jury report, the document further discredited Trump’s lies about the 2020 election results, and left open the possibility that he might yet be indicted.

It was against this backdrop that the former president published a brief missive to his social media platform a few hours after the partial report was released. Trump’s message read in its entirety:

“Thank you to the Special Grand Jury in the Great State of Georgia for your Patriotism & Courage. Total exoneration. The USA is very proud of you!!!”

No, really, that’s what it said.

First, there simply isn’t any reason for the Republican to feel encouraged by the special grand jury’s document. As my MSNBC colleague Jordan Rubin explained, the partial report may not have mentioned Trump by name, but it “has everything to do with him” and “even the limited portions released suggest he did do something wrong.”

And second, Trump’s use of the word “exoneration” is truly amazing.

For those who’ve kept an eye on the former president’s rhetoric over time, he has some unmistakable tells. When Trump tells stories, for example, about big, burly men who profess their love for him while crying, he’s lying. When he vows to release information in “two weeks,” he’s lying.

And similarly, when the Republican uses the word “exoneration,” he’s lying. Let’s revisit some our earlier coverage and take a stroll down memory lane.

In March 2018, Trump claimed that the House Intelligence Committee had completely exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That wasn’t true.

In June 2018, Trump said the Justice Department inspector general’s office had “totally” exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That was both wrong and kind of bonkers.

In February 2019, Trump claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee had also exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That also wasn’t true.

In March 2019, Trump claimed the judge in a Paul Manafort trial exonerated him, too. That also wasn’t true.

In June 2021, Trump claimed he’d been “totally exonerated” by testimony from former White House Counsel Don McGahn, which was largely the opposite of the truth.

And now, in February 2023, he’s used the same ridiculous phrase in response to the special grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia.

There’s no great mystery as to the former president’s motivations. Trump has faced a series of criminal investigations, each of which have caused political damage, and he’s been desperate to convince the public that he’s been cleared — in every instance — of any meaningful wrongdoing.

But either Trump doesn’t know what “exonerated” means or he’s spent years trying to deceive the public about his culpability in a variety of serious scandals.