Donald Trump did not merely lie to exaggerate his accomplishments, or smear his opponents. For Trump and the Republican Party, lies were a loyalty test. To reject Trump’s lies or exaggerations, even if they contradicted prior assertions by the now-ex-president, was to express disloyalty, the only Trump-era sin that was unforgivable by his faithful. This allowed the president to fashion for his supporters alternate realities whose tenets could not be questioned, such as his false allegations of voter fraud.
That was not the only lie of consequence, of course. The president manufactured terrorism threats from the left, and suppressed warnings about those on the right. He punished government officials who properly engaged in oversight and rewarded those who misled the public as he wanted. Most damaging, he lied about the scope and danger of a pandemic that is on course to kill half a million Americans. Listing his lies would require more time than I can offer here.
The Biden era presages a return to typical presidential dishonesty, without the cult of personality that defined the Trump era. But presidential lies were destructive long before Trump appeared, so the press and the public should resist the temptation to assume that the Biden administration will always be on the level, or that its dishonesties can be forgiven because Biden’s predecessor wielded falsehood with such abandon. There will be moments when the public interest conflicts with the political interest of the White House, and during some of these moments, the president will lie.
Presidents lie for all sorts of reasons. Lyndon B. Johnson lied about the Vietnam War, as did Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Ronald Reagan lied about selling weapons to Iran to fund right-wing militants in Nicaragua. George H. W. Bush lied about raising taxes; his son George W. Bush lied to facilitate his push for war in Iraq. Barack Obama lied about how the Affordable Care Act would affect preexisting health-insurance plans. Prior to becoming president, Biden was known for bluster and exaggerations, including most memorably the falsehood that he was arrested while trying to visit an imprisoned Nelson Mandela. These are deceptions, not mere errors of fact, which all mortals make.
Sometimes presidents lie because the politics of their actions are inconvenient. Sometimes they lie because they believe the facts would harm national security. Sometimes they lie to cover up their own misdeeds. Sometimes they lie to conceal friction between themselves and their political allies, or even their political adversaries. Sometimes they are simply bluffing; other times they will lie by omission, misdirection, or understatement. We are unlikely to be treated to the spectacle of obsequious Cabinet members publicly licking Biden’s boots on camera, but that is not the standard upon which presidents should be judged.
Already, Biden has sought to mislead the public by setting expectations for vaccinations that experts have said are too modest—which will allow the president to declare his approach a great success if the goal is exceeded. On Thursday, Biden insisted that 100 million vaccinations in 100 days was an ambitious goal that the press had declared impossible.
I found it fascinating—yesterday the press asked the question: Is, you know, 100 million enough? A week before, they were saying, “Biden, are you crazy? You can’t do 100 million in 100 days.” Well, we’re going to, God willing, not only do 100 million, we’re going to do more than that. But this is—we have to do this. We have to move.
This was, in fact, false—the Trump administration had nearly reached that pace by the time Biden took office, despite its mishandling of both the pandemic itself and vaccine supply. Speaking to The Washington Post, the vaccine scientist Peter Hotez said that “1 million vaccinations per day is not nearly enough if the aim is to halt virus transmission in six months.” The Biden administration has since claimed that the 100 million target was “a floor, not a ceiling.” On Monday Biden announced a new target of 150 million vaccines over the next hundred days, a tacit acknowledgment that the original goal was not as ambitious as he had claimed.
Biden’s remarks are nowhere near as egregious as Trump’s insistence that the virus would “disappear,” but Trumpian lies should be neither floor nor ceiling. The standard should be the plain truth, even though the Biden administration will, at times, inevitably fail to meet it. Biden will lie. All presidents do.