How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The Washington Post on November 27. Headlines like this are a step toward recognizing the plain reality of today’s politics.

A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies. Is there any way for democratic institutions to cope? This is our topic in the post-Thanksgiving week.


Being back in China in the U.S.-election aftermath naturally leads to thoughts about how societies function when there is no agreed-on version of “reality,” public knowledge, or news.

We take for granted that this was a challenge for Soviet citizens back in the Cold War days, when they relied on samizdat for non-government-authorized reports and criticisms. Obviously it’s a big issue for China’s public now. But its most consequential effects could be those the United States is undergoing, which have led to the elevation of the least prepared, most temperamentally unfit, least public-spirited person ever to assume the powers of the U.S. presidency.

The United States is seeing both a chronic and an acute new version of this public-information problem. The chronic version, recognized but nowhere close to being solved, is the rise of separate fact-universes into which different segments of society silo themselves—occurring at the same time as the “normal” news media are struggling against economic and other pressures.

The acute version is the emergence as president-elect of a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care. Tiniest example: On a single day during the campaign, Trump claimed that the National Football League had sent him a letter complaining that the presidential-debate schedule conflicted with NFL games (which the NFL immediately denied), and then he said the Koch brothers had begged him to accept their donations (which they also flat-out denied).

Most people would hesitate before telling easily disprovable lies like these, much as shoplifters would hesitate if the store owner is looking at them. Most people are fazed if caught in an outright lie. But in these cases and others, Trump never blinked. As part of his indispensable campaign coverage this summer, David Fahrenthold (and Robert O’Harrow) of The Washington Post offered astonishing documentation of Trump being caught in a long string of business-related lies and simply not caring.

The news media are not built for someone like this.

Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. To close the loop, knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.

None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.

How can the press gird for action? Here are three early indications from the news:


1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst, The Washington Post and The LA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.” The Post used the headline at the top of this item, and the one below on another fact-check report:

From The Washington Post on Sunday

The LAT also took this approach in an online story:

By contrast, the version I’ve seen from the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.

NY Times on Sunday

What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.

A long-experienced figure in the news business sent me a note about the contrasting Post and NYT stories:

It’s not that Trump cited no evidence, it’s that the claim itself is groundless. Reading The Times, you would think that Trump broke a debating rule.

Now look at the two ledes, emphases mine.


WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump said on Sunday that he had fallen short in the popular vote in the general election only because millions of people had voted illegally, leveling his claim — despite the absence of any such evidence — as part of a daylong storm of Twitter posts voicing anger about a three-state recount push.


President-elect Donald Trump spent Sunday ridiculing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign for joining a recount effort in Wisconsin, ending his day on Twitter by parroting a widely debunked conspiracy theory that her campaign benefited from massive voter fraud.

Subtler, perhaps, than their respective headlines, but one reflects the essential truth whereas the other is merely fatuously accurate.


2) Fighting for Reality Itself. I highly recommend this new essay by Ned Resnikoff at the Think Progress site. It explains the chaos-generating logic of Trump’s seemingly illogical stream of nonstop lies big and small, which Resnikoff traces to reality TV, to Breitbart and Steve Bannon, and to Vladimir Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov. It also lays out very different responsibilities for the press and public institutions from what they have assumed their duties to be. A sample about the media:

If the United States is to remain a liberal democracy, then Trump’s non-linear warfare needs to fail. Politics needs to once again become grounded in some kind of stable, shared reality. It’s not clear how that could happen. But there are at least a couple of steps that anti-authoritarians can make right away...

Journalists need to understand what Trump is doing and refuse to play by his rules. He is going to use the respect and deference typically accorded to the presidency as an instrument for spreading more lies. Reporters must refuse to treat him like a normal president and refuse to bestow any unearned legitimacy on his administration.

They must also give up their posture of high-minded objectivity — and, along with it, any hope of privileged access to the Trump White House. The incoming president has made clear that he expects unquestioning obedience from the press, and will regard anyone who doesn’t give it to him as an enemy.

Seriously, please read and reflect on this essay. Also, please read Michael Tomasky’s latest essay in The Daily Beast.


3) Dealing with this kind of man. While I was chronicling Donald Trump’s lies, outbursts, and attention-failures in the Time Capsule series, I received a large amount of mail offering medical hypotheses for why he might behave the way he did. I suspect the same is true of most other reporters who have written about him. And like most other press operations, while the campaign was underway The Atlantic deliberately decided not to “medicalize” any discussion of Trump’s behavior. Most of us are not doctors; even the doctors who were writing to us had not dealt with Trump firsthand; and from a civic point of view, the real issue was the behavior itself, not whatever label you might attach to it.

The campaign is now over; Trump is set to assume enormous power; and the world and the country need to understand how to deal with him. A reader with professional expertise in this field has sent a note on how journalism should prepare for Trump, especially in thinking about his nonstop string of lies.

Again, to be clear, this reader is not “medicalizing” Trump’s behavior or recommending that the press do so. But there are common-sense meanings for terms to describe behavior, which we can use without relying on a medical diagnosis. We can say someone seems cruel without saying he’s a psychopath; that he seems amoral without claiming he’s a sociopath; that he seems moody or depressed without implying a clinical diagnosis. And in common-sense terms, anyone can see that Trump’s behavior is narcissistic, regardless of underlying cause. I turn it over to the reader:

Now that he is poised to assume power, I (and a lot of others) are feeling some urgency around holding his worst tendencies in check and preventing him from following through on his noxious campaign challenges.

It troubles me to observe that so far the news media are having trouble when they deal with him directly. I am seeing good investigative reporting on his conflicts of interest, for instance, but it looked like the NY Times just sort of rolled over when they interviewed him in person.

Nobody seems to realize that normal rules do not apply when you are interviewing a narcissist. You can’t go about this in the way you were trained, because he is an expert at manipulating the very rules you learned. It’s clear to me that reporters (and anyone else) who will deal with DT directly need to take a crash course in handling someone displaying these behaviors.

The Times got in trouble by trying to make sense of his words. It’s an easy mistake for people in a word-saturated medium to make, but anyone who’s dealt with a narcissist knows you never, ever believe what they say—because they will say whatever the person they are talking to wants to hear. DT is a master at phrasing things vaguely enough that multiple listeners will be able to hear exactly what they want. It isn’t word salad; it’s overt deception, which is much more pernicious.  

But the Times fell for it. I’m watching the same mistake get made over and over again, but I don’t know how to help journalists get out of the trap. If we are going to survive the days ahead, someone needs to teach reporters the difference between naming narcissism—[JF note: which, to emphasize, there is no point doing]— vs. dealing effectively with a narcissist.  

There's a ton of information out there about how to deal with narcissists. I would really like to see journalists get as interested in the topic—and adept at the strategies—as abused spouses are. We need to somehow widely disseminate ideas for dealing with it.