How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Your Suggestions

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Fallows is on a plane once again, this time back from China, so he asked me to help compile and edit all the most insightful and varied emails among the tsunami sent to him directly and sent to our hello@ inbox. This first reader dissents over Jim’s mega-popular note, “How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media” (follow-up note here):

Public trust in institutions is very low (all-time low?), and trust in the media is particularly low. Following the advice of James Fallows will make your core readership feel righteous and satisfied and dare I say smug, but it will further erode everyone else’s trust in you. To Trump supporters, it will look like a partisan attack by the liberal media, but there’s probably no hope of winning them over anyway, so let’s put them aside for now. To many other people—regular folks who simply don’t have time or skills to weigh evidence and evaluate sources—it will just look like opposing assertions.

Instead, what if instead of making this “illegal votes” episode a story about a “tweet” or a “lie” or even a liar, the media made it a story about a serious and dangerous claim by our president-elect? What if you actually doubled-down on the “normalizing” and gave Trump every opportunity to back up his claims with evidence? What if you refused to move on from this very serious issue and instead demanded that he explain seriously and at length why he believes that three million illegal votes were cast, and why they were cast only for Clinton?

What if you refused to move on from this one tweet for several weeks? What if the media did that for every dangerous claim made by this (elected) administration, baseless or otherwise? Don’t accuse him of lying. Instead, force him to use his platform to either back it up or back down. Don’t try to shoot him; give him a rope to hang himself with.

This next reader favors the opposite approach—ignore Trump’s antics and conspiracy theories whenever possible:

One major problem not being addressed is why any news media needs to put something like Trump’s tweet reaction to the recount on the front-page or at the head of their news feed? If the claim has no evidence, then what’s news here? What is there to report? I can read the damn tweet on my own; what do I need you or the NY Times to add to it? If Trump’s claim has “no evidence,” then go ask the guy if he has evidence—and then come back to me, the reader, and report some news on that.

Another reader favors the “go ask the guy” approach but dialed way up to 11:

While reading the Ned Resnikoff quote (and essay) that Fallows linked to, here’s a scenario that played out in my mind. In an interview or press conference, an exasperated reporter says something like, “Why should the American people believe anything you have to say, given the kind of outrageous lies you’ve told over and over again? Ted Cruz’s dad was involved with the JFK assassination? Obama is the founder of ISIS? These are baseless and absurd claims. Why should any foreign leader take you seriously? Why should we in the press take your words seriously? Your outrageous lies are very similar to the type employed by autocratic rulers, who try to cause confusion, infecting people with the feeling that the truth cannot be known. We in the press reject that notion, and we see your lying as an assault on facts and reality, and we're not going to put up with it!” I’m not a good dramatist, but you get the idea.

My hope is that the moment could be something that would reverberate through the press corps and maybe through the entire body politic. It would be an emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Perhaps, this is wishful thinking, but I feel the press and the larger American public need this type of jolt.  

That reader continues:

The current overall approach from the media seems to gloss over Trump’s BS approach, moving on to things like his policy positions. But who cares about his policy positions if you can’t really believe what he says?  If he really is lying to cause confusion, rather than communicate, then his words about policy or almost anything else don’t matter. This is a do-not-pass-go situation. At this point, Trump has to prove his good faith—that he actually wants to use words to communicate ideas, not to attack the notion that we can know reality in a shared and meaningful way. If he doesn’t, some kind of consequence has to occur— maybe really hostile coverage. I’m not sure what the answer is, but to proceed with covering him as if he were a normal president would be a dangerous charade, normalizing his BS.

By the way, I also think that the press should aggressively confront the Trump transition team and Congressional supporters about Trump’s conspiracy theories and outrageous lying. What do Pence, Ryan, McConnell, et al., think about his conspiracy theories and outrageous lies? Do they believe that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can actually agree upon facts and reality? Do they believe that this is important to our democracy? Do they not think that Trump’s lies are undermining these important beliefs? If they continue to support his lying, there should some consequence for them as well.

I feel like a line has to be drawn—a line dividing those who support a reality-based community versus those who are hostile to it. The Fourth Estate should be an ardent defender of reality-based communication and decision-making. It is essential to what they do, and without it, they and our democracy die.

Along those lines, a retired Foreign Service officer is “deeply concerned about the international implications of Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud”:

Embassy staff in China or Russia are bound to be told, “It doesn’t look like your governmental system is doing so well, does it?  See, your future President is saying that your elections are rotten with fraud.” What could our people then say? For the sake of truth and the honor of the country, they can’t agree; but to disagree is to call their future boss a flagrant public liar. That he is in fact such a liar is, in that situation, beside the point. Our ability to advocate for our country is being recklessly endangered simply to satisfy Trump’s vanity.  

Speaking of that vanity, here’s reader Nate:

Your reader makes an important point about refusing to label Trump but learning how to deal with him and his personality traits. Ironically, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owns a newspaper, The Observer, that wrote an opinion article in January 2016: “How to Deal With a Narcissist: 5 Secrets Backed by Research.” It now seems like a cry for help. We now know why there are reports of Kushner being quiet when Trump talks. It’s one of the five strategies outlined in the piece. I also found an article from Psychology Today when trying to deal with a narcissist in my life: “8 Ways to Handle a Narcissist.”

A prominent person in the tech industry remarks on how the Trump is trying to play us:

Great blogging from Fallows and your readers on how the media can deal with Trump. Trolling, fake news, his lying—very serious issues for the media. I believe he and his folks are doing a lot to point “fire” when they want to distract from something else. For example, KellyAnne and the Romney thing take the heat off the conflicts of interest [here’s a link to the latter]. Trump saying something moderate on global warming or Obamacare, then, his minions/Republicans working behind the scenes destructively. Friends are reporting to me that they’re getting calls, a Trump recording, telling them to ask their representatives to push to repeal Obamacare. This is absolutely one of the hardest politicians the media has ever seen and he has an astonishing ability to manipulate.

Another reader, Mike, tries to keep us all focused on what really matters:

In addition to Fallows’ Time Capsules, I have collected a small list of similar resources:

Of course, this barely scratches the surface. I mean for Christ’s sake, he still hasn’t released his tax returns!

Many of these stories pop up and then fade away with the next news cycle (usually brought on by whatever new inane thing Trump has tweeted), so it seems to me like nothing really sticks: he is The Teflon Donald. He peddles paranoid conspiracies with a pathological persistence, and when journalists do their job, he hits back with claims of a “biased”, “rigged”, “phony”, “failing” media. This is, as they say, problematic.

This next reader thinks that even Fallows isn’t going far enough in “calling it like it is”:

In the spirit of your own blogging, in addition to using the words Lie and False and Cruel and Amoral, etc., when they fit, please use the word Propaganda. This is an intentional pattern and strategy of our Propagandist-in-Chief. Please stop calling it “a furry creature that barks and chases squirrels up trees” and start calling it a dog.

Another suggestion for the media comes from reader Greg:

I believe journalists should stop using the word “tweet” to describe the tweets that Mr. Trump so often issues. Now that he is President-elect, his tweets carry far more significance than just the off-the cuff rants of an impulsive campaigner, as was often the way they were characterized in the past year. Calling these soon-to-be-presidential statements “tweets” only reinforces the tendency to not take his comments so seriously. But these are now presidential pronouncements. They express policy, positions. If Mr. Trump is going to continue to use Twitter as a major form of communication, then give these communiques (another good word for them) the gravitas they deserve. If The Atlantic still feels a need to source them to “Twitter,” then do it a final sentence or somewhere else in the story.

Another suggestion comes from another reader named Mike:

It would be interesting to see a new Time Capsule series focused on one issue: who in the media is vying to be the next Judith Miller and Matt Cooper. Both of these individuals were totally played by the GW Bush administration and wittingly played along for their own career success. I’m sure you remember the whole Iraq war thing. Sadly, I have no doubt that a new generation of reporters have no concern for truth or hard investigative work. They are too busy fluffing their nest today. Not to mention all the financially focused, false-news web sources that have exploded in number.

Investigative journalism needs to call out its own pretenders. I believe that should be a guideline for the media in reporting on the upcoming liar-in-chief administration.

This last reader, Rob, proposes an extremely unlikely but interesting scenario:

Donald Trump has upended the political and ethical norms of American presidential campaigns. This has been said so often and has been true for so long that observers may be numb to it. The list of unprecedented acts and statements is long and varied. [Fallows assiduously chronicled them here.] None of these acts are strictly speaking illegal. Yet they are shocking nonetheless because, taken together, they reflect his view that he may do anything that is strictly speaking legal to advance his narrow personal interests. That is, Mr. Trump has implicitly rejected the idea that extra-legal social, political, and ethical norms support our democracy and enable it to function even when the nation is deeply divided.

If Donald Trump the norm-destroying candidate were to become Donald Trump the norm-destroying President, the consequences for the stability of our democratic governing institutions could be grave. Freedom will not flourish where the conduct of those in power is regulated by law alone. Those who want to “give him a chance” implicitly hope, even if they don’t necessarily expect, that the weight of the office will transform Mr. Trump into someone more attentive to the importance of long established norms.

But hope is not a plan, especially when the stakes are so high. So I am proposing that the House of Representatives prepare, and have at the ready from Day 1 of the Trump administration, draft articles of impeachment that will do what Donald Trump may be unwilling to do: enforce norms rooted in fundamental constitutional commitments.

I have drafted templates (modeled on the Articles of Impeachment of Bill Clinton) and appended them [in my email]. My examples highlight two constitutional principles worthy of protection through threat of impeachment. The first three articles deal with the potential for Mr. Trump to use his office for financial gain, either his own or that of family members or business associates. The last article deals with the potential for Mr. Trump to use the vast powers of the executive branch to impose costly, embarrassing, and disruptive investigations on his political enemies and critics.

Both kinds of abuse of power may not be strictly “illegal” in the sense of violating any governing statutes, and they are unlikely to be within the reach of courts to prevent. For that reason, it is all the more important for Congress to rise in defense of them.

I am not naive. I recognize that the House of Representatives (and the Senate) are presently in the control of the same party as Mr. Trump. The House is not going to impeach the President on the first day of his administration, and it shouldn’t. But that is not a reason to refuse to prepare them. In fact, there are several reasons to prepare the articles even if they remain in a drawer during the entirety of the Trump administration.

First, the act of publicly preparing the draft articles themselves will serve as a marker of important constitutional norms that Mr. Trump transgresses at his and the nation’s peril. Drafting model articles of impeachment will inform not only the President himself, but also those in his administration. There are constraints on the President built into the deliberative process within the executive branch. Articles of impeachment pre-drafted by members of Congress could strengthen the hands of those in the administration who see public value in restraining the self-serving impulses of the President. And, of course, drafting articles of impeachment would inform the public as well, providing a baseline against which to judge Mr. Trump’s choices.

Second, publicly preparing the draft would itself be a valuable assertion of Congress’s role in regulating the outer edge of what is a vast area of discretion committed to the executive branch. Defining the boundaries of permissible executive discretion is not a job only for the President or the Supreme Court. The President always has an interest in advancing the power of his own office. And transgressions that affect the political culture writ large may well prove out of the Court’s reach. Congress has an institutional interest in overseeing executive branch abuses. Under the unprecedented circumstances we face, with this incoming President so cavalierly expressing a willingness to abuse the powers of his office, it is especially important for Congress to declare its readiness to police the conduct of the President himself.

Third, sometimes the credible threat of deploying power is all it takes to encourage better conduct. For example, the President possesses the veto power. But he will commonly issue a veto threat, after careful internal White House deliberation, in an effort to encourage Congress to take a better course of action. Likewise here, a credible impeachment threat may be all it takes to encourage President Trump to take a better course of action.

Fourth, it is no secret that the President and many members of the Republican congressional delegation do not see eye to eye on matters of policy and personal conduct. By declaring their intention to police the President on matters of constitutional principle related to his personal conduct, the Republican leadership would be able to maintain separation from a President they have reason to fear may disappoint for lack of experience and competence across a wide array of his responsibilities. Republican members of Congress may not wish to tie their political fortunes so tightly to this President. If some meaningful number of Republicans could stand on Constitutional principle and endorse the drafting of potential articles of impeachment, Congress would be credibly threatening actual impeachment should Mr. Trump not alter his behavior.

I recognize the irony of proposing an act that runs contrary to a political norm (Congress threatening an incoming President with impeachment) in defense of political norms in general. But the damage from the election and transition process is substantial. And Mr. Trump has shown almost no indication that he is approaching his new and rather awesome responsibilities with a respect for the dignity of the office and the power it carries. Scolding the cast of a Broadway show via Twitter, and baselessly asserting that his opponent’s popular vote lead is the product of “millions” of fraudulent votes suggests that this President-elect has learned precisely the wrong lesson: that indulging his petty, self-serving impulses works. The only institution with the authority to declare that he is wrong is Congress.