Certainly, Trump is unusual in being willing to fight this fight. Other presidents, faced with firestorms of controversy, tend to lie low and hope the moment passes. Trump’s answer is to call a press conference and plead his case, going around his communications staff. The condolence flap shows the risks of that approach.
Yet the idea that Trump believes all, or even most of this stuff, is difficult to credit. Even as he dismisses unflattering polling, he has revealed himself in the past as an assiduous pollwatcher. Nor can he believe that his relationship with McConnell is as good as he claims, having spent months deriding him. It can’t be a coincidence that Trump’s habit of protesting too much seems to coincide closely with low points; the worse things are, the harder he spins. The Dow only comes up in presidential tweets when the other indices of presidential success are down.
Instead, Trump’s PR strategy seems to resemble the way he approached his real-estate business: a mix of bluster, misdirection, and fake-it-’til-you-make-it. The tendency to simply make things up is most evident at Trump’s eponymous tower, which he boasts has 68 stories—when, in fact, it only has 58. But another example came in the recent story of how the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigated, and then decided under murky circumstances not to charge, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for making false representations about the beleaguered Trump Soho development.
The siblings claimed that the tower had sold 31, then 55, then 60 percent of units. As ProPublica and The New Yorker reported, “None of that was true. According to a sworn affidavit by a Trump partner filed with the New York attorney general’s office, by March of 2010, almost two years after the press conference, only 15.8 percent of units had been sold.”
In trying to convince the prosecutor not to charge them, Trumps’ lawyers effectively argued that such statements were an essential part of doing business in real estate:
The defense team acknowledged that the Trumps made some exaggerated statements in order to sell the units. But this was mere “puffery”— harmless exaggeration. Such language, they contended, didn’t amount to criminal conduct. The Trumps weren’t selling useless swampland in Florida. The condos existed. And the buyers’ money was in escrow the entire time.
They’d learned the trade from their father, of course. He has repeatedly shown a willingness to lie about things in the service of trying to make them happen. Why would he change now? As Senator Bob Corker is only the latest to realize, Trump has not changed his character or approach since becoming president.
There is a third possibility, which is that Trump sees no meaningful difference between the two. In The Art of the Deal, he introduced the oxymoronic concept of “truthful hyperbole,” suggesting that one could both be not telling the truth and also, somehow, be trying to convey the truth … even while employing untruths to sway someone’s opinion. Trump discussed a similar idea during a 2007 deposition, in which he explained, “You always want to put the best foot forward.”
“I try and be truthful,” Trump said. “I’m no different from a politician running for office.” Truer words may have never been spoken—at least not by him.