Trump's Rejection of Observable Reality

The president’s acceptance of Roy Moore’s denials, and his own reported doubts about the Access Hollywood tape, again raise questions about his relationship with empiricism.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

Speaking before he left Washington for Thanksgiving, President Trump laid out a coldly rational case for backing Roy Moore, the troubled Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama. Despite the multiple women who have aired allegations running from sexual assault to merely deeply creepy behavior, Trump said, he preferred a solid vote for his agenda in the Senate.

But less noted was his analysis of the actual accusations against Moore. “Let me just tell you, Roy Moore denies it,” Trump said. “That's all I can say. He denies it. By the way, he totally denies it.” That isn’t much response to multiple allegations that even Trump’s own daughter has deemed credible, and the answer appears even stranger in light of a New York Times report over the holiday weekend.

“He sees the calls for Mr. Moore to step aside as a version of the response to the now-famous ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, in which he boasted about grabbing women’s genitalia, and the flood of groping accusations against him that followed soon after,” the paper reported. Sensible enough: As I and others have noted, there’s a strong analogy between those cases, and Trump’s survival offers the best hope for Moore.

But the paper added: “He suggested to a senator earlier this year that it was not authentic, and repeated that claim to an adviser more recently.”

The White House’s stance is that all 16 women who have accused Trump of sexual improprieties, harassment, or assault are lying. Trump’s old position on the Access Hollywood tape was that he was lying. The view he now apparently holds privately is that the tape itself is lying.

But the tape is authentic. Trump acknowledged as much when it was revealed, and apologized for his words (though not to the women upon whom he boasted about preying) while claiming that he had not actually done the things he bragged about having done. Billy Bush, the television host with whom he was speaking on the tape (and who, unlike Trump, lost his job simply for not reacting with disgust to the comments) also acknowledged it was real.

In short, the suggestion that it was not Trump on the tape is either deeply dishonest or unhinged from reality, or both. While Trump lies with abandon, and has done so throughout his career, this is a particularly curious case, one where not only is there no real dispute about reality, but in fact documentary evidence in the form of a recording of Trump discussing the acts himself.

In the early days of the Moore allegations—before Beverly Young Nelson, before the stories about how Moore’s preference for young girls was well-known, before stories about how he’d been banned from the Gadsden Mall, before the story of him calling one object of his affection at her high school—many Republicans took a cautious track, refusing to pass judgment on the claims. After the deluge, most of them quickly announced they believed the women.

The president remains an outlier. What evidence of sexual assault or harassment would Trump accept? In the Moore case, the White House’s initial move was to say that if the accusations against Moore were true, he should step aside. Then came a string of additional accusations, independently lodged but similar enough in contour to suggest a consistent approach by Moore. They were backed by various forms of circumstantial evidence. Many Republicans, from Mitch McConnell to Ivanka Trump, deemed the allegations credible. But Trump himself both reversed the White House’s previous stand, saying he backed Moore regardless of the claims, and also endorsed Moore’s denials.

This is, in a way, consistent with Trump’s approach to the allegations against him, which he has made great jumps of logic to dismiss. First there were a few stories about unwanted attention to women, ranging in degree of seriousness. Then came more, including serious allegations from Jill Harth, who said Trump repeatedly groped her and tried to force her into a bedroom at Mar-a-Lago. Finally came the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump openly boasted about improperly touching women. One didn’t even need to take the women’s allegations as truth to believe that the president’s behavior was unacceptable. Trump claimed at the time that he hadn’t really done what he said he had.

Is there any evidence that would prove allegations against Trump? If a tape of Trump making the claims himself can be explained away, even a videotape of the act might be insufficient.

Although Trump has clear motives for dismissing the Access Hollywood tape, that doesn’t indicate whether he is simply lying or really believes it. The president has no hesitations about feeding the public untruths. During his trip to Asia, he deferred comment on Moore, telling reporters, “Believe it or not, even when I’m in Washington or New York, I do not watch much television.” That statement is belied by his frequent tweets about specific segments on TV, his constant complaining about some outlets (including a fresh spree over the weekend), and his similarly frequent free advertising for Fox News. As commentators have been noting for months, the president often seems to be gaslighting the public, insisting that they can’t believe their own lying eyes, or ears. This is a potentially potent method of demagoguery, given psychological research on the fallibility of memory.

Yet there are also signs that Trump is sometimes incapable of discerning real life from fiction. The fact that the president shared his doubts about the tape not via Twitter but in private conversations—including, amazingly, with a U.S. senator—might suggest that the problem is not that Trump is out to fool the public but that he himself has fallen into the trap of rewriting his memory. That the president could be so inconstant on a matter of provable fact is for obvious reasons worrisome in the policy sphere.

It turns out, though, that there are some claims the president is prepared to accept. Trump has been quick to credit allegations made against political opponents, from groping claims against Senator Al Franken to the multiple sexual-assault and rape claims against Harvey Weinstein.

It may be that the president’s approach to the claims against Moore reflects a similarly bald political calculus. Monday morning, a White House official told the AP that Trump would not travel to Alabama to campaign on Moore’s behalf, which may represent White House pessimism about Moore’s prospects. If the president sticks to that—and as we’ve seen, he frequently reverses his own staff’s statements—it would represent a remarkable act of Solomonic baby-splitting. On the one hand, the president doesn’t think it’s worth hitting the trail for Moore, yet he also is willing to stake his credibility on dismissing all evidence against Moore. For Trump, the truth is something that can be played with, but politics is serious business.