Trump’s strategy for responding to these developments was the same as always: deny any wrongdoing and insist that the fault lies instead with the investigators. (“Attorney-client privilege is dead!” he tweeted. “NO COLLUSION!!!”) It’s the same instinct that has reportedly led him to argue that the voice making vulgar comments on the Access Hollywood tape isn’t really his own. In fact, the tape is real enough that federal law enforcement is reportedly looking into it as part of the investigation into Cohen.
The president is a fabulist unmoored from the truth. And the confluence of the Russia investigation and Trump’s disturbing behavior toward women shows what happens when a serial liar collides at full speed with a legal system premised on the idea that words have meaning, and actions result in consequences. Trump’s obfuscation has been alarmingly effective in the realm of politics. It will likely prove less so in the courtroom, a space reserved for evaluating facts and weighing the consistency of arguments—though as president, Trump is unlikely to find himself on the wrong end of a criminal prosecution.
A liar acts to obscure the truth, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt argues, but a bullshitter acts without reference to truth at all. Over a year into the Trump administration, an enormous amount of ink has been spilled exploring how Trump’s “indifference to how things really are,” to quote Frankfurt, poses a danger to democracy.
Trump has used this flexibility with the truth as his main weapon in his defense against the Russia investigation. The efforts of the president and his supporters to counter Mueller are less about clarifying Trump’s side of things and more about eroding faith in the possibility of ever figuring out what took place during the 2016 election. Mueller, the only person potentially in a position to really say what happened, is relentlessly criticized as “conflicted” and out of control. The rest of the time, Trump selects from a roulette wheel of conspiracy theories involving the “deep state” and Hillary Clinton—distractions that however flimsy viewed one at a time, combine to create an atmosphere of confusion around the special counsel. The point of this fabulism is to ensure no conclusion in the Russia investigation, no matter how damning, can be trusted.
The president’s denial of the Access Hollywood tape’s authenticity is a prototypical example of his “indifference to how things really are.” He previously admitted it was real when he apologized for his “locker-room talk.” Trump surely knows the voice on the tape is his own; he just doesn’t care. In a similar vein, he has repeatedly claimed, both on the campaign trail and during his presidency, that more than 16 credible allegations of sexual harassment against him are “fake news.” According to Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House’s official position is that each and every one of Trump’s accusers is lying.