For some reason, there remains a public debate about whether the president of the United States is honest or inclined toward autocracy. There’s a certain logic to this: Voters don’t want to believe they elected a chronic liar or a skeptic of democracy and rule of law, and the traditional conventions of press coverage prevent mainstream media from stating otherwise plainly.
Yet on a regular basis, Donald Trump speaks publicly and makes clear both his dishonesty and autocratic impulses. Friday was an especially clear demonstration.
The president strode out from the White House in the morning, first appearing on Fox and Friends alongside Steve Doocy, and then taking some questions from reporters on the lawn of the executive mansion. While he covered a range of topics, and went through many of his greatest hits, the most notable elements were his praise for the totalitarian rule of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his own declarations of criminal behavior by political opponents, and a series of easily disprovable statements about immigration law and a Justice Department inspector general’s report released Thursday.
While Trump has shown surprising deference and affection for autocratic rulers in the past, including effusive praise for Kim after the summit earlier this week, Friday’s comments were still unusual.
“He is the head of a country and I mean he is the strong head,” Trump said. “Don't let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”
I want my people to do the same. It ought to go without saying that the reason that North Koreans react that way to Kim is that he is a brutal dictator who runs enormous prison camps and a repressive state. Lest anyone believe that Trump is simply naive and unaware of this, the president made clear that he understands how Kim maintains power, smirking through a reference to North Korean executions of top aides.
“Just before you met with him, he cleaned house. Three of his top hardliners he fired,” Doocy began.
“When you say he fired ... fired may be a nice word,” Trump replied. The president later claimed he was being “sarcastic,” a move he and aides have often employed to walk back egregious statements, even when there is no indication of humor at the moment, and even though his latest statement about Kim matches his earlier praise for him.
Trump also misrepresented the agreement he signed with Kim, saying that it contained detailed steps for denuclearization of North Korea—it doesn’t.
The other most notable moment came during the gaggle, when reporters asked Trump about a statement to The New York Times concerning a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort, along with a Russian lawyer. The president dictated the statement, as his lawyers acknowledged in a letter to special counsel Robert Mueller. That statement was false and quickly debunked.
“That's irrelevant,” Trump said Friday. “It's a statement to The New York Times, the phony, failing New York Times. That's not a statement to a high tribunal of judges. That's a statement to the phony New York Times.”
In short, the president is saying that it’s totally acceptable to lie to the press, and by extension the public, as long as he is not under oath in the justice system. (As I’ve reported, Trump is far more honest under oath.) As a matter of law, this is true, but as a matter of character and leadership, it is not. The president is freely telling the public that he has no compunctions about lying through his teeth. Why does anyone still debate whether he means it?
There were other dishonest statements peppered throughout his remarks. He said that the inspector general’s report found “total bias” in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails; in fact, it found the reverse, saying political bias did not affect decisions. He said that the report “totally exonerated” his statements; in fact, it rejected the entire thrust of his statements about Comey. Trump said that Comey acted criminally; the IG report does not say that. He said Mueller’s team has no Republicans; Mueller is a lifelong Republican who has served under GOP presidents as well as Democrats.
Trump also continues to misrepresent the reasons why children of unauthorized immigrants are currently being separated from their parents at the border, creating a political firestorm. That decision, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has acknowledged, is the direct result of a policy change that Sessions implemented in May. Nonetheless, the president has falsely blamed it on a law passed by Democrats, ignoring that Democrats do not control Congress and have not passed any new laws about separations, yet the change began only last month.
“That is a Democrat bill. That is Democrats wanting to do that,” Trump said. “And they could solve it very easily by getting together but they think it's a good election point.”
There’s a long list of these lies, both in what Trump said today and running back for months. It becomes tiresome to fact-check them, trying to prove that Trump is not telling the truth about them. But there’s no need to take reporters’ word for it: The president makes no secret that he thinks it’s OK to lie to the public. After all, he said so himself.