Take, for example, Trump’s justification for one of the most controversial policies of his presidency, the separation of children and adults at the southern border. Previous administrations had occasionally split up families, but Trump and his then–attorney general, Jeff Sessions, pursued a zero-tolerance policy on prosecuting all illegal crossings that made the separations common. Trump’s response to public outcry? He said the Obama administration had done the same thing. That was not true.
In October 2018, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes grilled Trump on the separation policy. His response: “Yeah, well, that was the same as the Obama law. You know, Obama had the same thing.”
Stahl challenged him: “It was on the books, but he didn't enforce it. You enforced it. You launched the zero-tolerance policy to deter families with children [from] coming.”
Stahl and Trump then parried back and forth, with Trump persisting until he got the last word: “It’s the same as Obama.”
Weeks later, Trump was again asked about the policy, and he said it again: “Obama had a separation policy; we all had the same policy.” This time he was challenged by the CBS reporter Paula Reid: “Sir, it was different. You decided to prosecute everyone at the border.” Trump simply moved on to another reporter’s question about the European Union and Brexit.
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Those interactions are pretty typical for Trump on any topic. He seems to repeat the same talking points over and over, going for whatever sounds best to his ear in the moment. It’s hard to tell whether Trump even believes what he’s saying himself. Sometimes he seems completely sincere; other times, it sounds as if he’s making a joke for his own amusement. Accuracy seems irrelevant.
Why does Trump lie so much? Only he can answer that question, but it’s certainly a long-standing behavior that dates back to his time in luxury real estate and reality television. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump said truth-bending was strategic: “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
As president, Trump has perfected rolling out one outrageous falsehood after another, then riding the wave of media attention to the next controversy. He almost never apologizes or backtracks.
Fact-checkers have had the opportunity to both debunk important falsehoods and spend hours correcting small ones. As the editor of PolitiFact, I know firsthand what this is like.
At the end of 2018, PolitiFact curated Trump’s most politically significant falsehoods and came up with a list of 10 substantive statements, from disputing Puerto Rico’s death toll after a devastating hurricane hit the island to saying how much Saudi Arabia was spending on American-made weapons. The Washington Post has a project to document every false or merely misleading thing Trump has said; it is at more than 7,000 misstatements and counting. Factcheck.org has dubbed Trump the “King of Whoppers” for his repeated falsehoods.