It’s difficult to plumb the bottomlessness of Donald Trump’s propensity to lie. It would be swell if he would take a minute and a few characters more than 140 to explain his peculiar theories of honesty, facticity, humility and a few other virtues that he may view as vices or, even worse, weakness.
Lying, or perhaps shading the truth in the heat of a campaign in hopes that the lie will not be exposed until after the election would be one thing, and it’s not good, but we’re fairly used to that. Yes, even as a candidate, Trump demonstrated an unprecedented predilection to disregard factual accuracy in preference for what his admirers wanted to hear. And he succeeded in demonstrating, against the expectations of many including your humble and obedient ink-stained wretch, that a candidate could win despite a well-deserved reputation for mendacity in service of self.
But even now, with the election won, he regularly says things that are untrue or that he can’t know are true — and yet asserts that they are unequivocally true.
He cannot know
The past weekend gives us an example of Trump’s questionable relationship to honesty, even though in this case it amounts to several (unacknowledged) corrections of past falsehoods, coupled with a statement of something that he does not know to be true because he cannot know.
You’ve no doubt seen a fair bit over the weekend about new version of Trump’s former skepticism over whether Russian hackers were responsible for spreading information unflattering to the Hillary Clinton campaign, to a new statement that Russian hacking had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
He doesn’t know that. He can’t know that. It’s unknowable.
He’s doing a particular two-step. He’s hiding behind the finding by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was behind the hacks (which he formerly disputed, without any basis, because, you know, what the hell) but that the hackers had failed to get into the voting machines and actually change the vote counts.
But the “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election” statement is supposed to tiptoe around the fact that the Russian hacking (which Trump formerly said might not be Russian) that was made public through Wikileaks (with Trump’s encouragement) was (U.S. intelligence has concluded) designed to harm Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
Clinton is understandably upset about the possibility that information from these hacks caused her defeat, and she likely believes that they did, but she has not said that they did cause it, because it’s unknown and unknowable.
Intent vs. outcome
Understand, I’m not expressing an opinion about whether Russian hackers caused Trump to win and Clinton to lose. It’s fairly clear by now (but not absolutely proven) that this was the intent. The CIA has concluded that the Russian operations showed “a clear preference” for Trump. And I believe we should be extremely curious to know how the Russians might expect to benefit from a Trump presidency relative to a Clinton presidency. And the possibility that Trump will do things as president that Vladimir Putin will like better than things Clinton would have done will and should be raised as the Trump presidency develops.
I’m just saying that there is no way to clearly to know that enough voters in swing states were (or weren’t) persuaded to vote for Trump or against Clinton — or to stay home or vote for a minor-party ticket rather than vote for Clinton — because of unflattering information they learned about Clinton or John Podesta, etc., through the WikiLeaks leaks, which the CIA is now relatively certain came about via the Russian hacks.
But that, of course, is exactly why Trump cannot know that the Russian hacking had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
Why say such a thing? Ego? Pride? Gratuitous obnoxiousness? An assumption that Americans are too stupid to understand the two different ways that Russian hacks might have influenced the election? I won’t guess. Trump’s character flaws are slightly less of a mystery to me than the impact said flaws have on his supporters. He has already demonstrated that he understands the benefits of certain odious behaviors in ways that I do not.
Why bother writing about such an irrelevant falsehood? Well, heck, no trees died in bringing these pixelated ruminations to your screen. But also, as I have expressed before, the Trump phenomenon has lowered the bar for the honesty we the people expect from a candidate, and perhaps that should also lower the bar for pointing out the various levels of Trumpian mendacity, in all its glory.
Here, with no expectation that he will move in this direction but just to give him a hand if he ever decides to try, is what Trump should have said on Friday and his various emissaries should have amplified over the weekend. Something like:
“The intelligence community has now briefed me on its finding and has reached a high level of certainty that that the Wikileaks hacks originated with Russian actors who were motivated to help me politically and hurt my esteemed former opponent, Hillary Clinton. I accept their findings and retract all of my previous statements of skepticism that Russia was behind the hacks.
“I also condemn Russia for this interference in our electoral process. We can never know whether it affected the outcome, and, of course, I would like to believe I would have won the election without any such illicit foreign help. But let me reassure Americans, whether you voted for me or not, that my dealings with Russia will in no way be compromised or influenced and that I will do what I can as president to tighten up U.S. defenses against any foreign influence over our electoral process in the future.”