A brief follow-up to this morning’s post about Donald Trump’s relationship to facts and truth, and how it challenges the old norms on which the journalistic model of facticity was based.
On Monday, the president tweeted:
Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. Must change laws!
On Tuesday, pressed further on whether he had any evidence that Middle Easterners were using the caravan to sneak into the United States, he said:
When the reporter pressed on proof once again, Trump said, “There’s no proof of anything. There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be.”
So, would an old-school, nothing-but-the-facts journalist be justified in writing that Trump admitted that he lied when he asserted that the caravan included “unknown Middle Easterners … mixed in?”
NBC News used it as an example of how Trump does this. The headline “Trump admits there’s no proof of his claims about the migrant caravan.” They didn’t say Trump had “lied,” because, as I mentioned in the previous post, calling something a “lie” used to border on going nuclear.
But Trump constantly says things, which sound like factual assertions, that turn out to be false. He often says something the next day that contradicts, or half-takes-back, what he said the day before. He either does not understand or has no respect for the old-school notion if you assert something that sounds factual, and that something is false, you are lying or, at least misleading.
We used to take honesty, about facts, especially from a president, seriously. With Trump that is impossible. So, do you say he “lied,” which in the old days was a serious charge? Do you say he misled the media, by stating something slightly ambiguous that he could not back up? Is it reasonable to assume that the misleading was intentional, which makes it pretty much a lie? Do you owe it to the office of the president to give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps, when he said that “unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” he meant that he didn’t know this but was speculating about something that was perhaps true?
This is just one puzzling aspect of life in the Age of Trump. But there is a point at which it is no longer reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt. So, as I said earlier, it used to be a big deal to accuse the president of lying to the nation. Nowadays it’s more like trying to figure out what category of lie Trump has just uttered.