President Donald Trump spent his first days in office pushing false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd.
He has spent the final weeks of his term blitzing the American people with falsehoods and far-fetched conspiracies as part of a failed attempt to overturn the election he lost — cementing his legacy as what fact checkers and presidential historians say is the most mendacious White House occupant ever.
“I have never seen a president in American history who has lied so continuously and so outrageously as Donald Trump, period,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said in an interview. “Dwight Eisenhower used to say one of the most important tools a president of the United States has is that people believe what he says."
But that belief in the president’s words has become increasingly dependent on the political party to which a person belongs. Trump decries reports that are unflattering and facts that don’t fit with his world view as “fake news,” fueling a growing partisan information divide on everything from the contagiousness of the coronavirus to the reliability of the media.
Trump’s run for the presidency was fueled by political prominence gained by promoting the racist “birther” lie about President Barack Obama, and his 2016 victory was secured by a campaign rooted in false claims about immigrants and inner-city crime.
Once in the White House, the president routinely made false claims about everything from toilet flushes to tax reform. Some of Trump’s false claims drove policy, while conspiracy theories were elevated in tweets and in public and private conversations with foreign leaders.
In the last year of his term, Trump’s countless false claims about the coronavirus muddied the U.S. response to the pandemic, which has killed 339,062 people as of Dec. 29, according to an NBC News count. The president’s utterly baseless claim that the election was stolen from him delayed President-elect Joe Biden’s transition for weeks — hampering the incoming administration’s efforts to prepare for wide-scale vaccine distribution and endangering national security, according to experts.
“After two centuries, it is impressive that Americans still are inclined to believe what a president tells them, especially at a moment of crisis,” Beschloss said. “When a president breaks that bond of trust with the American people, it makes it harder for future presidents to have the kind of moral authority that enables them to protect us.”
NBC News has fact-checked Trump for more than four years. Based on thousands of hours of reporting and hundreds of reported fact checks, four issues stand above the rest as the falsehoods that define the Trump presidency.
“Just stay calm. It will go away.” - President Donald Trump, March 10, 2020
Dozens of times since the start of the outbreak that has killed 1.7 million people around the world, Trump publicly downplayed the severity of the novel coronavirus, suggesting it would go away on its own, while comparing Covid-19, the disease it caused, to the seasonal flu.
“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows,” Trump said Feb. 28, with dozens of cases but no known fatalities in the U.S.
“We’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” Trump said March 10, when there were just over a thousand known infections and 30 deaths.
His view was disputed by public health experts, including the government’s own top scientists, who predicted that even with a strong, coordinated response, the virus wasn’t just going to “go away.” Later, the journalist Bob Woodward revealed that Trump had told him at the same time the president was publicly downplaying the virus’s severity, he knew it was more dangerous than the flu and “deadly.”
After states enforced tough lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus — wreaking havoc on the economy and putting millions out of work to try and save lives with hospitals and emergency services overwhelmed — Trump pressured governors to reopen quickly, while experts cautioned against it. To support his push, he falsely claimed cases were going down throughout the spring even as experts warned the virus was uncontrolled; in a news conference April 22, he lambasted coverage of experts who warned of a dangerous potential second wave in the fall and the winter as “fake news.”
A month later, Trump again said things were improving: “At some point, it’ll go away. It may flare up, and it may not flare up. We’ll have to see what happens,” he said May 15. By that point, at least 1.5 million Americans had been infected; 88,101 had died. The numbers decreased slightly in the summer as cities that were home to early surges drove down their caseloads, but by the fall, the virus had taken root in nearly every U.S. community; regional surges have led to one steady nationwide increase.
Trump continued to compare the virus to the flu even after he recovered from Covid-19 himself in early October.
In mid-October, as the nation readied for an expected winter surge, he tweeted: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!"
His tweet inaccurately inflated flu deaths while downplaying the coronavirus’s danger. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said Covid-19 is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.
Trump also routinely spread misinformation about testing, the efficacy of masks, and potential and unproven treatments for the virus, once claiming that injections of antibacterial cleaning agents like bleach might clean the lungs of the virus.
Ten months in, more than 19.4 million people in the U.S. have been infected, but public polls show a partisan divide on the understanding of the basic facts about the virus, which a large number of Republicans still believe is no worse than the flu. Numerous cases have been tied to large White House events.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who appeared maskless at the White House before contracting Covid-19, has said multiple times since his recovery that he was wrong — and lamented the politics driving anti-mask sentiment in a public service ad.
“VOTER FRAUD IS NOT A CONSPIRACY THEORY, IT IS A FACT!!!” — President Donald Trump, Dec. 24, 2020.
When Trump won the Electoral College — and thus the presidency — in 2016, he told lawmakers he only lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal votes. There was no evidence of that, something his own lawyers noted in an election court filing opposing the Green Party’s recount efforts after the election, but the new president was undeterred.
At the start of his administration in January 2017, Trump urged states to undertake more voter roll maintenance in the name of rooting out fraud, stirring alarm over aggressive purges that voting rights advocates feared would disenfranchise eligible people. He then launched a commission to seek definitive proof of his claims of widespread fraud; the group disbanded without finding any proof of it.
Numerous academic studies and criminal investigations, too, have searched for widespread voter fraud over the years and come up empty-handed. But there is ample evidence that restrictive voting laws aimed at preventing this alleged fraud disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.
Just over three years later, as Biden was closing in on the Democratic nomination and the rapid spread of Covid-19 was making clear the public health risks of people congregating at the polls, Trump began pushing a number of falsehoods specifically about voting by mail.
Throughout 2020, Trump baselessly claimed that changes brought on by the pandemic — namely the large-scale expansion of mail-in voting in most states, led by governors of both parties — were fraudulent, or that they created opportunities for fraud or foreign meddling. There are numerous safeguards that keep U.S. elections secure.
When Trump lost the general election, he blamed voter fraud and sent his lawyers to court to try and reverse the results. In a free-wheeling news conference that lacked even a shred of evidence, his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, alleged everything from a “centralized” fraud scheme to election interference by foreign communists. Just a handful of fraud cases have been uncovered in key states: in Pennsylvania, three Republicans have been charged with illegally voting.
The president’s false claims of a rigged or stolen election have not achieved the immediate goal of overturning the results. But many fear that Trump’s refusal to accept his loss isdamaging to the overall health of America’s democracy —some 68 percent of Republicans believe the election was “rigged,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-November.
Voting rights experts are sounding the alarm over another consequence: a new flood of restrictive voting laws put forth by Republicans invoking widespread fraud no one can find. This scenario is already playing out in Texas, according to a report by the Texas Tribune. In Georgia, the GOP has promised a number of restrictions, including rolling back the absentee voting system Republicans there implemented a decade ago. These laws have the potential to significantly suppress legitimate votes, multiple experts have warned, and will particularly harm Black people and voters of color more generally.
Trump “amplified the public conversation around voter fraud, he made that more of a household conversation, and he has increased the salience of voting restrictions for his supporters,” Wendy Weiser, a national voting rights expert who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, said in an interview this month. “In that way, he made it a lot worse.”
Russia’s interference in the 2016 election
“This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Trump said May 11, 2018.
From Day One, Trump has disputed what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded as a fact: Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election with the goal of boosting his bid while working to tear down his Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
He repeatedly called the then-special counsel Robert Mueller's two-year probe into the matter a "witch hunt” against him and the inference itself a “hoax,” despite clear and sizable evidence that the Russian government worked to influence the outcome of the election “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” as Mueller’s report concluded. Multiple people were indicted as a result of the investigation, including a former Trump campaign aide, while other close Trump associates were charged with unrelated crimes uncovered in the course of Mueller’s probe.
The report gathered evidence that the president worked to stymie the investigation, but determined that the Department of Justice could not charge a sitting president and therefore would not determine whether he had broken the law. Trump, meanwhile, falsely claimed that Mueller's report “totally exonerated” him from any wrongdoing, including allegations of his campaign’s “collusion” with Russia.
When asked directly if the special counsel did “actually totally exonerate the president,” Mueller said “no.”
In the second half of his presidential term, Trump began to raise a conspiracy theory that Ukraine and the Democrats framed Russia for election interference in an attempt to discredit his win. At the same time, Trump also began to advance a theory that Biden, then a likely 2020 front-runner, had acted corruptly while serving as vice president to benefit his son Hunter’s foreign business interests. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.
Comments about these conspiracy theories — made in public, as well as in an infamous private phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July 2019, when Trump asked for an investigation into the Bidens — would eventually trigger Trump’s impeachment, after Democrats in the House concluded that he had abused the power of the presidency by seeking foreign assistance with his upcoming election.
The conspiracy theory that Russia was being framed for election interference, a version of which was first publicly posted on a far-right message board, 4chan, in March 2017, fit into Trump’s yearslong effort to discredit Mueller's investigation and undercut the idea that a foreign government helped get him elected. But according to the Trump administration’s own experts, he played into a narrative advanced by Russia.
Trump's former Russia expert, Fiona Hill, called the idea that Ukraine meddled in 2016 a "fictional narrative" promoted by Russian intelligence and rebuked House Republicans for using it to defend the president against impeachment. Trump, and members of the GOP, have contended that the actions his administration took toward Ukraine were motivated not by political or personal interest, but by legitimate concern about corruption in that country, including alleged Ukrainian election interference.
"In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests," Hill said in her opening statement to Congress. "I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016."
The Trump agenda
“Republicans will always protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Trump said Oct. 20, 2018.
Throughout his term, Trump made sweeping and false claims to bolster his own policy agenda and exaggerate the extent of his accomplishment. He overstated his achievements on everything from tax reform to manufacturing investments.
After instituting tariffs on Chinese goods, Trump boasted of raking in millions from China; in fact, Americans pay the bulk of tariffs on foreign goods. He argued that Obama’s policies had greatly hurt Maine’s lobster trade and declared he’d saved the industry with a trade deal. In fact, it is Trump’s trade war that pinched the industry.
Trump often took credit for the nation’s economic recovery and inaccurately claimed the economy was struggling when he took office. In fact, the recovery began during Obama’s administration and continued under Trump. After the economy took an enormous hit when the pandemic hit and prompted mass layoffs, Trump boasted of summertime returns as new growth.
As a candidate, Trump vowed to build a southern border wall and make Mexico pay for it. As president, he’s built 423 miles of border wall, much of it in place of older existing border structures. Mexico has not paid a cent, despite the president’s false claims to the contrary.
And in what is perhaps one of his most bold-faced falsehoods, Trump argued for years Republicans were defenders of people with pre-existing conditions, all the while his administration and several red states sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era health care law that guaranteed those protections, without proposing a plan with comparable protections.
Repeatedly, Trump has inaccurately summed up the successes of his administration. During a major speech at the United Nations, he said his administration had accomplished more than any other. The assembled world leaders laughed.
“Didn’t expect that reaction,” Trump said at the time. “But that’s OK.”