Trump lies a lot. But the media must focus on what he's lying about, not how often he does it.

When it comes to Trump's whoppers, journalists would better serve the public by focusing on quality rather than quantity.
Image; Donald Trump at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City
Donald Trump stands inside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on March 16, 1990.Newsday via Getty Images file
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By Steve Krakauer

There’s a moment in Donald Trump’s bestselling 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” which neatly summarizes his entire presidential vibe.

In an effort to secure investment from the board of The Holiday Corporation, the operator of the Holiday Inn hotel chain, for a new hotel project in Atlantic City, he asked his construction supervisor to “round up every bulldozer and dump truck he could possibly find,” and make the largely vacant property appear to be “the most active construction site in the history of the world.”

As Trump put it, “what the bulldozers and dump trucks did wasn’t important … so long as they did a lot of it. If they got some actual work accomplished, all the better, but if necessary, he should have bulldozers dig up dirt from one side of the site and dump it on the other.”

The plan worked, and while a board member noticed something was odd, according to Trump, he thankfully was “more curious than he was skeptical.”

This exercise in performative winning, in artful exaggeration, or to put it another way, in making false or misleading claims, is particularly relevant now.

This exercise in performative winning, in artful exaggeration, or to put it another way, in making false or misleading claims, is particularly relevant now as President Trump has recently passed, by The Washington Post’s mark, a monumental milestone. The rigorous fact-checkers at the Post have determined Trump recently made his 10,000th “false or misleading claim.”

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Just this week, Trump made a series of eyebrow-raising statements — claiming he’s the most transparent president ever, among others.

But are they all lies? There are many examples within “The Art of the Deal” that illustrate who Trump is — and has been for decades. The time he told an architect to “make it appear that we’d spent a huge sum of money on the drawings” for a hotel project in Manhattan. The time he coined the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” which, he says, “never hurts.”

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Through it all, one of the most consistent things about Trump is his ability to play the media. For example, he recalls once posing while “shoveling cement” during the rebuilding of Wollman Rink in Central Park. Of course, he wasn’t actually helping with the construction. But “as long as [the press] want to shoot, I’ll shovel,” he wrote.

Thus, it's a little ironic that Trump receives so many Pinocchios from The Washington Post's fact-checkers these days, because he’s really more like Geppetto: He loves pulling the media's strings.

It's a little ironic that Trump receives so many Pinocchios from the Washington Post fact-checkers these days, because he’s really more like Geppetto: He loves pulling the media's strings.

Trump certainly does make “false or misleading claims,” as does every politician. And it’s fair to say he does this more than most. But journalists need to be careful not to treat every boast or ego-driven flourish as a lie, and thus risk lessening the impact of far more consequential lies.

Even Trump’s biggest fans would readily admit ego and arrogance drive Trump — and fuel his success. Supporters and voters (of which I am not) knew what they were getting themselves into. This is a guy who puts his name on everything from water to meat. But some in the media seriously raise questions about whether Trump is “suffering from some sort of illness,” as if self-aggrandizement was a mental disorder.

It’s also important to look at exactly what The Washington Post's fact-checkers have determined count toward this vaunted 10,000 figure. The Washington Post notes 92 times Trump claims “NAFTA is one of the worst trade deals ever signed in the history of our country,” which seems like an exaggeration but hard to quantify as an actual “misleading or false statement.” Another is Trump’s oft-repeated claim that “I have been the most transparent president and administration in the history of our country by far,” which is more of an unprovable boast than a checkable lie. After all, President Barack Obama pledged from day onehis administration would be “the most transparent in history”).

Other listed falsehoods are even more questionably false. For example, Trump said “[Democrats] want to take away your Second Amendment,” which The Washington Post adds to the list because, as they say, “Some Democrats support this idea, but it is not a widely held policy position by the party.” Or in October when Trump said “the bump stock is almost gone,” which, at the time wasn’t gone, but was banned a short six months later.

Every administration has attempted some degree of media manipulation through misleading claims. For Obama, it was the “stray voltage” theory, coined by former adviser David Plouffe, which hinged on introducing a storyline into the media knowing it would cause controversy in order to push a particular agenda item. It’s a purposeful diversion, a sort of intellectual sleight of hand, which, if introduced as a Trump administration tactic, would likely be met with derision and not bemusement like it was five years ago. Of course, the current representative of the Obama administration in the political ecosystem these days is Joe Biden, who found his way to his own quadruple Pinocchio in his very first official campaign speech.

When it comes to Trump's lies, the media would better serve the public by focusing on quality rather than quantity. Focus not on style, but on substance. Thirty years ago in “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote “As long as they want to shoot, I’ll shovel.” Now as president, he does a lot of shoveling. If the press really wants to cut down on his shoveling, perhaps they should try shooting less.