“The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”
I came to Washington in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, and I’ve been an investigative reporter ever since. I’ve investigated lies and abuses of power by every administration of the past 40 years, first as a producer for ABC News, later for 60 Minutes at CBS News, and then as an author and as the founder of the Center for Public Integrity and other muckraking organizations. My career has been grounded in the conviction that bona fide facts, a vigorous free press, and accountability for government officials are essential to a healthy democracy.
But the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, who seems to lie as reflexively as other people breathe, has stopped me cold. Trump’s presidency, and the way it’s being reported in the media and perceived by the public, has led me to ask some basic questions—about my profession of journalism, the relative power of truth and lies, and the very future of democratic self-government in these United States. Does truth even matter in covering this president? Is Trump and his proclivity for telling falsehoods the problem, or is he merely a symptom of a deeper affliction in our political-economic system? Above all, what can be done to remedy this situation—to restore facts and truth as guiding lights in democratic discourse and make official lying the scandal it deserves to be?
The sheer, shameless magnitude of Trump’s lies is unprecedented in US history. According to The Washington Post, in his first seven months as president, Trump has “made 1,057 false and misleading claims,” an average of “nearly five claims a day.” The most respected fact-checking organizations in the United States ranked Trump as by far the biggest liar of all the presidential candidates in 2016. Even senior congressional Republicans no longer publicly deny that Trump lies, and privately they fret that the man is manifestly unfit for office.
“I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true,” said Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a recent interview with The New York Times. “You know he does it, everyone knows he does it. But, he does.” Trump’s reckless disregard for the truth, Corker added, could even set the United States “on the path to World War III.”