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The Art of Covering Politicians Who Lie

RealClearMedia’s executive editor asserts that Donald Trump can’t really tell the truth apart from a lie, making covering him a challenge.

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The Art of Covering Politicians Who Lie

The first indictment of Donald Trump had a tangible political aspect: felony charges brought by New York City prosecutor Alvin Bragg, a partisan Democrat, for paying hush money to a porn actress. If this is a crime (and it’s not specifically prohibited by the Federal Election Commission) it would be a misdemeanor. And a federal, not state, offense.

The second indictment, filed in federal court, concerned Trump’s retention of classified documents. Although more serious, it had the whiff of a personal vendetta between Trump and special prosecutor Jack Smith. This was not all Smith’s doing: Trump publicly called the veteran prosecutor “deranged” and a “thug,” a novel approach for a defendant trying to convince law enforcement he made an honest mistake. The case originated as a dispute between the National Archives and Trump over the Presidential Records Act. In a less dysfunctional democracy, it might have been handled by the lawyers, or perhaps in civil court, and not with felony charges, including alleged violations of the Espionage Act of 1917.

The third Trump indictment was considered by many to be the most serious. As veteran Dallas Morning News journalist Carl Leubsdorf wrote,

Each previous prosecution alleged crimes against persons or, in the documents case, the government. This case alleges a crime against democracy itself.

That’s apparently how the Biden administration’s Justice Department, Democrats in Congress, and most of the news media view Trump’s behavior in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Writing about Jack Smith’s Jan. 6-related indictment, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker explained the stakes this way:

The third indictment of the former president is the first to get to the heart of the matter: Can a sitting leader of the country spread lies to hold onto power even after voters reject him?

This matter of spreading “lies” was also the basis of the sweeping indictment of Trump and 18 other defendants on state charges in Atlanta. Piggy-backing off the logic of Smith’s second indictment, Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis applied Georgia’s organized crime statutes to allege a vast conspiracy led by Trump with his co-defendants and 30 unindicted co-conspirators. Like Alvin Bragg, Willis is a Democrat active in partisan politics, but that’s not what made her legal theories so provocative. Willis seeks to criminalize behavior that has always been considered free speech. The initial “illegal” act listed in her RICO indictment is Trump’s Nov. 4, 2020, “nationally televised speech falsely declaring victory in the 2020 presidential election.”


The logic here appears to be that the First Amendment is subordinate to a democratic society’s need for candidates to concede election losses gracefully and honestly. Conservatives have been quick to point out that Fani Willis didn’t apply that standard to Stacey Abrams, a political ally and Georgia’s most prominent election-denier following her loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race. But more fundamental questions are at play than politicians’ situational ethics.

Does the First Amendment protect Americans from prosecution over political speech that promotes partisan — and even demonstrably false — narratives? Can Donald Trump (or any MAGA Republican) receive a fair trial in cities dominated by Democrats such as Washington or New York? Are courtrooms even the place to litigate Trump’s behavior regarding the 2020 presidential election, or should voters have the final word?

Underlying these themes is a practical, foundational matter that neither the court system nor the media is well equipped to tackle: Can Donald Trump tell the difference between truth and a lie? And here’s a key follow-up: How should journalists cover this question?

A Lie, Is a Lie, Is a Lie – or Is It?

Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office in January 2017 rekindled a timeless debate in American journalism: How to cover politicians, most specifically U.S. presidents, who routinely spew factually inaccurate information? The new president brought this age-old issue to the fore on his very first day in office by directing the White House press secretary to exaggerate the size of his inauguration crowd.

Presidential prevaricating was hardly new. It was happening before Trump was born, over far more substantive matters. But this example was so brazen, and Trump so unpopular with the media, that it instantly took on a life of its own. It came to a head in a contentious on-air interview on Trump’s second day in office. The mutual combatants were Chuck Todd, NBC’s do-everything political journalist, and Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s pollster and confidante.


Why, Todd asked her, did President Trump “choose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size?”

This query, and the way it was phrased, ignited a prickly exchange. After lashing out at Todd for even asking the question, Conway rattled off several factoids she said were more important, ranging from the nation’s unemployment rate and the number of states Trump carried to an erroneous story in the media claiming that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the White House. Chuck Todd wouldn’t be dissuaded from his question; Kellyanne Conway wouldn’t back down either. Amid the cross-talk of two people interrupting each other, Conway promulgated up a memorable phrase: “alternative facts.”

“Alternative facts?” Todd said. “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

Trying to hold a U.S. president to account is not easy, and the press has had a mixed record on that score even with the nation’s greatest chief executives. In the waning days of the 1944 campaign, three-term incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt misled the country on an issue that was literally a matter of life and death. And the White House press corps went along for the ride.

At the time, even a nominally observant reporter could see that the president’s medical condition was dire. Yet when FDR told reporters two weeks before Election Day that he was in “pretty good health,” not a single newspaper account disputed it. For more than a decade, White House correspondents and their editors had essentially covered up FDR’s paralysis. But in the summer and autumn of 1944, his health was no longer a matter of pride or privacy. The president’s heart was failing. He could barely hold a cup of coffee.


“His campaign was a phantom,” wrote historian Jay Winik. “In public, he said nothing; he did nothing; he barely acknowledged that it was an election year.”

On the rare times Roosevelt did venture out, his condition was alarming. In mid-August, he suffered an angina attack while speaking to sailors at a Puget Sound naval base. White House correspondents knew all this, and more. They knew that an Associated Press photographer who had captured Roosevelt looking haggard and wan had been banished from the White House by the press office.

“In a sense,” noted history professor David Welky, “Roosevelt’s presidency had been one long deception.”

By the time I began covering the White House, early in Bill Clinton’s first term, those days were long gone. Vietnam, Watergate, and a new generation of journalistic sensibilities had changed everything. As early as Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency, this epigram made the rounds in the press room: “How do you know when Johnson is lying? When his lips are moving.”

Richard Nixon’s own tape recordings undermined his assertions that neither the White House nor the Nixon reelection campaign was involved in any way in the 1972 Watergate burglary, and he was driven from office. Watergate reporting, particularly by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, underscored just how far American journalism had come.


Yet, even in those times, the idea of directly labeling the president a “liar” (or “a crook,” a word Nixon once used himself) in a straight news story was a rarity in the mainstream press. But not unheard of. Jimmy Carter kicked off his 1976 presidential campaign with a simple vow: “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never make a misleading statement.”

Although Carter was, and remains, an essentially truthful man, this pledge put a target on his back. Initially, those who took aim were not Republicans, but instead progressives in his own party and liberal journalists, one in particular.

In March 1976, Harper’s magazine published a takedown of Carter written by Steven Brill. Headlined “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies,” the story parsed numerous Carter assertions. Although he introduced himself to voters as “a nuclear physicist and a peanut farmer,” Carter only had a bachelor’s degree from the Naval Academy and owned a peanut warehouse, not a farm. Carter claimed he personally read every letter sent by a voter, an impossibility. He stated that when he left Georgia’s governorship, the state had a $200 million surplus. Brill learned that it was one-fifth that size — less than the surplus he’d inherited. And so on.

Compared to the presidents who came before and after Carter, such exaggerations sound trivial. Even at the time, they seemed more like embroideries than “lies.” But that’s the rub. How should news reporters (as opposed to opinion columnists) treat political prevaricating?

In 15 years of covering the White House, I wrestled with this quandary myself. In an era before “fact-checkers” were ubiquitous, Bill Clinton posed a special challenge.


Glib, gregarious, and knowledgeable, President Clinton spoke in precise detail about public policy. He also couldn’t resist bending the facts, sometimes to an absurd degree. (“I am the only president,” he said on a trip to the farm belt capital of Des Moines, “who knew something about agriculture when I got there.”) This errant assertion came from a politician who had never held a private sector job, let alone done any farming. Numerous U.S. presidents grew up on farms, or in farm communities, or worked in agriculture themselves as adults, including Jimmy Carter, whom Clinton knew personally.

“It was so very bizarre,” Sonja Hillgren, editor of Farm Journal magazine, told me. “I mean, ‘Hello! Ever heard of George Washington? The Department of Agriculture was his idea.”

Early in his first term, I compiled some of Clinton’s greatest hits into a kind of blooper reel prefaced by a sardonic observation: “This president salts his remarks with so many inventions, half-truths, and self-serving exaggerations that reporters who cover him often have to choose between truth-squadding every speech or ignoring his fibs.”

We generally pulled our punches when it came to using the word “lying” in news stories (although on one occasion my editors did not). Some of Clinton’s spiel wasn’t intended to be taken literally; also, most journalists at the time operated under the old adage of “showing,” not “telling,” the reader. Perhaps that approach was too deferential. Five years later, Clinton would be impeached and disbarred for committing perjury in a civil suit unrelated to his official duties as president.

But if Clinton was a challenge for journalists, Donald Trump presented problems of a whole order of magnitude. This was apparent right out of the chute.


In his June 2015 campaign announcement address, Trump declared that the U.S. nuclear arsenal “doesn’t work,” proclaimed the “real unemployment rate” in the country to be 18%-20%, insisted that ISIS had built a luxury hotel in Syria, and lamented that you couldn’t buy a Chevrolet in Japan. All these fanciful claims were dutifully debunked by PolitiFact. But Trump proved a hard man to edit. He subsequently shared a Twitter meme: “Whites killed by whites — 16%. Whites killed by blacks — 81%.”

This was wildly off-base. (Most homicide victims are slain by people they know; the accurate figure for whites killed by whites was 82%. Trump essentially had the figures reversed.) When Fox News host Bill O’Reilly pointed this out to him, Trump merely shrugged. “Hey, Bill, am I going to check every statistic?” Trump went on to suggest that a huge Twitter following was his goal, not getting the facts straight. “I get millions and millions of people,” he said.

About this time, Trump took to telling his supporters that the media was “lying” about him, not the other way around. Moreover, his standard stump speech labeled reporters “scum” and “slime” and “disgusting.” After he wrapped up the GOP nomination and cooler heads urged him to ease up, Trump doubled down. He spent most of a May 31, 2016, news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower insulting reporters, some by name, as “dishonest” and “not good people.” He called one reporter “a sleaze.”

Nor did winning the presidency mellow Trump out. In his first days in office, he escalated the rhetoric once again. The day after he was inaugurated, Trump visited CIA headquarters. “As you know,” he said, “I have a running war with the media.”

In an eerie precursor of what would happen in 2020 and 2021, Trump baffled a bipartisan group of congressional leaders at a White House reception the following week by insisting that he would have won the 2016 popular vote if not for some 3 million to 5 million illegal votes cast by non-citizens. (It is a claim he made as recently as late September 2023, while campaigning in Iowa.) Although he first floated this notion on Twitter in 2016, it was initially written off as typical Trump hyperbole. But here he was, as president, telling top members of Congress something they found utterly bizarre, and for which there was no evidence whatsoever.


So it wasn’t true. But was it a lie?

Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather certainly thought so. “These are not normal times,” Rather wrote in an inflamed Facebook post. “These are extraordinary times. And extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.” The specific extraordinary measure he had in mind was for the media covering Trump to “step up and say simply and without equivocation” that “a lie, is a lie, is a lie!”

Editors at the New York Times concurred. The newspaper of record used that very word in its coverage of the Trump White House meeting with congressional leaders — in a headline, no less: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.”

National Public Radio took the opposite path, consciously and publicly. “We are not using the L-word,” NPR standards editor Mark Memmott wrote in a memo to the staff. Added Michael Oreskes, NPR’s news chief, and a former Timesman: “Our job as journalists is to report — to find facts, establish their authenticity and share them with everybody. And I think that when you use words like ‘lie,’ it gets in the way of that.”

The suggestion here is that in an environment in which half the country (Republicans) thinks a (liberal) media is out to get them, it behooves journalists not to make their own behavior the issue. NPR’s then-national security correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly, pointed out something else: She noted that the Oxford English Dictionary defines a “lie” as “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” “Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was,” she said. “I can tell you what he said and how that squares — or doesn’t — with facts.”


Presidential scholar David Greenberg, writing in Politico the following year, made both these arguments. Trump’s “gushers of falsehoods” presented a direct challenge to the old concepts of “objectivity,” he wrote, leaving political journalists thinking they had to choose between “false equivalency” or overt partisanship. It’s a debate that dates back at least to the 1940s, and Greenberg recommended journalists try to thread the needle. “News organizations that purport to report the news — and not just to traffic in opinion — have to write their articles in a way that sustains the faith of all their readers,” he wrote.

“Maintaining that credibility means not overreaching, not implying a knowledge of a politician’s intent that you don’t have,” Greenberg added. “And it is just as easy to set the record straight to say in a headline that the president’s claim was ‘false,’ ‘untrue’ or ‘wrong.’”

This wasn’t only a dilemma for the press. It flummoxed political practitioners, too, and not just the congressional Republicans who squirmed when Trump conjured up the wild theory that 3 million to 5 million illegal aliens had voted for Hillary Clinton. Asked about this, the best that White House spokesman Sean Spicer could muster was, “It’s a belief he maintains.”

Spicer took some heat for that artful aside and he did not last long as press secretary. But with his carefully parsed response, Spicer was onto something. So was Chuck Todd in his pointed questioning of Kellyanne Conway over the Trumpisms uttered by the president in his first days in office.

Perhaps Todd and the rest of the media missed the point of Conway’s comment about “alternative facts.” It may be a dodge, but it’s not necessarily deceitful. If someone asserts, for instance, that Joe Biden is the oldest man to be president, which is true, an “alternative fact” might be that John F. Kennedy, the youngest elected U.S. commander in chief, blundered into the Bay of Pigs invasion early in his presidency.


Yet Conway was treated almost as though she had said “alternative reality,” which wasn’t the case. But remember, Chuck Todd’s question was why Trump insisted on saying things that weren’t true. Journalists didn’t know, and the answers given by Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer suggested that his staff didn’t either. But one group of experts were telling us all along that they thought they had the answer. They were psychologists and psychiatrists. And though it’s not an excuse Trump would ever employ and probably isn’t a legal defense to the crimes he’s charged with, these mental health experts declared that Donald Trump is simply incapable of telling the truth.

In Your Heart, You Know …

In July 1964, populist conservative Barry Goldwater wrested the Republican presidential nomination away from the GOP establishment. The grassroots insurgency that propelled the candidacy of Arizona’s junior senator prompted bipartisan panic among the elites much as Donald Trump and his MAGA followers would do 52 years later. To differentiate himself from other Republicans, most specifically Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater’s primary-season campaign mantra was “A Choice, Not an Echo.”

In the general election campaign against President Johnson, the Goldwater campaign put the best face on their candidate’s reputation for raw rhetoric with this slogan: “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.” It was a little too self-conscious, perhaps, and the Johnson campaign, which relentlessly portrayed Goldwater as an unbalanced warmonger, produced a puckish rejoinder: “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.”

Not content to let the 1964 presidential election unfold organically (Goldwater was destined to lose to Johnson in a landslide), progressive pamphleteer Ralph Ginzburg published an article in his Fact magazine with an incendiary headline: “Fact: 1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President!”

Although Ginzburg’s magazine played no role in Goldwater’s defeat, it was such a gratuitous smear that afterward Goldwater sued for libel. His lawyers had much to work with: Of the 12,356 psychiatrists Ginzburg queried, 2,417 responded — and only 657 pronounced Goldwater psychologically fit to be president, while 571 declined to take a position. The rest of these mental health professionals diagnosed the Arizona senator — on the record, with their names attached — as unfit for duty. They offered such dubious diagnoses as “megalomania,” “paranoid personality,” “emotionally unstable,” “immature,” “grossly psychotic,” “mass murderer,” “immoral,” “chronic schizophrenic,” “dangerous lunatic,” and — stupidest of all because Goldwater was a decorated World War II combat pilot — “cowardly.”


It has never been easy for public officials to seek legal redress for defamation, and earlier that year the Supreme Court raised the bar even higher in New York Times v. Sullivan. Yet when Goldwater testified in federal court on his own behalf, he came across as rational, composed, and emotionally healthy. His critics, none of whom had ever met Barry Goldwater, let alone had him as a patient, were the ones who sounded unhinged. Goldwater won his libel case.

For the mental health profession, the upshot of this fiasco was the so-called “Goldwater rule,” which held that therapists should refrain from diagnosing public figures they hadn’t seen as patients. So, when a book arrived on my desk in 2017 with the spoiler-alert title (“The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President”), I wasn’t impressed.

Had these 27 “experts” treated Trump? No. Nonetheless, the book included a foreword from distinguished psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who was 91 years old at the time and apparently believed the best defense is a good offense. As a preemptive strike against the “Goldwater rule,” Dr. Lifton asserted that clinicians who didn’t warn the world about Trump’s shortcomings were akin to Nazi doctors who worked at Auschwitz.

I didn’t merely dismiss such hyperbole, I ridiculed it, suggesting in print that a better title would have been “27 Angry Democrats With Advanced Degrees Who Voted Against Trump Say He’s Crazy Although They’ve Never Met Him.

I may have been too impulsive.


Trump’s Makeup

After the first charges were filed in the Mar-a-Lago documents case, prosecutor Jack Smith was criticized in some quarters for including in the indictment six of Donald Trump’s previous statements about the seriousness of treating sensitive government records carefully. Five of the declarations came in 2016 as Trump was running for president. The sixth was President Trump noting in his own words that as commander in chief he had a “unique, Constitutional responsibility to protect the Nation’s classified information.”

To Trump supporters, and even some neutral observers, this section sounded more like a political document than a federal indictment. Smith critics said it revealed the prosecutor’s personal animus for the defendant. Two seasoned prosecutors I spoke with found this complaint misguided. Smith wasn’t seeking to embarrass Trump: He was establishing a basis to charge Trump with knowingly violating the law, an element of these offenses. Trump hadn’t stumbled his way into this mess, Smith was indicating — instead, he was intimately familiar with the stakes involved in the haphazard handling of classified material.

When it came to the Jan. 6-themed indictment, Smith reversed field. In the grand jury report signed by the prosecutor, Smith and his team spent little time examining Trump’s internal mental calculations, even as they built a case based on his state of mind in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The opening sentences of this indictment state flatly that Trump “lied” when he said he’d been cheated out of the presidency. This assertion is repeated dozens of times throughout the 45-page indictment. The case rests on it.

But did Trump “lie” — or does he still somehow believe he won reelection?

Jack Smith thinks he knows the answer: “Despite having lost, the Defendant was determined to remain in power. So for more than two months following election day on November 3, 2020, the Defendant spread lies that there had been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that he had actually won,” reads the indictment. “These claims were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false.”


Fani Willis’ Fulton County indictment has more of this kind of thing.

Why are these prosecutors so certain about what Trump knew? They say it’s because so many people told Trump he’d lost. People in a position to know. The federal indictment mentions them, albeit oddly (by title instead of name). But their identities are no secret. The list includes Vice President Mike Pence; White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows; White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy Patrick Philbin; U.S. Attorney General William Barr; acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. Also, numerous state officials ranging from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, the two highest ranking legislators in Michigan, one of the states where Trump was trying to tamper with the vote count and have Pence recognize an alternate slate of electors.

It’s an impressive roster, and not just because of their expertise and credentials. All these people are Republicans who once supported Trump. Smith quoted one of them, Lee Chatfield, almost beseeching Trump to face facts.

Smith apparently plans to present witnesses who will say that Trump’s plans to nullify the 2020 election returns — if the results were adverse to him — predated Election Day itself. In this telling, Trump wasn’t interested in vote fraud. He was solely interested in remaining in office and was willing to use fraudulent schemes to that end.

That view, almost universally embraced by the media even before Smith’s appointment as special prosecutor, is a reasonable supposition. But it’s not the only theory. It may not even be the most obvious explanation for Trump’s behavior.


Long before he was in legal trouble, Donald Trump’s brash and theatrical persona intrigued waves of journalists and writers who tried to decipher the inner psyche of a man who, in the words of psychologist Dan P. McAdams, “seems supremely cognizant of the fact that he is always acting.”

Writing in the June 2016 issue of The Atlantic, McAdams set out to do a “psychological portrait” of the Republican nominee. “Who is he, really? How does his mind work? How might he go about making decisions in office, were he to become president? And what does all that suggest about the sort of president he’d be?”

Notwithstanding the Fact magazine-Barry Goldwater debacle, these are the right questions to ask about someone seeking the most powerful position in the land. McAdams had done the same thing with George W. Bush, but only after he left office, albeit with mixed results. The author’s fixation with Bush’s stubbornness was itself quite stubborn — and the extensive focus on internal events in Bush’s childhood, rather than on external geopolitical events (namely 9/11), to explain Bush’s foreign policy seems obviously misplaced. But Donald Trump didn’t come from any world that most political writers were familiar with, and in 2015 and 2016, we needed all the help we could get.

For the past two decades, a coterie of academic psychologists and psychiatrists have attempted to quantify the personality traits that produce successful presidents. Presidential history not being their area of expertise, these scholars have sought input from presidential biographers. Unfortunately, this method is about as scientific as those ubiquitous presidential “ratings” that crop up periodically, which invariably overrate modern presidents and underrate Republicans.

Thus do well-intentioned Ph.D.s such as Steven J. Rubenzer and his co-authors conclude in “Personality, Character & Leadership in the White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents” that George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower — two former generals known for their volcanic tempers — are “good guys,” while mild-mannered Chester A. Arthur is lumped in with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as a “dominator.” Also, the predictive value of head-shrinking presidents is limited: Dan McAdams thought Trump’s personality makeup made it likely he’d plunge America into war. (As president, Trump was closer to being an isolationist than a war-monger.) Yet, some of what McAdams wrote in The Atlantic has proven prescient, particularly when it comes to Trump’s famously high sense of self-regard. Here is the most pertinent paragraph:


For psychologists, it is almost impossible to talk about Donald Trump without using the word narcissism. Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”

Like cholesterol, narcissism comes in a form that is relatively benign (“vulnerable narcissism”) and one that is quite malignant (“grandiose narcissism”). When it comes to politicians, we’re dealing with the bad cholesterol version. Even that isn’t entirely negative for a commander in chief. Piggy-backing off the work of Rubenzer et al., several Emory University researchers deduced that even grandiose narcissism can help a president persuade the voting public of the need for fiscal restraint, manage a foreign policy crisis, and enact big-ticket legislation. The other edge of the sword, they noted, is that grandiose narcissism also correlates with dishonesty and impeachment resolutions. Moreover, the trait seems to be on the rise.

“As the importance of television and other media has grown in presidential elections, this could be giving an edge to those with the attention-seeking, outgoing personalities associated with grandiose narcissism,” Emory psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld said in a classic understatement.

What does all this have to do with whether Donald Trump lied about the 2020 election, and is lying still? The short answer is that maybe it has nothing to do with it. Or maybe everything.

To the prosecutors and most of the legacy media, the evidence against Trump is overwhelming: A slew of accomplished and ethical Republicans — many of them who worked directly for the president — told him the truth about the 2020 election.


“There is no world, there is no option in which you do not leave the White House on January 20,” Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin told Trump.

So why didn’t he listen? Because that’s not what grandiose narcissists do.

In the federal indictment, Jack Smith alludes specifically to six unnamed “co-conspirators,” among them Rudy Giuliani, election lawyer John Eastman, and Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark. This is the crew Mike Pence described as the “gaggle of crackpot lawyers” who helped set the stage for the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Pence’s description may be apt, but the point is that Trump wasn’t just hearing from people like the vice president. He was also getting an earful from people like Giuliani, who were passionately urging the president to challenge the results. What have we learned about Trump in the past eight years? That he’s a modest and reasonable man who weighs both sides of a complex question prudently and with a sense of his own personal limitations? Or that he’s someone who seizes on the answer he wants to hear?

Jack Smith is reportedly preparing to elicit testimony from Steve Bannon and Roger Stone to the effect that refusing to concede the election was Trump’s game plan all along. Perhaps it’s that simple. But it’s worth recalling how routinely Trump garbles the facts. The day he was arraigned on the federal charges, Trump told reporters that he was “leading Biden by a lot” in pre-2024 election polls. This is wrong: The RealClearPolitics poll average that day showed the Biden-Trump matchup to be a statistical tie, with Biden narrowly ahead. But Trump would dismiss the Economist/YouGov poll that had him four percentage points behind Biden and embrace the Harris/Messenger poll that shows him four points ahead. As the American people have learned, that’s how his mind works. The reason why is in plain sight.


Trump’s narcissism has been on display for years. A layman can consult the symptoms listed by any number of medical sources, including the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic, but the most relevant explanation of the mindset of someone with narcissistic personality disorder comes from California psychiatrist Dan Neuharth. Writing in 2017 about nine “truths” a grandiose narcissist would tell you if he was being completely honest, Neuharth wrote essentially that a narcissist can’t really tell the truth from a lie. Here are five of them:

  • The truth is whatever I say in the moment. I will change it whenever it suits me. I don’t need to be consistent. When I speak, I act 100% certain of what I am saying. It’s amazing how often I convince people I am right by speaking with absolute certainty.
  • I love taking credit, but I have no interest in taking responsibility. I never apologize or admit I am wrong. That would appear weak.
  • I have a bottomless hunger for attention and respect. Whatever you do for me will never be enough.
  • My image is all-important. Appearances matter more to me than substance. I’ll do whatever it takes to look good. If that’s at your expense, too bad.
  • I feel entitled to do whatever I want. Normal rules and limitations don’t apply to me. Anything goes, if it makes me feel good about myself.

In other words, the counter-argument to Trump lying about losing the 2022 election is that he lacks the wherewithal to admit he lost, even to himself. As I mentioned earlier, this is not a legal defense he would ever use, and narcissism doesn’t meet the legal definition of insanity anyway. But predicating two sweeping criminal cases on the premise that Trump was lying (as Smith and Atlanta prosecutors have done) and basing press coverage of him on the same basis (as the media has done), assumes a capacity Trump may not possess.

Until recently, Trump’s propensity to bluster has served him well in life: He made a name for himself in New York real estate, starred in a reality television show, and bested all comers in the 2016 presidential race that put him in the White House. Throughout that journey, Trump made it clear that the worst insult he can hurl at someone is that they are “a loser.” Trump does not see himself as a loser. Hence, he simply couldn’t bring himself to see he’d lost the election.

In late September, Trump spoke at the California Republican Party’s annual convention in Orange County. There, Trump told an overflow lunch crowd at the Anaheim Marriott that he could carry the state in 2024 if California didn’t have a “rigged” political system. He said this several times. It’s an inane claim: In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 4.3 million votes in California, more than accounting for his loss in the national popular vote. In 2020, Joe Biden outpolled Trump by 5.1 million votes in California.

Judging by their reaction when I asked a handful of the rank-and-file Republicans in that Trump-friendly audience about it, few of the attendees gave this boast any credence. Certainly, no one in the media section did. But I did a quick straw poll, and several of the journalists assumed Trump believed what he was saying. One question for the criminal justice system is whether grandiosity is now a crime. For journalists it’s this: How are we supposed to cover a guy like him? Perhaps one answer is to use language more carefully than he does.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.


Editor’s Note

The views expressed by Mr. Cannon or any other contributor are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CNAV. Mr. Cannon obviously does not believe President Trump, about the Election of 2020 or anything else. But CNAV stands by its own corroboration, and that of other contributors, of many of President Trump’s remarks that Mr. Cannon sees fit to dispute.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief of RealClearPolitics and Executive Editor of RealClear Media Group. Carl is a past recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Distinguished Reporting and the Aldo Beckman Award, the two most prestigious awards for White House coverage. Previous positions include executive editor of, D.C. bureau chief for Reader's Digest and White House correspondent for both the Baltimore Sun and National Journal. He was a 2007 fellow-in-residence at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, a past president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and is a published author.

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