The Opinion Pages | Contributing Op-Ed Writer Timothy Egan
Donald Trump speaking to the media on Tuesday night. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Earlier this month, the world’s most battle-scarred cable news network did something extraordinary in this year of vaporous political contrails. While Donald Trump was delivering one of his easily debunked lies, CNN fact-checked him — in near real time at the bottom of the screen.
“Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (he did).” Thus read the chyron that shook the television world — maybe.
I no more expect CNN to set Wolf Blitzer’s beard on fire than to instantly call out the Mount Everest of liars. Trump lies about big things (there is no drought in California) and small things (his hair spray could not affect the ozone layer because it’s sealed within Trump Tower). He lies about himself, and the fake self he invented to talk about himself. He’s been shown to lie more than 70 times in a single event.
Given the scale of Trump’s mendacity and the stakes for the free world, it’s time that we go into the fall debates with a new rule — an instant fact-check on statements made by the candidates onstage. The Presidential Debate Commission should do what any first-grader with Google access can do, and call out lies before the words hit the floor.
Setting up a truth referee is not difficult. And while doing such a thing is unlikely to ensure that the debates would be substantive, it could at least guarantee a reality foundation at a time when fact-free speech is the language of the political class.
How can we discuss the economy when Trump suggests that the unemployment rate, just under 5 percent, is actually 42 percent? Or debate the Paris climate accord, when Trump falsely claims it “gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use on our land”? Or deal with terrorism, after Trump said he knows “more about ISIS than the generals.” The debates are meaningless without a neutral party screening the garbage.
Professional truth-seekers have never seen anything like Trump, surely the most compulsive liar to seek high office. To date, the nonpartisan PolitiFact has rated 76 percent of his statements lies — 57 percent false or mostly false, and another 19 percent “Pants on Fire” fabrications. Only 2 percent — 2 percent! — of his assertions were rated true, and another 6 percent mostly true. Hillary Clinton, who is not exactly known for fealty to the facts, had a 28 percent total lie score, including a mere 1 percent Pants on Fire.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has dinged Trump with 30 of its Four Pinocchio ratings — lying 70 percent of the time. Trump cares so little about the truth that when the Fact Checker reaches out to him for an explanation, he never responds, the paper noted.
Trump got his start on the national political stage as a liar, playing to the birther fantasies of Barack Obama’s worst haters. One of the questions he might be asked in the three fall debates is what, exactly, he discovered when he claimed his investigators “cannot believe what they’re finding” in Hawaii five years ago.
With Trump University, he created a business model built on a house of lies. An executive called it “a total lie,” and a sales manager said it was a “fraudulent scheme” designed to bilk vulnerable clients, according to court testimony. It was that class-action lawsuit that got Trump into his present caldron of lies — calling the Indiana-born judge in the case a “Mexican.” By that standard, Trump is a German, with a grandfather from Kallstadt.
Some of Trump’s lies are the everyday speech of a charlatan — trade talk. At a bizarre news conference in March, he called Trump Winery “the largest winery on the East Coast.” Not even close, according to PolitiFact. Last month he said he had more employees in New Jersey “than almost anybody.” Not a chance. There’s a word for this kind of person, the guy who spits on your tie and then tells you he likes your sheen, but The New York Times does not allow me to print it.
After a while, I tried to chart the days of his lies, and just got overwhelmed. He said the suicide of the former Clinton aide Vince Foster was “very fishy,” when five separate investigations found it to be a sad self-killing and nothing more. He could have looked at the United States Drought Monitor before saying “there is no drought” at the very California site that is now in its fifth year of an epic arid spell.
He even lies about his lies. He claimed he wanted to keep a personal donation to veterans private, when in fact he’d boasted in January of a $1 million gift, which wasn’t sent out until the press began questioning him on it months later.
Sadly, a lot of voters don’t care if a candidate is a pathological liar. But most of us should. It’s up to the debate commission, as they set the rules for the fall, to ensure that truth has a place on the stage.