Assaults on Facts

An "assault on facts" is different from a false statement. An assault on facts is a deliberate attempt to mislead. A false statement is false, but not necessarily deliberately so.

This page tracks attempts by Trump and his administration not only to spread misinformation, but also to clamp down on the publication of facts and promote a version of reality which they can control. 

See also False Statements, Belief in Conspiracy Theories, and Attempts to Discredit Media.

Timeline

Analysis

Trump's administration regularly shades the truth or tells outright lies. During the election, only 4 percent of what he said was in all respects true, according to Politifact, and 70 percent was false. Trump lied more than any other presidential candidate. The pattern has continued since Inauguration Day, when he claimed the rain stopped just as he began his speech (it did not), and when he and his spokesman Sean Spicer exaggerated the size of the crowd at the ceremony. 

In addition to exaggerating the size of the crowd, Trump and Spicer also claimed the media misreported the facts.

This demonstrates two different kinds of lies. The first misrepresents facts. Sometimes these misrepresentations are unintentional. Sometimes they aren't. The second is an attempt to erase facts. Both types of lies are of concern, but the attempt to rewrite history is of particular concern. Rewriting history meets the definition of propaganda: "information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view." 

Authoritarian governments in the past have done this regularly; there are many examples of photographs that have been doctored to remove controversial figures, for example. 

It is an authoritarian move to undermine the work of the independent news media, who are known as "the fourth estate" because they cover all three branches of government and are charged to do so fairly and accurately, and have systems in place to correct errors when those are discovered. It's an advantage for an authoritarian leader to do this, because then citizens do not have confidence in anything and are more easily cowed and manipulated. Trump regularly tweets about "fake news" from reputable sources such as CNN and The New York Times. These sources are not fake news, and can generally be relied on for accurate coverage of national and international news. 

Assessments

The Wall Street Journal: Trump's falsehoods are eroding trust at home and abroad.

In the March 21, 2017 edition, the conservative newspaper highlights the costs of Trump's habitual deceit.

If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world? We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.

The latest example is Mr. Trump’s refusal to back off his Saturday morning tweet of three weeks ago that he had “found out that [Barack] Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory” on Election Day. He has offered no evidence for his claim, and a parade of intelligence officials, senior Republicans and Democrats have since said they have seen no such evidence. 

Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims. Sean Spicer—who doesn’t deserve this treatment—was dispatched last week to repeat an assertion by a Fox News commentator that perhaps the Obama Administration had subcontracted the wiretap to British intelligence.

Margaret Sullivan—The Washington Post

In the Feb. 14 2017, she identifies a pattern of Trump praising subordinates for lying to the public: 

“Congratulations Stephen Miller — on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!” went the Trump tweet (bringing to mind the presidential praise after Hurricane Katrina to the hapless Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown: “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie”).

What had Miller done to deserve the presidential attaboy? Well, among other things, the 31-year-old White House wunderkind had:

●Repeated, forcefully and with great conviction, evidence-free claims that there is widespread voter fraud in the United States. (Simply: There isn’t.)

●Insisted that the federal courts had no legitimate role in Trump’s executive order on immigration.

●Argued that there can be no questioning of the executive order from the judicial branch.


Michael Slater–The New Yorker

In the Feb. 3, 2017, edition of The New Yorker Slater opines on the potential damage of Trump:

Eventually, the President’s daily policy outrages, his caustic insults, and his childish Twitter rants will fade into history. But it will take years to gauge the impact of having a habitual liar as President. When words like “science” and “progress” become unmoored from their meaning, the effects are incalculable. And let’s not kid ourselves: those words today are under assault with a ferocity we have not seen for hundreds of years.

The United States is now a country with dozens of unofficial government “resistance” Twitter accounts. There is one for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, another for the Environmental Protection Agency, and others for the National Park Service, the Peace Corps, and the Customs Agency. Last week, in what the account describes as an effort to present “actual facts, instead of alternative facts,’’ they were joined by the nation’s most important public-health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are horrific lies of omission: last week, the White House released a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that pointedly declined to refer to Jews, because others were killed, too. And there are denials of truth that are impossible to categorize: the President met with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an anti-vaccine zealot with a history of falsehoods, and talked to him about possibly forming a commission on vaccine safety. (After Kennedy said he’d actually been asked to lead such a commission, provoking dismay, the Trump team said that no decision had yet been made.) Then there are lies so ludicrous that it is hard (though essential) to take them seriously: according to Trump, the United States has just gone through the most devastating instance of voter fraud in the nation’s history. And, in his telling, every one of the millions of illegal votes happened to be cast for his opponent.

Sam Waterson–The Washington Post

Waterson examines the scope and impact of Trump's unending stream of lies on Jan. 30, 2017:

By the frequency of his lying, Trump has revealed a truth we have avoided confronting: Like partisanship, regular and habitual lying is an existential threat to us, to our institutions, our memories, our understanding of now and of the future, to the great American democratic experiment, and to the planet. It blurs the truth, subverts trust, interferes with thought, and destroys clarity. It drives us to distraction.

It’s impossible to overstate what is at stake.

Lawrence Douglas–The Guardian

In his Feb. 7, 2017, op-ed Douglas examined the nature of Trump's lying as attacks on another level of magnitude:

These institutions – the university, the judiciary and the free press – subject the statements of politicians to truth-testing. In this way, citizens can make informed choices at the polls. Without these institutions – and, just as crucially, without belief in their integrity – democratic self-governance would be impossible. 

That is why it is significant that after storefront windows in downtown Berkeley were smashed by non-student rioters, Trump threatened to withdraw federal funds from the University of California, Berkeley, for practicing “violence on innocent people with a different point of view”.

After US district court judge James Robart, a stalwart Republican jurist appointed by George W Bush, issued a nationwide stay on the president’s travel ban, Trump attacked Robart as a “so-called judge”, and encouraged his supporters to “blame him [Robart] and the court system” if “something bad happens”. 

And in response to reports of a testy phone call with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Trump insisted the conversation had been “very civil” and dismissed claims to the contrary as “FAKE NEWS” that the “media lied about”.

These are not ordinary lies. These are meta-lies, second-order lies, lies about the very institutions vouchsafed with testing and examining the truthfulness of political statements.

This reckless disregard of reality reveals an unusual quality to Trump’s lying. Other presidents lied to deceive their opponents. Not so Trump. Trump does not even make the pretense of trying to hoodwink his opponents. Instead, he deceives his supporters. By lying about the neutrality and integrity of our truth-defending institutions, he consolidates his power by depriving his supporters of tools that might authorize an informed, critical assessment of his performance.

Jennifer Rubin–The Washington Post

In her Feb. 7, 2017, opinion piece, Rubin opines that if Trump doesn't stop lying Americans will start to think he is delusional:

Trump’s unprecedented degree of out-and-out lying to the American people about things large (a conspiracy to cover up terrorist attacks) and small (crowd size) — especially stated in the presence of the intelligence community (as he did at CIA headquarters the day after his disappointing inauguration turnout) and the military — raises the legitimate concern that we cannot rely on the president’s words or assume his perceptions are accurate.  

Margaret Sullivan–The Washington Post

From The Washington Post's media columnist Margaret Sullivan: 

Anyone — citizen or journalist — who is surprised by false claims from the new inhabitant of the Oval Office hasn’t been paying attention. That was reinforced when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told “Meet the Press” Sunday that Spicer had been providing “alternative facts” to what the media had reported, making it clear we’ve gone full Orwell.

Official words do matter, but they shouldn’t be what news organizations pay most attention to, as they try to present the truth about a new administration.

White House press briefings are “access journalism,” in which official statements — achieved by closeness to the source — are taken at face value and breathlessly reported as news. And that is over. Dead.