The latest big buzz is about Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. It turns out that he lied during his confirmation hearings, denying that he had met with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. In fact, he met twice with the Russian ambassador, who is widely reported to also be a key spymaster.
Not incidentally, if this news hadn’t come to light, forcing Sessions to recuse himself, he would have supervised the investigation into Russian election meddling, possibly in collusion with the Trump campaign.
But let’s not focus too much on Sessions. After all, he is joined in the Cabinet by Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who lied to Congress about his use of a private email account; Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, who lied about a sweetheart deal to purchase stock in a biotechnology company at a discount; and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who falsely told Congress that his financial firm didn’t engage in “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents, seizing homes without proper consideration.
And they would have served with Michael Flynn as national security adviser but for the fact that Flynn was forced out after the press discovered that, like Sessions, he had lied about contacts with the Russian ambassador.
At this point it’s easier to list the Trump officials who haven’t been caught lying under oath than those who have. This is not an accident.
Critics of our political culture used to complain, with justification, about politicians’ addiction to spin – their inveterate habit of playing down awkward facts and presenting their actions in a much better light than they deserved. But all indications are that the age of spin is over. It has been replaced by an era of raw, shameless dishonesty.
In part, of course, the pervasiveness of lies reflects the character of the man at the top: No president, or for that matter major U.S. political figure of any kind, has ever lied as freely and frequently as Donald Trump. But this isn’t just a Trump story. His ability to get away with it, at least so far, requires the support of many enablers: almost all of his party’s elected officials, a large bloc of voters and, all too often, much of the news media.
It’s important not to indulge in an easy cynicism, to say that politicians have always lied and always will. What we’re getting from Trump is simply on a different plane from anything we’ve seen before.
For one thing, politicians used to limit their outright lies to matters not easily checked – hidden affairs, under-the-table deals and so on. But now we have the man who ran the Miss Universe competition in Moscow three years ago, and who declared just last year that “I know Russia well,” then last month said, “I haven’t called Russia in 10 years.”
On matters of policy, politicians used to limit their misrepresentations of facts and impacts to relatively hard-to-verify assertions. When George W. Bush insisted that his tax cuts mainly went to the middle class, this wasn’t true, but it took some number-crunching to show that. Trump, however, makes claims like his assertion that the murder rate – which ticked up in 2015 but is still barely half what it was in 1990 – is at a 45-year high. Furthermore, he just keeps repeating such claims after they’ve been debunked.
And the question is, who’s going to stop him?
The moral vacuity of Republicans in Congress, and the unlikelihood that they'll act as any check on the president, becomes clearer with each passing day. Even the real possibility that we’re facing subversion by agents of a foreign power, and that top officials are part of the story, doesn’t seem to faze them as long as they can get tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor.
Meanwhile, Republican primary election voters, who are the real arbiters when polarized and/or gerrymandered districts make the general election irrelevant for many politicians, live in a Fox News bubble into which awkward truths never penetrate.
And what about the Fourth Estate? Will it let us down, too?
To be fair, the first weeks of the Trump administration have in important ways been glory days for journalism; one must honor the professionalism and courage of the reporters who have been ferreting out the secrets this authoritarian-minded clique is so determined to keep.
But then you watch something like the way much of the news media responded to Trump’s congressional address, and you feel despair. It was a speech filled with falsehoods and vile policy proposals but read calmly off the teleprompter – and suddenly everyone was declaring the liar in chief “presidential.”
The point is that if that’s all it takes to exonerate the most dishonest man ever to hold high office in America, we’re doomed. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again.