Trump’s Trouble with the Truth

President-elect Trump’s refusal to accept the fact that he lost the popular vote by more than two million doesn’t augur well for his ability to tell the truth in other cases, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Just when we may have started to hope that the excesses of Donald Trump’s campaign will give way to a more sober and reasonable mode of behavior once in office, the President-elect has a way of lurching back to the familiar excesses, usually with an outburst on Twitter.

This past weekend it was his return to the Big Lie with the accusation that millions of people voted illegally in this month’s election. It was an assertion so far removed from truth that the New York Times dispensed with journalistic political correctness and described the assertion correctly and accurately in a headline as “baseless.”

President-elect Donald J. Trump (Photo credit: donaldjtrump.com)

President-elect Donald J. Trump (Photo credit: donaldjtrump.com)

Maybe Trump was calculatedly laying groundwork for the enactment at the state level of additional voter suppression laws. Maybe it was another instance of his using an attention-getting blurt to attract attention away from other matters, such as disarray in his transition operation or conflict-of-interest issues involving his business interests.

More likely it was a less calculated and less controlled lashing out by a notoriously thin-skinned man who abhors losing and has been seeing his losing popular vote margin grow to well over two million votes — without regard to how such a lashing out assists Russian efforts to discredit the workings of American democracy.

There are many other sad things that could be said about the consequences for those workings of having a leader with so little regard for truth, which encourages further entrenchment of falsehood in politics and public affairs. In this respect Trump is both a symbol and arch-facilitator of a malevolent trend that led the Oxford English Dictionary to make “post-truth” its word of the year.

Problems with Lying

But consider for the moment one significant consequence for U.S. foreign relations: the greater disinclination of foreign governments and peoples to believe what the United States says. A significant ingredient of the pursuit of U.S. interests abroad is being weakened.

Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-first session. 20 September 2016 (UN Photo)

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo)

Daniel Drezner has explained part of the problem, citing John Mearsheimer’s research on lying by leaders and how they usually have good reason not to lie to other governments, and how credible commitment is a key component of deterrence. But it is not just deterrence, and keeping others from doing what we don’t want them to do, that is involved.

Being able to make credible promises, and getting others to do what we want them to do as part of cooperative arrangements, also requires others to believe that one’s leader speaks truthfully and has every intention of following through on positive commitments. Here Trump’s record of lying complements in the most deleterious way his business record of repeatedly stiffing vendors and sub-contractors — another habit of his that does not appear to be ending.

A fundamental underlying fact about the exercise of U.S. power overseas is that most of the time it is exercised not by the United States directly, physically doing things. Most of the time its exercise involves other states perceiving the U.S. ability to do certain things and believing it will do those things under certain conditions. That in brief is why credibility matters.

At stake is not just the reputation of any one occupant of the White House. The credibility of the U.S. president affects the credibility of the United States. And the perceptions that matter are those held not only by foreign governments but also by foreign publics.

A reputation for lying by the person at the top exacerbates what are already widespread and unhelpful tendencies of many people overseas not to believe what the United States says are its reasons for its actions overseas. This is especially a problem in the Muslim world; in this instance with Trump, the deleterious complementarity is between his lying and his Islamophobia.

The threat to U.S. credibility involved here is far more real than the supposed threat that often is posited: that if the United States does not immerse itself in this or that conflict that is peripheral to its interests, then other governments will not believe that the United States will stand up for its interests elsewhere. That is not how governments calculate credibility.

U.S. credibility depends not on intervening in what is peripheral but instead on U.S. leaders being believed when they say something is vital.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

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22 comments for “Trump’s Trouble with the Truth

  1. Robert Severance
    December 1, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Stated another way, Trump seems to believe in advertising: truth is whatever can be made to sell.

  2. Ragnar Ragnarsson
    December 1, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Let’s face it, Obama, Bush, Clinton…… they’re all liars. Singling out Trump as a problem doesn’t change that fact or accomplish anything useful.

    “without regard to how such a lashing out assists Russian efforts to discredit the workings of American democracy”

    Really? The Russians are undermining our democracy? More like WaPo and CNN if you ask me.

    • Bart in Virginia
      December 1, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      One could describe the underminability of our democracy as ‘low hanging fruit’

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 1, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    This past weekend it was his return to the Big Lie with the accusation that millions of people voted illegally in this month’s election. It was an assertion so far removed from truth that the New York Times dispensed with journalistic political correctness and described the assertion correctly and accurately in a headline as “baseless.”

    If Mr. Pillar is willing to use the notoriously dishonest New York Times as a source, then I figure it is fair for me to point to a business-friendly & right-wing place for my own link.

    Trump Is Right – Millions Of Illegals Probably Did Vote In 2016

    While states control the voter registration process, some states are so notoriously slipshod in their controls (California, Virginia and New York — all of which have political movements to legalize voting by noncitizens — come to mind) that it would be shocking if many illegals didn’t vote. Remember, a low-ball estimate says there are at least 11 million to 12 million illegals in the U.S., but that’s based on faulty Census data. More likely estimates put the number at 20 million to 30 million.

    Is this true? I simply don’t know. It does seem that the only way Hillary could have so many more votes than Trump, yet still lose the election, is that her surplus was concentrated in California and New York. Are those and Virginia overly tolerant of the illegals? This needs investigation, but the notion doesn’t strike me as extraordinary.

    I looked over the Investor’s Business Daily site and what I found tells me that this is one Trump probably watches closely. There was this voting story of course, but the IBD place is also against a no-fly zone in Syria. Ditto for Trump. They attack the fake science behind the Global Warming fraud. Trump follows the same line.

    • Finn Roed Nielsen
      December 1, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      “Is this true? I simply don’t know.”

      Unless you are a follower of Alex Jones, you would know this claim is fabricated from no facts at all.

      Of course, this does not change the fact that Hillary’s voter surplus is concentrated in California and NE states. Does anybody propose that votes in California and New York are somehow to be discounted?

    • aquadraht
      December 2, 2016 at 5:20 am

      The millions are certainly overstated. In 2014, a study was published by Richman, Chattha, and Earnest ( http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379414000973 ) suggesting that up to 6.4% of the electorate may have been non-citicens. It was based on the CCES survey, and later contested to have used these data in an inappropriate way. Richman defended the methodology of the study ( an overview can be found on the conservative leaned web site The Daily Signal http://dailysignal.com/2016/11/28/more-than-800000-noncitizens-could-have-voted-in-2016-election-experts-say/ ).

      There is no doubt that the US voter registration system is flawed under a couple of respects. Conservatives tend to blame sloppy registration procedures allowing non eligible individuals to register, whereas liberal and left leaned observers criticize voter suppression based on race, income, and level of education. Both phenomena seem to exist, to some extent, and it is hard to say which one prevails.

      Richman, as one of the researchers into non-citizen vote, holds that not much more than 800k non eligible people may have voted in 2016, and that it is highly unlikely that their vote may have flipped the outcome, nor can it flip the popular vote. Therefore, Mr. Pillar is right in his criticism of Trump’s irresponsible claims. A major reform of US registration system would be a good idea, anyway.

  4. Bill Bodden
    December 1, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    A reputation for lying by the person at the top exacerbates what are already widespread and unhelpful tendencies of many people overseas not to believe what the United States says are its reasons for its actions overseas. This is especially a problem in the Muslim world; in this instance with Trump, the deleterious complementarity is between his lying and his Islamophobia.

    America’s “leaders,” political and media, have been lying since the nation was just a collection of colonies. So, what else is new?

    And, it isn’t just America. As the great I. F. “Izzy” Stone said, “All governments lie.”

  5. Vera
    December 1, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    Somehow he reminds me of Turkey’s Erdogan…

  6. Chris Chuba
    December 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    I am normally a fan of articles on Consortium but this one is off base. The problem is that the largest states, NY, CA, and NJ, and others do not have voter ID, so we do not know how much voter fraud has occurred. The amount of fraud could have been in the millions. I threw in NJ because this is where I live and when I went to vote, the guy at the table casually asked me if I was my son. I could have easily said yes, forged his signature, voted, changed my shirt, and voted as myself later in the day and this is without even trying.

    In states without voter ID there can be massive voter fraud and there is no way to audit this. If someone hacked the voter registration DB’s then just have recently deceased people show up, also have the people who have not voted in the primary show up and forge the signature, assuming they even have to sign anything.

  7. John
    December 2, 2016 at 2:04 am

    Is the last vestige of the credibility of the US Government being destroyed actually a bad thing?

    Imagine if noone believed us that Iraq had WMDs, or that Ghaddaffi was planning genocide…

  8. Alexandria
    December 2, 2016 at 2:43 am

    I do believe there voter fraud and have read a few sources. Clinton had thousands of fraudulent ballots which were found. How many were not?

  9. backwardsevolution
    December 2, 2016 at 5:35 am

    Saw this on another cite:

    “There are 3,141 counties in the United States.
    Trump won 3,084 of them.
    Clinton won 57.
    There are 62 counties in New York State.
    Trump won 46 of them.
    Clinton won 16.
    Clinton won the popular vote by approx. 1.5 million votes.
    In the 5 counties that encompass NYC, (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Richmond & Queens) Clinton received well over 2 million more votes than Trump. (Clinton only won 4 of these counties; Trump won Richmond)
    Therefore, these 5 counties alone more than accounted for Clinton winning the popular vote of the entire country.
    These 5 counties comprise 319 square miles.
    The United States is comprised of 3,797,000 square miles.
    When you have a country that encompasses almost 4 million square miles of territory, it would be ludicrous to even suggest that the vote of those who inhabit a mere 319 square miles should dictate the outcome of a national election.
    Large, densely populated Democrat cities (NYC, Chicago, LA, etc) don’t and shouldn’t speak for the rest of our country.”

    And no voter I.D.? What kind of idiots came up with that idea? Insanity.

    • JMW
      December 2, 2016 at 9:40 am

      Stick to unproven claims. If you put actual numbers out there, people know you have no credibility.

    • Andy
      December 3, 2016 at 12:09 pm

      You are conveniently (or disingenuously) overlooking the fact that people vote, not land areas. Extending your logic, if I bought 49 states and banished everyone to Delaware (the one state I just couldn’t fit into my budget), then my vote should outweigh everyone else’s because hey, why should the voters representing a piddling 1,982 square miles count for more than mine because I have 3,795,018 square miles?

      But reductio ad adsurdum aside, you are essentially saying that because you disagree with how someone votes, then their votes should count for less than yours.

      Also I see the issue with voter ID as not with the ID per se, but with requirements that are designed to exclude certain constituencies. For example, in some places someone flashing their concealed-carry permit (likely to vote Republican) is waved on through whereas a college student (likely to vote for Democrats) who doesn’t need to drive and thus doesn’t have a license but does have a perfectly valid college picture ID is turned away. And curiously, closures (due to “budget restraints”) of government offices where one could get an acceptable ID seem to fall predominantly Democrat-leaning areas (Texas comes to mind). As do, also due to, ahem, “budget restraints”, closures of polling places, shortages of voting machines, reduction of or elimination of early voting. Coincidences? I think not.

      My question is: if Republicans are so certain that their ideas mirror those of the vast majority of Americans (which is what their campaign rhetoric, not to mention the vapourings of Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin and other mouthpieces of the right would have us believe), why not let everyone vote? Surely a lousy 10 or 12 or even 20 million illegal voters couldn’t stem that tide.

      • HP
        December 4, 2016 at 1:28 am

        Someone who possesses a License to Carry has undergone a thorough background check; student IDs may require much less, if any, identification check. But the truth is, in Texas, there are common, non-photo documents that anyone should have that are acceptable for ID at voting places.

  10. Peter Loeb
    December 2, 2016 at 8:39 am

    TRUTH

    The fact is that the US today and from its inception has used the Electoral
    College. The US also uses a winner-take-all evaluation of an electoral
    victory on Federal, State and Local levels. (A “victory” by l vote gives
    the victor all—- as well as the right to boast that he/she represents all of his
    constituency and indeed all of America).

    There are reasons for fear of plans by the Administration-to-be.

    The victory however was by the established rules. (Incidentally
    both campaigns used scare tactics in different guises. There
    are no innocents.)

    A change in the process would clearly involve a Constitutional Amendment.

    This must be passed over many years’ struggle and according to established
    rules for Constitutional amendments. (Personally, I doubt
    any any such effort would pass).

    Should the US have proportional representation? Many nations do.

    Should winner-take-all prevail? No matter the process (popular vote
    or Electoral College). If one side wins by 3,000 votes—legitamate or
    not—is that group entitled to claim victory? Or should the result be
    proportionate to the amount?

    Should cabinet posts be appointed not unilaterally but by agreements
    depending on the percentage of vote received?(Proportional distribution
    of appointment of cabiniet ministers such as in Germany as well as
    in some other nations?)

    It is nearly obscene for the loser in an election to question the legitimacy
    of a long established process.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  11. k
    December 3, 2016 at 10:46 am

    after iraq and libya, is there anyone in the world still believing the united states? other than brainwashed americans, of course.

  12. Andy
    December 3, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    ….absurdum….

  13. December 3, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    there were 3 people caught in voter fraud in the red states. voting in different counties and charged. the real theft lies
    with repug election officials who commit fraud on massive scale. going to be very interesting to see the results of the
    recounts the ones trumps lawyers are so desperately fighting to halt.there will be no legitimate if they are struggling to
    to halt recounts. there isn:t anything trump wouldn:t do to win. he will be exposed soon and even his least intelligent
    supporters will see the light !reminds me of carl rove and cheney rigging the election by having mike mc connell changing results via
    changing the results in the basement of a christian college in chattanooga tenn. soon after mike:s plane exploded and
    all ended well for bush. my point is this is the only avenue republicans can win by. certainly not by idea:s and policy.

  14. HP
    December 3, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    Donald Trump almost certainly won the LEGITIMATE popular vote.

    “Voting by non-citizens is a bigger problem than most people realize. According to a Cooperative Congressional Election Study, over 14% of non-citizens were registered to vote in the last two election cycles. Though that only represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, a group of political science professors at Old Dominion University recently suggested that this participation is large enough to impact the outcome of close political races.” (1)

    11% of non-citizens self-reported that they had voted in the 2008 election. If you accept the 11 million figure for the total number of illegals in the US, which the democrats have used for many years, (though the Obama regime recently asked for bids for over 30 million IDs), that would mean that 1.2 million illegals voted and 80% of those would have been for the democrat.
    In 2016 in Broward County, Florida, a poll worker filed an affidavit with a court that she witnessed vote fraud. She was told to take a cart of absentee ballots into a closed, windowless room where she saw four workers sitting at a table filling out absentee ballots. The democrat County Clerk fired her for reporting the vote fraud.

    In New York City, the Director of Elections, A. Schulkin, was videotaped by a Project Veritas volunteer saying that there were buses full of democrat voters going from poll to poll voting multiple times – New York state does not require voters to show ID.

    There were 4,000,000 dead people on the rolls this year. The dead tend to vote heavily for the democrats, often for many years after their deaths. That is how LBJ won his first Senate race (see “The Miracle of Box 13”).

    In Maryland, there were 40,000 people registered to vote in more than one state.

    See the 9 minute video “Fraction Magic – Short Version” on Youtube. It will show you how easy it is to rig the electronic voting machines.

    No wonder the democrats don’t want voters to have to show ID; it would reduce the number of fraudulent votes, which are overwhelmingly cast for democrats.

    By the way, Pennsylvania just added about 22,000 votes – virtually ALL of which seem to have gone for Clinton – more vote fraud?

    References
    (1) http://aun-tv.com/2014/11/harvard-study-illegal-alien-voter-fraud-decides-many-elections-6-4-of-illegals-voted-in-2008/

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