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When Presidents Lie

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Long before Donald Trump arrived in Washington, presidents lied. Chief executive lying is so common that there are discernible categories of presidential fabrication.

First, there is the venerable national security lie—the kind we expect our leaders to tell. Dwight Eisenhower forcefully denied that the US flew spy planes over Soviet territory when he knew we did. The Carter administration repeatedly denied that the US was planning a military rescue mission to release the hostages held in Tehran.

Obviously, Americans were disappointed when a U-2 plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and when the hostage rescue attempt in Iran failed, but they never faulted the folks who lied to our enemies in support of those operations.

Then there are the personal lies.

Jack Kennedy was asked in the 1960 campaign if he had Addison’s disease. He said no, knowing full well his response was false. Bill Clinton, in the most remembered remark he ever made, wagged his finger and denied having sexual relations with that women, Miss Lewinsky.

These were deeply disappointing public statements, but over time Kennedy and Clinton maintained significant popular support despite their lies about health and marital indiscretions.

Richard Nixon was different. His denial of knowledge about the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up was not lying about private matters. It involved dirty political tricks and illegal efforts to hide them from investigation. Nixon committed impeachable offenses and resigned with a permanently damaged reputation.

Lying by itself might not end a presidency; but committing crimes and lying about them could.

Even before presidents get to the White House they tend to have trouble with the truth. Lyndon Johnson had a habit of telling people in the Texas towns he visited that one of his grandparents was born in their community. In four locations he was telling the truth; everywhere else, not so much.

And politicians don’t just brag about their alleged connections to voters. They also make promises. When Ronald Reagan promised to simultaneously cut taxes, raise defense spending and balance the budget, his principal opponent called that Voodoo economics.

The comment by George H. W. Bush may have been a slur against practitioners of Voodoo. But we don’t usually call claims, like the one Reagan made, lying. We call it campaigning. Even so, language on the campaign trail can sometimes venture so far from reality that it looks a lot like lying.

Reagan presents another example of presidential predicaments with veracity.

During the Iran-Contra scandal Reagan said that he never approved arms sales to Iran for the purpose of getting Iranian help in freeing hostages held in Lebanon. He said this repeatedly until evidence made it perfectly clear that he had done exactly that.

Reagan’s televised apology contained the claim that he still thought he had not traded arms for hostages. If the president was not lying to the American people, he was lying to himself. Self-delusion is an occupational hazard in politics.

All of this brings us to Donald Trump, the most fantastic liar ever to occupy the oval office. Trump lies about everything. He talks about terrorist attacks in Sweden that no one in Sweden noticed. He blames Obama for bugging Trump Tower without any actual evidence that the surveillance took place or that Obama ordered it. He claims a bigger victory in the electoral college than any president since Reagan—a whopper so obviously false that a ten-year-old could prove its inaccuracy in a minute.

Trump says that millions of fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary in 2016. He says the crime rate is sky high when a cursory glance at reliable numbers shows a substantial long term decline.

Donald Trump practices every known form of presidential fabrication. He exaggerates, he obfuscates, he deludes, he makes things up and believes things made up by others. He abuses statistics.

Thus far, Trump has paid no substantial price for lying. His false statements may actually please his supporters while deflecting his critics.

But one issue should give Trump and his associates pause. The administration has provided Nixonian denials of any untoward communications with the Russians who hacked the election. There has already been one trusted advisor forced into resignation and another forced into recusal by conversations with a Russian diplomat. Additional accusations dribble from anonymous sources.

Is this a Watergate in the making?

If Donald Trump knows about campaign conversations with Russian hackers and has falsely claimed that those conversations never took place, that could be a lie too far; even for the most accomplished fabricator in American presidential history.

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