/How To Trick Trump Into Telling the Truth

How To Trick Trump Into Telling the Truth

President Donald Trump

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Fourth Estate

Stop punishing the president for lying. Start rewarding him for honesty instead.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

As Donald Trump approached the 1,000th day of his presidency last week, the Washington Post fact-checking team commemorated the milestone by noting that he had made 13,435 false or misleading statements since occupying the White House, an average of 13.4 falsehoods a day. The Post’s tally, as well as similar efforts by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and CNN’s Daniel Dale, all but prove that the author of Trump’s wetware must have selected “lie” as his default setting.

In his hour-long remarks during a Monday meeting with his Cabinet, Trump was at it again, repeatedly lying and stretching the truth. He lied about the number of people who attended his recent Dallas rally. He falsely claimed that President Barack Obama tried to call North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “11 times.” Once again, he falsely asserted that he was “bringing our soldiers back home.” He bent reality with the stupid claim that no president besides George Washington ever forfeited his salary—when both Herbert Hoover and John Kennedy did so. He called the emoluments clause “phony.” And so on and so on. CNN’s Dale and co-author Tara Subramaniam identified 20 fibs from Trump’s Cabinet monologue.

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A lesser liar might be deterred by platoons of fact-checkers dispensing “Pinocchios” and “Pants on Fire” labels to his utterances, but Trump is anything but a lesser liar. No matter the amount of truth-squading the press throws at him, he remains determined to manure the discourse with his lies. It’s enough to make the most dedicated fact-checker stop tracking Trump and assume that every word he speaks is a lie.

So should we give up on monitoring him? Of course not. The weatherman doesn’t suspend his forecasts just because they fail to discourage hurricanes, tornadoes and superbolts from inflicting mayhem. But perhaps the fact-checkers could be persuaded to augment their approach. Fact-checking starts with the premise that politicians mostly tell the truth and offer only the occasional brazen lie. Trump’s case reverses that equation—his true statements are his notable outliers. Because they are so unique, perhaps we should start giving them greater notice in hopes of nudging the president in the direction of accuracy and honesty. As a petulant but devoted reader of the press, Trump would notice a headline reading “President Trump Said Something True Yesterday,” and maybe tamp down on the lying.

Subjecting the president to this sort of operant conditioning through press coverage is not an entirely new idea. Michael Kinsley tried something like this two years ago in a brief series of New York Times opinion pieces under the rubric of “Say Something Nice About Trump” that sought to reinforce the president’s policy successes and his creative destruction of the political order. But Kinsley’s project didn’t do much to steer Trump toward the truth. For that, I think we need to heed the finding of psychological researchers who, several years ago, found that children who lied habitually were more open to reform if told that truthfulness was good than if told lying was bad. Chiding the liars for lying seemed only to make them lie more. Trump’s child-like demeanor—his tantrums and fits, his narcissism, his breath-holding when he doesn’t get his way, his heavy reliance on “mean words,” his endless pouting—hints that treating him like a kid and rewarding him for truth-telling rather than punishing him for lying might pay modest dividends.

The fact-checkers at PolitiFact already do a version of this by keeping a running score of disputed Trump statements ultimately judged to be true (5 percent of the 723 Trump statements examined so far). A more comprehensive list of things Trump has gotten right won’t turn Lyin’ Trump into Honest Abe overnight. But in a political culture starved for an agreed-upon set of facts from which to debate, a pamphlet (however slim) of collected Trump truths would come in handy, especially should a national security or economic crisis strike. Such a pamphlet might also benefit the president and his staff by giving them a sense of where to find common ground with their foes. I’m agnostic on who this job should go to—it could go to the fact-checkers, the commentariat, or even Chris Cuomo. Can’t you just imagine him in a muscle shirt scribbling like mad on a whiteboard about Trump’s latest expression of truth?

The idea that we could prod Trump toward honesty might over-estimate his relationship with the truth. Does he even know the difference? As the writer Windsor Mann tweeted this week, “When Trump tells the truth, it is by accident.” We probably don’t want to do anything that might increase the number of Trump accidents, lest we inspire one that causes everything to go kablooey. But even Pinocchio, the Washington Post fact-checkers’ avatar of lies, was capable of telling the intermittent, rare truth. If a boy born with wood for brains could achieve personhood by proving himself brave and truthful, there’s got to be hope for Trump.

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Lies” by the Knickerbockers was my favorite faux Beatles song. Yours? Send hot jams via email to [email protected]. My email alerts reprogrammed my Twitter feed. My RSS feed is still defunct and I’m pissed about it.

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