The evidence mounts: On Saturday morning, March 4, Donald J. Trump issued the tweets heard round the world.
Was he lying when he issued his tweets? Is it possible that he really believed the things he tweeted that day?
We don't know how to answer that question. Luckily, Mika Brzezinski does. We quote her from today's Morning Joe:
BRZEZINSKI (3/21/17): Who actually prompted this, Michael Steele? Where did this start? Did it start with those tweets on a Saturday morning that were, apparently, lies?To watch this statement, click here, skip ahead to roughly 6:50.
I think we can now actually equivocally [sic] say the president was lying on a Saturday morning when he—I don't know, was it four or five tweets?—accusing a former president of a felony.
For the record, it was four tweets that day. From context, we'll guess Mika meant we can "un-equivocally" say that Trump was lying, though we've recorded what she actually said.
Was Donald J. Trump lying that Saturday morning? We have no idea. We find the question intriguing for two different reasons.
First, we're struck by what this topic tells us about the intellectual skills of the mainstream press corps. Let's kick that around a bit.
We don't know why Mika seems to think that we now know Trump was lying. To us, it seems entirely possible that he believed the claims he thundered that morning.
We don't mean that as a compliment. But if he believed the things he tweeted that day, that would, by normal construction, mean he wasn't "lying."
That said, the skill level of our mainstream press corps is often remarkably low. Consider David Leonhardt's blustery column on this topic in today's New York Times.
When Leonhardt appeared on the scene, he was sold to us the rubes as one of the press corps' smart guys. Today, his column reads like a parody of competent thought. This is the way he begins:
LEONHARDT (3/21/17): The ninth week of Donald Trump’s presidency began with the F.B.I. director calling him a liar.As he starts, Leonhardt says that Comey called Trump a liar without "using the L-word."
The director, the very complicated James Comey, didn’t use the L-word in his congressional testimony Monday. Comey serves at the pleasure of the president, after all. But his meaning was clear as could be. Trump has repeatedly accused Barack Obama of wiretapping his phones, and Comey explained there is “no information that supports” the claim.
I’ve previously argued that not every untruth deserves to be branded with the L-word, because it implies intent and somebody can state an untruth without doing so knowingly. George W. Bush didn’t lie when he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and Obama didn’t lie when he said people who liked their current health insurance could keep it. They made careless statements that proved false (and they deserved much of the criticism they got).
But the current president of the United States lies. He lies in ways that no American politician ever has before...
Could it be that Comey eschewed the L-word because he wasn't calling Trump a liar? Please please please don't ask.
The much more ridiculous part of that passage comes in paragraph 3, where Leonhardt says he has "previously argued that not every untruth deserves to be branded with the L-word."
It's hard to believe how dumb that statement is. You can't "argue" that some untruths aren't lies; the statement is true by definition. You might as well "argue" that some human beings aren't fifty years old, or that some married persons aren't men.
That pompous declaration by Leonhardt is eye-poppingly dumb. Meanwhile, Bush and Obama didn't lie? How does Leonhardt know that?
Whatever! As we said, the intellectual skill level of the corps is often remarkably low. In his work on lead exposure, Kevin Drum has often noted the fact that everyone over a certain age was heavily exposed in youth. When we read work like Leonhardt's column, we tend to recall what Drum has said.
Was Trump lying that Saturday morning? We have no idea.
As a general matter, is he a liar? We still aren't even real sure about that.
Is Donald J. Trump a liar? Or could an accurate diagnosis perhaps be more troubling than that? To puzzle over this second set of questions, consider this recent post by Josh Marshall.
Marshall calls Trump a liar too. As he does, he abandons an earlier possible diagnosis without explaining why he does so. This strikes us as weak, lazy, hurried work:
MARSHALL: Now we've gone to the ridiculous lengths of having actual congressional investigations. And the representatives of the President's party in Congress have said there is no evidence that this happened. They are of course hanging on this 'no evidence' locution to avoid the discomfort of calling their party's leader a liar. The press shouldn't share that loyalty.Marshall jumps around in this presentation. He starts by saying that we should call Trump a liar. In the second paragraph we've posted, he seems to offer two possible choices—Donald J. Trump may be a liar, or he may be "crazy"/"unhinged."
In any other context, when we have a claim that it wildly improbable verging on impossible on its face, when no evidence is provided and when outside investigations say there is definitively no evidence whatsoever, we call those claims lies. Or the rantings of an unhinged person if we want to grant some accommodation for mental incapacity. If someone says aliens landed in their backyard and has a similar lack of any evidence whatsoever, we call that person a liar or a crazy person. We say it's not true. Full stop.
As we know, by definition, you cannot prove a negative. You can only show there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim. But this isn't a seminar on philosophy and empiricism. We call these lies.
One paragraph later, that second possibility seems to be gone (again), with no explanation given. We get the joy of dropping an L-bomb. In the process, though, we may be getting the wrong or less significant diagnosis.
Marshall moves away from the possibility that Trump is simply "crazy" or "unhinged." For ourselves, we feel disinclined to do that.
Is it possible that Donald J. Trump truly is some version of unhinged/crazy? Sadly, we're afraid it is. Since he holds the nuclear codes, this is a much more serious possibility than the one on which Marshall seems to settle.
When Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott told Richard Nixon he had to resign, Nixon succumbed to reality. What would Trump do in a situation like that?
A mere "liar" would know it was time to go. Do you feel sure that Donald J. Trump would react like that?
We don't feel sure of that at all. What has Professor Wang said?
Regarding the reasoning there: "If someone says aliens landed in their backyard and has a similar lack of any evidence whatsoever," is it true that "we call that person a liar or a crazy person?"
Is it true that "we call these lies?"
Those statements strike us as perfect nonsense. In truth, we don't "call" such people anything at all, since there are no such people.
Just a guess: No one reading Marshall's column has ever been told, by a neighbor or friend, that aliens landed in their back yard but they can offer no evidence.
People never make such claims. For that reason, "we" don't "call them" anything.
It seems to us that Marshall basically found a way to state a preferred diagnosis. It seems to us that the ultimate truth may be much more troubling, vastly more dangerous.