Trump’s penchant for deception is infecting his team

Donald Trump, Jr., son of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, had to amend his account about what happened at a meeting in Trump Tower several times.
Donald Trump, Jr., son of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, had to amend his account about what happened at a meeting in Trump Tower several times. AP

“There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain once wrote: “lies, damned lies and statistics."

The Trump administration has employed them all.

From the exaggerated estimates of his inaugural crowd to the unraveling of claims that his campaign never dealt with Russia, Donald Trump’s presidency has been a mosaic of untruths, half-truths and distortions.

And they are not just his own, which are legion. Many belong to people inside his political orbit. From Cabinet secretaries to White House aides to campaign advisers — even family members — they are all knitted together by the common thread of deception. The fog is so thick inside the Trump White House that it could be cited for violating clean air standards.

Some of the falsehoods are causing headaches for the perpetrators as Justice Department and congressional investigators probe Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether Trump or his team assisted. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, has faced repeated questioning on Capitol Hill about his contacts with Russians, which were more numerous than he first allowed; his latest confrontation with lawmakers came this week. And Trump White House aide Jared Kushner was taken to task by senators on Thursday for repeatedly failing to disclose communications about Wikileaks, which published hacked emails of Democratic leaders last year, and a “Russian backdoor overture.”

The motives behind some of the misrepresentations are petty. Does the fact that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied about his wealth and instead of qualifying as a billionaire, he’s merely a millionaire many times over, shake the foundations of democracy?

Not really.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ serial evasions about his role in the Russia scandal possibly do.

“Information has been revealed by the inch as they’ve been caught with email or in other ways” showing they haven’t told the full truth, said Stephen Macedo, a professor of politics and director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

“It is very worrisome,” he said, adding that he believed the infection of Trumpworld with a virus of deception may date back to the candidate’s refusal to make public his tax returns. That “may send a sign that full disclosure is not expected and keeping secrets is what you get can get away with… Certainly the example being set at the top doesn’t seem favorable.”

All governments, as well as lots of politicians, lie or shade the truth for a variety of reasons: sometimes to protect national security; other times to cover up embarrassing mistakes or facts.

President Richard Nixon lied about Watergate, ushering in the era of modern-day political scandals. President Bill Clinton lied about his affair with a White House intern. The George W. Bush administration lied about Iraq having nuclear weapons and ended up triggering a war that dangerously reshaped the political landscape in the Middle East

The president has set the tone. His untruths and misdirections have been prolific: from claiming that numerous undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 presidential election, to suggesting that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign, to “nobody knows” whether Russia meddled in the election.

(Note: No audio in video) Donald Trump Jr. released an email chain on Tuesday that shows him discussing plans to hear damaging information on Hillary Clinton. In a statement, he said was posting the emails "in order to be totally transparent."

Perhaps the pervasive deception springs somehow from the tribalism that infects politics now, or the erosion of ethical and moral pillars that have generally supported public debate. People have less faith in institutions, whether they be government, the church, the media — even the National Football League. Voters distrust their leaders more and have come to expect less, and some of those serving in top spots in government come from positions where they could, to some degree, fashion their own reality.

“When you rise to the top, there’s often a standard that a lot of what’s normal doesn’t apply,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College and director of its college poll. “They’re just so accustomed to getting their own way, to shaping the world that they live in.”

Trump has praised his choices to run federal agencies as “the finest group of people ever assembled…as a Cabinet.” Yet several, along with others in his circle, have not told the truth, or at the very least, fudged their accounts so much they should all be wearing chocolate mustaches.

Here’s a selection:

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin: He denied under oath that the bank he used to run, OneWest, robo-signed mortgage documents during the Great Recession. It’s a predatory lending practice that involves bank employees signing documents en masse without reviewing them. In both written responses to senators considering his nomination to be treasury secretary last January, and in testimony this summer before a House committee, Mnuchin denied the practice occurred.

Information has been revealed by the inch as they’ve been caught with email or in other ways of having not told the full truth.

Stephen Macedo, Princeton Unversity

That was at odds with a deposition from a former OneWest Bank president and a consent order from the federal Office of Thrift Supervision, which found that the bank had, indeed, engaged in “unsafe or unsound practices.”

Mnuchin also did not reveal during his confirmation hearing nearly $100 million in assets, as well as his position as director of an investment fund in the Cayman Islands, a known tax haven.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions: First he got himself in trouble during his confirmation hearing last January when Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked what Sessions would do if evidence surfaced that members of the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government.

“I'm not aware of any of those activities…and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it,” he replied.

But then it came out he had met with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice last year: at the Republican convention in July and then again in September. Just last month during questioning at another Senate hearing, Sessions was asked if he believed that Trump campaign surrogates communicated with Russia. He said he didn’t, nor was he aware of anyone who did.

But then a low-level campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos attended a campaign meeting in March 2016 with Trump, Sessions and others where the subject came up. After some discussion, according to J.D. Gordon, a Trump campaign national security adviser, Sessions said it was a bad idea and ended the debate.

At his appearance this week before the House Judiciary Committee. Sessions said several times he could not remember certain events, denied that he had lied to Congress and said he now recalled the campaign meeting that Papadopoulos attended after reading news reports.

Campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos: See above.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: He’s not really the billionaire he claims to be, according to an investigation by Forbes magazine. Upset that Forbes had planned to remove him from The Forbes 400, its list of the richest Americans, he insisted that he was worth $3.7 billion, but actually it’s just a paltry $700 million, the magazine concluded. Ross claimed that he had family trusts valued at more than $2 billion, which he was not required to disclose. His own Commerce Department subsequently issued a statement that the $2 billion “never happened,” the magazine said.

Forbes minced no words excoriating Ross: “It seems clear that Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004,” said the article, which also said that inflating his wealth probably translated into additional business opportunities for him.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: She denied during her confirmation hearings that she sat on the board of her family’s foundation when it made contributions to several conservative groups that opposed LGBT rights. But tax returns for several years show that DeVos was vice president of the foundation’s board at the time. Under repeated questioning by Sen. Margaret Hassan, D-N.H., DeVos said the foundation’s years of tax forms were wrong, “a clerical error,” she said.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt: He told a Senate hearing that he never used his personal email account to conduct business while he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. But he did, according to records released in a lawsuit in Oklahoma.

The fog machine inside the Trump White House should violate clean air standards. The president has set the tone. His untruths and misdirections have been prolific.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price: The physician and former Georgia congressman said during his confirmation hearing that the discounted cost he paid for a biotech stock was available to every investor. The Wall Street Journal revealed that the price he paid was available to only a select few. Price was forced to resign when his extensive use of private charter air travel became public.

Former White House National Security Adviser Mike Flynn: The retired Army lieutenant general didn’t last long in his post after it was revealed that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence. He told Pence that at a meeting during the transition with the Russian ambassador, he had not discussed economic sanctions against Russia, when he actually had.

Flynn might also have deceived about who paid for his trip to Russia in 2015 during a Defense Department inquiry into the renewal of his security clearance.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly: The retired Marine general put out a false tale during the fallout from the dust-up over the president’s call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of several soldiers killed in Niger during a terrorist ambush. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., a Johnson family friend was in the car when Trump called Johnson’s wife to express his condolences. A dispute arose over the tone of Trump’s message, with Wilson criticizing the president. Trump attacked Wilson on Twitter, and at a press briefing, Kelly accused her of being an “empty barrel” who had taken undeserved credit for getting the money for a new FBI field office building in Florida by just calling up then-President Barack Obama. Nope. Wilson wasn’t even in Congress in 2009 when the project was funded.

White House Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller: He told multiple untruths last February in several television appearances. He repeated a debunked, but widely popular, Republican claim that massive voter fraud was rampant, and that large numbers of non-citizens were registered to vote. He also repeated Trump’s baseless claim that voters were bused into New Hampshire from Massachusetts to vote in the state’s Republican presidential primary last year. But for that, Trump asserted, he would have won the primary.

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner: Trump’s son-in-law neglected to include significant details on his security clearance form, including his numerous foreign contacts. Among them: his June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who was to provide negative information about his Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. He has also had to amend his financial disclosure form numerous times and has twice been fined for filing ethics reports late.

In addition, on Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a prickly letter to Kushner regarding documents he failed to produce last month, including emails from September 2016 about WikiLeaks, as well as one that refers to a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite.” The panel, which learned of the emails from other witnesses who have turned them over, set a deadline of Nov. 27 for Kushner to give them up.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: After the driver of the truck killed several people on a Manhattan bike path, Trump threatened to send him to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and said the U.S. justice system was “a joke and it’s a laughingstock.” At a press briefing, Sanders denied that he had said it: “That’s not what he said. He said that process has people calling us a joke and calling us a laughingstock.”

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway: The one-time pollster famously brought us the phrase “alternative facts” in a Meet the Press interview last January during an exchange over the White House’s false claims about the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd. Host Chuck Todd asked why the White House sent out then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer to “utter a falsehood? Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on day one.”

“No it doesn't,” Conway replied. “Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What...You're saying it's a falsehood...Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

“Wait a minute,.” Todd said. “Alternative facts? Alternative facts...Look, alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods.”

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer: He repeatedly issued fact-free statements from his perch in the briefing room, such as: Unlike Syrian President Bashar Assad, even Adoph Hitler did not use chemical weapons (His Nazi Third Reich murdered millions of Jews and others in gas chambers.) Spicer also doubled down on Trump’s claim that his swearing in “was the most-watched inaugural."

Donald Trump Jr.: The president’s eldest son changed his account of a meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 several times. He first said that he never represented the campaign in the meeting; then that he did, but it was about Russian adoption; and then that it was supposed to be about obtaining damaging information about Hillary Clinton, which he said never materialized.

Former Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski: He had said he didn’t know Carter Page, an energy consultant and former Trump policy adviser. But Page recently told the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and its alleged ties to the Trump campaign, that he told Lewandowski that he had traveled to Moscow and talked about the campaign. Questioned about that on Fox News, Lewandowski backtracked and said he knew of Page and his trip.

“My memory has been refreshed,” he said.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ