Why is Donald Trump’s “big lie” so hard to discredit?
This has been a live question for more than a year, but inside it lies another: Do Republican officials and voters actually believe Trump’s claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election by corrupting ballots — the same ballots that put so many Republicans in office — and if they do believe it what are their motives?
A December 2021 University of Massachusetts-Amherst survey found striking linkages between attitudes on race and immigration on one hand and disbelief in the integrity of the 2020 election on the other.
According to the poll, two-thirds of Republicans, 66 percent, agreed that “the growth of the number of immigrants to the U.S. means that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity” and the same percentage of Republicans are convinced that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate with voters from poorer countries around the world.”
Divisions over racial equality were closely related to perceptions of the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol attack. For example, among those who agreed that White people in the United States have advantages based on the color of their skin, 87 percent believed that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate; among neutrals, 44 percent believed it was legitimate; and among those who disagreed, only 21 percent believed it was legitimate. Seventy percent of people who agreed that White people enjoy advantages considered the events of Jan. 6 to be an insurrection; 26 percent of neutrals described it that way; and only 10 percent who disagreed did so, while 80 percent of this last group called it a protest. And while 70 percent of those who agreed that White people enjoy advantages blamed Trump for the events of Jan. 6, only 34 percent of neutrals did, and a mere 9 percent of those who disagreed did.
According to experts I asked, Republican elected officials who either affirm Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was corrupt, or refuse to call Trump out, base their stance on a sequence of rationales.
Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, sees the origin of one rationale in demographic trends:
I believe much of the polarization and discord in national politics comes from changing demographics. Robert Jones of P.R.R.I. writes about this in “The End of White Christian America” and I think this is a source of many politico-cultural divisions and plays out in electoral politics. There is an America (“American dream”) that many whites were privileged to know growing up and it now seems to be evaporating or at least becoming subservient to other cultural ideals and norms. So that spurs anxiety and it is translated to the language and posture of politics.
McCurry went on:
I think otherwise well-meaning G.O.P. senators who flinch when it comes to common sense and serving the common good do so because they have no vocabulary or perspective which allows them to deal with the underlying changes in society. They feel the changes, they know constituents whom they otherwise like who feel the changes, but they cannot figure out how to lower the level of angst.
Some maintain that another rationale underpinning submission to the lie is that it is signals loyalty to the larger conservative cause.
Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia, pointed out in an email that acceptance of Trump’s false claims gives Republican politicians a way of bridging the gap between a powerful network of donors and elites who back free trade capitalism and the crucial bloc of white working-class voters seeking trade protectionism and continued government funding of Social Security and Medicare:
Embracing the Big Lie is an empty approach to populism for a lot of these politicians. It allows them to cast their rivals, and the system itself, as corrupt — to cash in on that widespread sentiment — and to cast themselves as exceptions to the rule. It allows them to portray themselves as allies of “the people,” but without actually changing anything in terms of the policies they advocate for, in terms of how they do business.
For those Republicans leaders, al-Gharbi continued, “who are the swamp, or could be reasonably construed as such, it is important to create an apparent distance from ‘the establishment.’ Flirting with the Big Lie is a good way of doing so.”
Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and a senior fellow at Brookings, noted in an email that “fear of electoral retribution from Trump — and from Republican voters — drives Senate G.O.P. reluctance to break with Trump.”
The former president, she continued,
has succeeded in reshaping the G.O.P. as “his” party. This electoral dynamic applies in spades to Republicans’ unwillingness to challenge Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection — or like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell to back down from their initial criticisms. It seems as if fealty to Trump’s alternative version of the events of Jan. 6 is the litmus test for Republicans.
The underlying policy agreements between Republican incumbents and Trump reinforces these straightforward concerns over re-election, in Binder’s view:
For all of Trump’s nativist immigration, trade, and “America First” views, he was lock step with Republicans on cutting taxes and regulations and stacking the courts with young conservatives. In that light, certainly while Trump was in office, Senate Republicans held their noses on any anti-democratic behavior and stuck with Trump to secure the policies they craved.
Along similar lines, Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, observes that Republican elected officials make their calculations based on the goal of political survival:
What perhaps looks like collective derangement to many outside the party ranks is really just raw political calculation. The best strategy for regaining Congressional control is to keep Trump and his supporters inside the party tent, and the only way to do that is to go along with his myths in order to get along with him.
This approach, Cain continued, “is the path of least political resistance. Trump in 2016 demonstrated that he could win the presidency” while rejecting calls to reach out to minorities, by targeting a constituency that is “predominantly white and 80 percent conservative.” Because of its homogeneity, Cain continued, “the Republican Party is much more unified than the Democrats at the moment.”
While there was considerable agreement among the scholars and strategists whom I contacted that Republican politicians consciously develop strategies to deal with what many privately recognize is a lie, there is less agreement on the thinking of Republican voters.
How could the “Big Lie” campaign convince so many Republicans that Trump won an election he so clearly lost? Some observers wonder whether these beliefs are genuine or just an example of “expressive responding,” a term social scientists use to mean respondents are using a survey item to register a feeling rather than express a real belief.
In their own analysis of poll data, Cuthbert and Theodoridis concluded that most Republicans are true believers in Trump’s lie:
Apparently, Republicans are reporting a genuine belief that Biden’s election was illegitimate. If anything, a few Republicans may, for social desirability reasons, be using the “I’m not sure” option to hide their true belief that the election was stolen.
Al-Gharbi sharply disputes this conclusion:
Most Republican voters likely don’t believe in the Big Lie. But many would nonetheless profess to believe it in polls and surveys, and would support politicians who make similar professions, because these professions serve as a sign of defiance against the prevailing elites, they serve as signs of group solidarity and commitment.
Poll respondents, he continued,
often give the factually wrong answer about empirical matters, not because they don’t know the empirically correct answer, but because they don’t want to give political fodder to their opponents with respect to their preferred policies. And when one takes down the temperature on these political stakes, again, often the differences on ‘the facts’ also disappear.
One way to test how much people actually believe something, al-Gharbi wrote, “is to look out for yawning gaps between rhetoric and behaviors.” The fact that roughly 2,500 people participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection suggests that the overwhelming majority of Republicans do not believe the election was stolen no matter what they tell pollsters, in al-Gharbi’s view:
If huge shares of the country, 68 percent of G.O.P. voters, plus fair numbers of Independents and nonvoters, literally believed that we were in a moment of existential crisis, and the election had been stolen, and the future was at stake — why is it that only a couple thousand could muster the enthusiasm to show up and protest at the Capitol? In a world where 74 million voted for Trump, and more than two-thirds of these (i.e. more than 50 million people, roughly 1 out of every 5 adults in the U.S.) actually believed that the other party had illegally seized power and plan to use that power to harm people like themselves, the events of Jan. 6 would likely have played out much, much differently.
Whatever the motivation, Isabel V. Sawhill, a Brookings senior fellow, warned that Republican leaders and voters could be caught in a vicious cycle:
There may be a dynamic at work here in which an opportunistic strategy to please the Trump base has solidified that base, making it all the more difficult to take a stance in opposition to “whatever-Trump-wants.” It’s a Catch-22. To change the direction of the country requires staying in power but staying in power requires satisfying a public, a large share of whom has lost faith in our institutions, including the mainstream media and the democratic process.
Jake Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, noted in an email that the “big lie” fits into a larger Republican strategy: “In an economically unequal society, it is important for the conservative economic party to use culture war politics to win elections because they are unlikely to win based on their economic agenda.”
“There are a number of reasons why some Republican elites who were once anti-Trump became loyal to Trump,” Grumbach continued:
First is the threat of being primaried for failing to sufficiently oppose immigration or the Democratic Party, a process that ramped up first in the Gingrich era and then more so during the Tea Party era of the early 2010s. Second is that Republican elites who were once anti-Trump learned that the Republican-aligned network of interest groups and donors — Fox News, titans of extractive and low wage industry, the NRA, evangelical organizations, etc. — would mostly remain intact despite sometimes initially signaling that they would withhold campaign contributions or leave the coalition in opposition to Trump.
Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, took a different tack, arguing that Republican members of Congress, especially those in the Senate, would like nothing better than to have the “big lie” excised from the contemporary political landscape:
I disagree with the premise that many senators buy into the “big lie.” Congressional Republicans’ stance toward the events of Jan. 6 is to move on beyond them. They do not spend time rebuking activists who question the 2020 outcome, but they also do not endorse such views, either. With rare exception, congressional Republicans do not give floor speeches questioning the 2020 elections. They do not demand hearings to investigate election fraud.
Instead, Lee argued, “Many Republican voters still support and love Donald Trump, and Republican elected officials want to be able to continue to represent these voters in Washington.” The bottom line, she continued, is that
Republican elected officials want and need to hold the Republican Party together. In the U.S. two-party system, they see the Republican Party as the only realistic vehicle for contesting Democrats’ control of political offices and for opposing the Biden agenda. They see a focus on the 2020 elections as a distraction from the most important issues of the present: fighting Democrats’ “tax and spend” initiatives and winning back Republican control of Congress in the 2022 midterms.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, argues that
Trump lives by Machiavelli’s famous maxim that fear is a better foundation for loyalty than love. G.O.P. senators don’t fear Trump personally; they fear his followers. Republican politicians are so cowed by Trump’s supporters you can almost hear them moo.
Trumpism, Begala wrote in an email, “is more of a cult of personality, which makes fealty to the Dear Leader even more important. How else do you explain 16 G.O.P. senators who voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006, all refusing to even allow it to be debated in 2022?”
Begala compares Senator Mitch McConnell’s views of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 — “America’s history is a story of ever-increasing freedom, hope and opportunity for all. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 represents one of this country’s greatest steps forward in that story. Today I am pleased the Senate reaffirmed that our country must continue its progress towards becoming a society in which every person, of every background, can realize the American dream” — to McConnell’s stance now: “This is not a federal issue; it ought to be left to the states.”
Republican politicians, in Begala’s assessment,
have deluded themselves into thinking that Trump and the Big Lie can work for them. The reality is the opposite: Republican politicians work for Trump and the Big Lie. And they may be powerless to stop it if and when Trump uses it to undermine the 2024 presidential results.
It is at this point, Begala continued, “where leadership matters. Trump stokes bigotry, he sows division, he promotes racism, and when other G.O.P. politicians fail to disavow Trump’s divisiveness, they abet it. What a contrast to other Republican leaders in my lifetime.”
Like Begala, Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at M.I.T., was blunt in his analysis:
There’s generally a lack of nuance in considering why Republican senators fail to abandon Trump. Whereas Reagan spoke of the 11th Commandment, Trump destroyed it, along with many of the first 10. He is mean and vindictive and speaks to a set of supporters who are willing to take their energy and animus to the polling place in the primaries — or at least, that’s the worry. They are also motivated by racial animus and by Christian millennialism.
These voters, according to Stewart,
are not a majority of the Republican Party, but they are motivated by fear, and fear is the greatest motivator. Even if a senator doesn’t share those views — and I don’t think most do — they feel they can’t alienate these folks without stoking a fight. Why stoke a fight? Few politicians enter politics looking to be a martyr. Mainstream Republican senators may be overestimating their ability to keep the extremist genie in the bottle, but they have no choice right now, if they intend to continue in office.
Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law at Columbia and the University of Texas, argued in an email that Republican acceptance of Trump’s falsehoods is a reflection of the power Trump has over members of the party:
It’s the very fact that they know Trump’s claims are ludicrous — that is the point: like other bullies, he amuses himself and solidifies his authority by humiliating people and what can be more humiliating than compelling people to publicly announce their endorsements of something they know and everyone else knows to be false?
Thomas Mann, a Brookings senior fellow, made the case in an email that Trump has transformed the Republican Party so that membership now precludes having “a moral sense: honesty, empathy, respect for one’s colleagues, wisdom, institutional loyalty, a willingness to put country ahead of party on existential matters, an openness to changing conditions.”
Instead, Mann wrote:
The current, Trump-led Republican Party allows no room for such considerations. Representative Liz Cheney’s honest patriotism would be no more welcome among Senate Republicans than House Republicans. Even those current Republican senators whose earlier careers indicated a moral sense — Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Richard Burr, Roy Blunt, Lisa Murkowski, Robert Portman, Ben Sasse, Richard Shelby — have felt obliged to pull their punches in the face of the Big Lie and attempted coup.
Bart Bonikowski, a sociologist at N.Y.U., describes the danger of this political dynamic:
In capturing the party, Trump perfectly embodied its ethnonationalist and authoritarian tendencies and delivered it concrete results — even if his policy stances were not always perfectly aligned with party orthodoxy. As a result, the Republican Party and Trumpism have become fused into a single entity — one that poses serious threats to the stability of the United States.
The unwillingness of Republican leaders to challenge Trump’s relentless lies, for whatever reason — for political survival, for mobilization of whites opposed to minorities, to curry favor, to feign populist sympathies — is as or more consequential than actually believing the lie.
If Republican officials and their voters are willing to swallow an enormous and highly consequential untruth for political gain, they have taken a first step toward becoming willing allies in the corrupt manipulation of future elections.
In that sense, the “big lie” is a precursor to more dangerous threats — threats that are plausible in ways that less than a decade ago seemed inconceivable. The capitulation to and appeasement of Trump by Republican leaders is actually setting up even worse possibilities than what we’ve lived through so far.
If Donald Trump possessed a soul, a trace of conscience or character, he would resign the Presidency. He will not resign the Presidency.
Trump is who he has always been, and the details that we learn with every passing day merely fill in the portrait with sharper focus and more lurid colors. The man who lied about the nature of the novel coronavirus to the American people (but confided in Bob Woodward) is the same man who, as a real-estate huckster, used to say that the best way to hype a new building was to “just give them the old Trump bullshit.” Deception is his brand.
It is hard to identify a constituency that Trump has not betrayed. A self-proclaimed populist, his greatest legislative triumph was a gargantuan tax cut for the wealthy. (“You all just got a lot richer,” he told his cronies at Mar-a-Lago.) A self-proclaimed champion of the military, he reportedly says “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies” and refers to fallen American soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.” His lies and expressions of contempt are so routine, so numerous, that we grow inured to their gravity and even forget that only recently he was impeached in the House of Representatives, avoiding conviction thanks only to a conscience-free Republican majority in the Senate. Trump’s lack of stability is so pronounced that he inspires nightmares in his closest aides. As we learn from “Rage,” Woodward’s new book, Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, was so concerned that the President would set off a nuclear confrontation with North Korea that Mattis slept in his clothes in case he had to race to the Pentagon or the White House in the middle of the night. In his interviews with Woodward, Trump seems so hungry for approbation that, like a child, he spills news of a secret weapons system––“We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before.” (This weapons system is presumably different from the hypersonic “super duper” missile that Trump hinted at in May.)
The polls show Joe Biden ahead, but there is no question that the election could go either way. As he proves almost daily, Trump is capable of saying or doing anything to win. And if he doesn’t win, the presumption that he will hand over power without some sort of duplicity is far from assured. And yet the dismissive reaction on Fox News to the revelations in Woodward’s book was telling. On Wednesday night, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were all smug laughter as they tried to describe the excerpts from Woodward’s book as so much irrelevance and hokum and to redirect attention to all the many devilish ways that Biden was describing the country as “evil” and “racist.” And, by the way, Ingraham said, there’s another book that you really ought to read! “Obsession: Inside the Washington Establishment’s Never-Ending War on Trump,” by Byron York, a Fox contributor and correspondent for the Washington Examiner.
Trump’s Presidency has been appalling––but not unpredictably so. That he would bring misery and division to this country should have been obvious from the start. Flagrantly corrupt and instinctually autocratic, he immediately set about threatening democratic values and the rule of law, while encouraging autocrats abroad and white nationalists at home. He has aroused hatred for the free press and slimed the patriotism of everyone from John McCain to John Lewis. It is a painful thing to say, but the evidence assaults us daily: Trump is a miserable human being. Ask his sister, a retired federal judge; in a taped conversation with the President’s niece, she refers to him as “cruel.” It is the rare adviser or satrap who leaves the White House and does not hasten to write a memoir or speak to the press with the intention of sounding a common alarm, that Trump poses a threat to national security even more profound than the news-weary public can imagine. Woodward reports that the former director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, came to believe, more and more, that the Russians had something on Trump. “How else to explain the President’s behavior?” Woodward writes. “Coats could see no other explanation.”
“So you just had to deal with it,” Woodward quotes Mattis as saying, about the situation inside Trump’s White House. “It was, how do you govern this country and try to keep this experiment alive for one more year?” Mattis says he resigned only when Trump went “beyond stupid to felony stupid” and made an abrupt decision to withdraw troops fighting isis.
Trump’s reaction to the book has been Trumpian. He gave Woodward eighteen interviews, often calling Woodward at home at night just to deepen the hole he began to dig at more formal sessions in the Oval Office. Woodward taped the conversations with the President’s knowledge. But, as a way to cover all bases, Trump tweeted last month, “The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been.” And, of course, he has now tried to pick at the critical thread that the reporter should have published his remarks about the dangers of covid-19 earlier. “Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
The executive in charge of saving lives was, and is, Donald Trump, not Bob Woodward. And the President’s delays and denials insured that the American response, compared with that of other nations, would be tragic. William Haseltine, the chairman and president of access Health International and a world-renowned biologist, told CNN, “How many people could have been saved out of the hundred and ninety thousand who have died? My guess is a hundred and eighty thousand of those. We have killed a hundred and eighty thousand of our fellow-Americans because we have not been honest with the truth.”
With just two months remaining before the election, it is obvious that Trump, seemingly unable to expand his base and, according to a recent report in the Times, running short on money and the ability to blanket the battleground states with ads, will stick with the ugliest tactics available to him. And, in doing so, he is making the calculation that a decisive segment of the electorate will be attracted to his appeals to racism and fear.
Trump is not unique in such tactical thinking. In November, 1971, Richard Nixon was concerned about two things: his reëlection campaign and, at least fleetingly, the publication of Philip Roth’s “Our Gang,” a withering satire of the Nixon Administration. It hardly mattered to Nixon that the people most likely to read “Our Gang” were probably not in the undecided camp. In a White House meeting, Nixon asked his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, about the plot of Roth’s book. After Haldeman patiently ran through the Swiftian plot mechanics for the President, Nixon got to the point:
The two men ponder this. Then they edge up to an interesting conclusion.
As it happened, Nixon did not need to resort to Jew-baiting or race-baiting on the campaign trail. He was always far ahead in the polls against George McGovern and ended up winning everywhere but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
Early in his term, there were moments when Trump would seemingly abandon his customary venom and wildness and do something ordinary, such as read a bland speech from a prepared text. The spectacle would be so striking that we’d hear commentators say such things as, “This is the night that Donald Trump became President of the United States.” Meaning that there was half a chance that he would now behave somewhere within the bounds of sanity and decency. There was never any chance of that happening. Trump is who he has always been. The rest is details. And he is not going anywhere until he’s compelled to do so.
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all right please john yes thank you mr president why did you lie to the american people and why should we trust what you have to say terrible question and the phraseology i didn’t lie what i said is we have to be calm we can’t be panicked i knew that the tapes were these were a series of phone calls that we had mostly phone calls and bob woodward is somebody that i respect just from hearing the name for many many years not knowing too much about his work not caring about his work but i thought it would be interesting to talk to him for a period of you know calls so we did that i don’t know if it’s good or bad i don’t even know if the book is good or bad but certainly if he thought that was a bad statement he would have reported it because he thinks that you know you don’t want to have anybody that is going to suffer medically because of some fact and he didn’t report it because he didn’t think it was bad nobody thought it was wait a minute women and your question the way you phrase that is such a disgrace it’s a disgrace to abc television network it’s a disgrace to your employer and that’s the answer you ready because you think i i love you said him or something in the flu and then you went out and told the american public that this was just like the flu let me tell you we’ve had one year you told everybody else something else no and five times right five times do you ever hear the expression five times we’ve had flu years where we lost a hundred thousand people the flu is a very serious problem for this country also and we’ve been losing them scott what kind of a number have we lost over the years with fluz into the hundreds of thousands well i mean the the last five years have been something like 35 to 80 000 per year every year even with antiviral drugs flu is a very serious problem also this is worse than the most friendly deadlier than the most strenuous flu okay and then you went out and said it’s just like the flu what i went out and said is very simple listen what i went out and said is very simple i want to show a level of confidence and i want to show strength as a leader and i want to show that our country is going to be fine one way the other whether we lose one person we shouldn’t lose any because this shouldn’t have happened this is china’s fault this is nobody’s fault but china china should not have allowed it to happen whether you have a one person 180 000 people or two and a half or three million people which it could have been very seriously if we didn’t make the moves and when you look at the opposition where they said oh why did he put the ban on dr fauci said we saved hundreds of thousands of lives by putting the ban on china and then ultimately putting the ban on europe there was no lie here what we’re doing is we’re leading and we’re leading in a proper way and if frankly somebody else was leading it they wouldn’t have closed it if you look at nancy pelosi you look at cuomo you look at de blasio you look at biden months later they said there’s no problem they’re talking about me months later and before any statement was made you have to remember i put the ban on china so obviously outwardly i said it’s a very serious problem and it’s always a serious problem that doesn’t mean i’m going to jump up and down in the air and start saying people are going to die people are going to die no no i’m not going to do that we’re going to get through this and we’re right now i hope really think we’re going to we’re rounding the final turn and a lot of good things are happening with vaccines and with therapeutics but there’s no lying and the way you ask i think we did a great job and the people that did such are generals our admirals mike pence all of the people that have worked so hard and now dr atlas and all of them dr fauci dr burks they should be respected for the job they’ve done so you won’t die you won’t downplay it again because you said you downplayed it that’s what you told me all i’m doing is no i don’t want to jump up and down and start screaming death death because that’s not what it’s about we have to lead a country we’re leading a great country and we’re doing a great job and the people that have done such a good job should be given the kind of credit that they deserve we possibly have done the best jobs when you start looking at what we’re doing with the vaccines and therapeutics and ventilators we had no ventilators john we make thousands of ventilators now a month and we’re supplying them to the whole world the job we’ve done is the best job and don’t give me any credit give the people that have done this the credit they’ve done a great job yeah phil go ahead yeah mr president you talked about the need to stay calm and not just put it down and and scare people a lot of other world leaders were calm german chancellor angela merkel was very calm as she presented information to the german people so that they could stay safe and protect their families so why is you as president of the united states did you not level with the american people did you not share the information that you knew at the time in real life you know what what uncle is doing but if you look at the european union right now they’re having breakouts like you’ve never seen before and frankly their numbers are a level that are much worse than the numbers here we are we have done we have phil we have done much much better than the european union i just read your numbers that are not good on their behalf that are very good at ours and we have rounded the final turn and we have we’re going to have vaccines very soon maybe much sooner than you think listen maybe much sooner than you think but we have done a phenomenal job and the people that have done this job including the american public that’s had to put up with a lot with the lockdowns and all of the things that they had to do they have to be given credit they have to be given credit for the deadly virus you knew it was airborne you knew on february 7th you told bob woodward how it transferred from person to person in the air how deadly it was why did you not come to the podium well let me ask you this if bob woodward thought that was bad because this is stuff that everyone knew there’s a report that i have here someplace where china said it was airborne earlier than the statements i made people knew it was airborne this was nothing this was no big when i say it was airborne everybody knew it was airborne this was no big thing in february read the reports china came out with a statement that it was an airborne disease i heard it was an airborne disease i assumed it early on the fact is there has to be a calmness you don’t want me jumping up and down screaming there’s going to be great death there’s going to and really causing some very very serious problems for the country if bob woodward thought what i said was bad then he should have immediately right after i said it gone out to the authorities so they can prepare and let them know but he didn’t think it was bad and he said he didn’t think it was bad he actually said he didn’t think it was bad the only one that said it was bad or thinks it was bad were the fake news media because they take it and they try and put it a certain way if bob woodward thought it was bad then he should have immediately gone out publicly not wait four months you know he’s had that statement for four months maybe five months he’s had it for a long time it was a series of taped interviews mostly by telephone quick ones not long ones quick ones and it was i did it out of curiosity because i do have respect and i want to see i wonder whether or not somebody like that can write good i don’t think he can but let’s see what happens thank you mr president um we’re just about 50 days out from the election and we haven’t seen a lot out of the germ investigation yet yeah where is that and do you do you have confidence in the investigation well i can’t tell you that yet i have to see i’m not involved in it i purposely stayed uninvolved i’m i guess considered the chief law enforcement officer of the country i could be involved if i wanted to i thought it would be uh better if i wasn’t i think it’s better if our great attorney general handle it he has durham who is a very very respected man and we’re going to see what it is i can’t tell you that i can tell you this i can tell you this they they lied they cheated they leaked they got caught they spied on my campaign never in history has there been anything like this and i guarantee if the roles were reversed and i was on the democrat side people would have been in jail at the very highest level people would have been in jail for two years already nothing like this has ever happened and the term would be for many many years because it’s treason and other words can be used also do you think there should be more indictments as a part of this well i think just on what i read in your wonderful papers i think and and see what you know just looking at the media not even what i know i think comey is a disgrace to our country i think strzok who just wrote a book which is a total fake is a disgrace i think paige lisa page his lover is a disgrace to our country uh i think that when you look at mccabe where his wife got seven hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions from hillary clinton right and then hillary clinton’s under investigation and yet she paid the head of the fbi one of the top people but actually the head because he took over for for the other guy who fortunately i fired i made a good move when i fired that was a smart move because they were looking to take down this administration duly elected administration so i fired him that was a great move when i fired him because maybe if i didn’t i wouldn’t be here talking to you as president but when mccabe’s wife gets seven hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions when she was running for whatever office she was running from from virginia and yet he’s in charge of the investigation of hillary clinton now he says well i wasn’t really in judge of course he was a judge he was totally in charge he knew exactly what was going on these people got caught in the probably the biggest political scandal in the history of our country they got caught now what the durham report is going to say i can’t tell you but if they say half as much as i already know just from seeing it you know you have people i watch some of the shows i watch liz mcdonald she’s fantastic i watched fox business i watched uh lou dobbs last night sean hannity last night tucker last night laura i watched uh fox and friends in the morning you watch these shows you don’t have to go too far into the details they cover things that are it’s really an amazing thing they got caught in the biggest political scandal in the history of our country they were spying on their opponent’s campaign not only spying they were making up fake dossiers you have the dirty dossier they were making up the dirty it was all made up it was all fiction it turned out to be fiction and then they were using that in the fisa courts this revered court what’s not so revered anymore because when you look at what they did and how they played it and they heard a lot of people general flynn is still being hurt and he’s being hurt very badly he’s a wonderful person i spoke to general milley about general flynn two weeks ago i said what do you think of general flynn he said he’s a great soldier sir he’s a wonderful wonderful human being he’s been destroyed he’s been destroyed no i think that this uh without knowing anything about what durham is going to release the durham report we’ll call it uh or maybe it’s going to be more than a report maybe it’s going to be much more than a report i don’t know maybe it’s a report or maybe it’s much more than that but when i look at the uh the things that everybody in this room knows just from reading about it from yourselves back and forth i think it’s a disgrace to our country and i think if people don’t pay a very very substantial price it’ll happen again and this should never ever happen to another president do you understand that you’re saying
–Donald Trump is interviewed by Fox News’ Chris Wallace and it becomes a historic fiasco, with Trump interrupting the interview to try to find data that doesn’t exist, Trump referring to World Wars I and II as “beautiful,” Trump accusing the interviewer of being unable to do as well as Trump in a cognitive test, and much more
President Trump’s commutation of the prison sentence of his longtime confidante Roger Stone is wholly unsurprising. Indeed, given Trump’s repeated teasing of the matter over the life of the case against Stone, it would have been something of a surprise had he not intervened so that his felonious friend was spared time behind bars.
But the predictable nature of Trump’s action should not obscure its rank corruption. In fact, the predictability makes the commutation all the more corrupt, the capstone of an all-but-open attempt on the president’s part to obstruct justice in a self-protective fashion over a protracted period of time. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s actually not. Trump publicly encouraged Stone not to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation, he publicly dangled clemency as a reward for silence, and he has now delivered. The act is predictable precisely because the corrupt action is so naked.
In a normal world, this pattern of conduct would constitute an almost prototypical impeachable offense. But this is not a normal world. Congress is unlikely to bestir itself to do anything about what Trump has done—just as it has previously done nothing about the obstruction allegations detailed in the Mueller report. Indeed, in the midst of a presidential campaign, a second impeachment would surely be ill advised. The only remedy for this behavior, at least while Trump remains in office, has to lie in accountability in the context of Trump’s campaign for reelection.
That is why it is so important to understand the history that led to the Stone commutation, just how corrupt it is, and why the predictability of the president’s action actually inflames public outrage—not inures the public to what Trump has done here.
Roger Stone isn’t just Trump’s confidante or friend. According to newly unsealed material in the Mueller report, he’s also a person who had the power to reveal to investigators that Trump likely lied to Mueller—and to whom Trump publicly dangled rewards if Stone refused to provide Mueller with that information. Now, it seems, the president is making good on that promise.
When the report first became public in April 2019, it described how Stone reached out to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign and represented himself to the Trump campaign as having inside information on upcoming releases of information damaging to Hillary Clinton. But a significant portion of the material on Stone was redacted because of ongoing criminal proceedings against him. Recently, however, following the guilty verdict against Stone, a court unsealed that hidden material thanks to litigation by BuzzFeed News and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The newly unredacted information—some but not all of which was revealed over the course of Stone’s trial, but some of which was not previously public—is highly revealing of Stone’s relationship with the president.
During the 2016 campaign, Mueller writes, Stone “made several attempts to contact WikiLeaks founder Assange, boasted of his access to Assange, and was in regular contact with Campaign officials about the releases that Assange made and was believed to be planning.” He spoke repeatedly about his connections to Assange, witnesses told Mueller, and his ability to find out what new releases of information WikiLeaks was planning. Crucially, the unredacted information includes testimony from multiple witnesses who described Stone’s conversations about upcoming WikiLeaks releases with high-level campaign officials—including Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort—and even Trump himself.
According to Manafort, Trump personally told the chairman that he should keep in touch with Stone about WikiLeaks. Another campaign official, Rick Gates, recalled an incident during the campaign in which Trump spoke by phone with Stone and then told Gates that, as Mueller paraphrases, “more releases of damaging information would be coming.” Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told Mueller about overhearing a phone call in which Stone told Trump that “he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and in a couple of days WikiLeaks would release information.” Then, Mueller writes, once WikiLeaks began dumping material damaging to Clinton in July 2016, Trump “said to Cohen something to the effect of, ‘I guess Roger was right.’”
So Trump clearly knew about and encouraged Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks, the unredacted report shows. Yet in written answers the president provided to Mueller’s office in the course of the special counsel’s investigation, Trump insisted that he did not recall “the specifics of any call [he] had” with Stone during the campaign or any discussions with Stone of WikiLeaks. And shortly after he submitted those answers, the unredacted report states, Trump began tweeting publicly in support of Stone—calling him “brave” and congratulating his “guts” for refusing to testify.
Trump’s tweets were always suspicious, to say the least. And his answers to Mueller seemed less than entirely credible even when the redacted report was first released. But the newly revealed text makes clear Mueller’s suspicions that Trump lied in his written answers—and then pushed Stone not to testify in order to prevent Mueller from discovering that lie. As Mueller put it dryly: “[T]he President’s conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President’s denials and would link the President to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.” The special counsel also writes that Trump’s tweets to Stone—along with his tweets criticizing Cohen, who was by then cooperating with investigators—“support the inference that the President intended to communicate a message that witnesses could be rewarded for refusing to provide testimony adverse to the President and disparaged if they chose to cooperate.”
Stone did, indeed, refuse to provide testimony adverse to Trump. And while his precise relationship to WikiLeaks and Assange was never fully explained, he stood trial for lies to Congress denying his efforts to contact WikiLeaks, and for intimidating another witness who could have contradicted those lies. As the judge in Stone’s case put it: “He was prosecuted for covering up for the President.”
Now, with Trump’s commutation, Stone has received the precise reward Trump dangled at the time his possible testimony was at issue.
“Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency,” the White House said Friday evening. In the White House’s telling, Stone was targeted by out-of-control Mueller prosecutors for mere “process” crimes when their “collusion delusion” fell apart. He was subject to needless humiliation in his arrest, and he did not get a fair trial. “[P]articularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence. Roger Stone has already suffered greatly. He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Indeed he is. But the story may not be over.
“Time to put Roger Stone in the grand jury to find out what he knows about Trump but would not tell. Commutation can’t stop that,” tweeted Andrew Weissman, one of Mueller’s top prosecutors, following the president’s action.
That’s most unlikely while the Justice Department remains in the hands of Attorney General William Barr. But it’s far from unthinkable should Trump leave office in January. What’s more, the commutation means that the story Mueller tells about potential obstruction vis-a-vis Stone did not end with the activity described by the Mueller report. It is a continuing pattern of conduct up until the present day. That potentially makes it easier for a future Justice Department to revive at least one of the obstruction questions that Barr squelched when he closed the cases Mueller intentionally did not resolve. In addition to all the facts reported by Mueller, including facts that have been redacted until recently, Trump has now consummated the deal he dangled before Stone.
That’s something the Justice Department may want to examine anew—someday.
Trump is lost in “magical thinking,” proclaims one health expert. Trump is “basically in denial,” insists one Democratic governor. Trump is “incapable of grasping that people are dying,” frets one advocate for educators.
But is the problem really that Trump is incapable of learning, or that he’s deceiving himself, or that he’s closed his eyes to reality?
The preponderance of the evidence points to something far worse.
Trump has been widely and repeatedly informed by his own and other experts for many months that his failure to take coronavirus more seriously could have utterly catastrophic consequences, that it could result in widespread suffering and needless deaths.
It isn’t enough to point out that Trump repeatedly ignored that advice. What’s more important is that Trump has repeatedly seen the predicted consequences of those failures come to pass, and is seeing that right now.
Yet Trump still continues not just to downplay the severity of the virus’s continuing toll, but also to actively discourage current efforts to mitigate the spread — by failing to set an example through mask-wearing, for instance — and to urge the very sort of rapid reopening that has already contributed to catastrophic outcomes.
The carnage is mounting once again. Total cases just hit 3 million. They have risen in 37 states over the last two weeks — hitting single-day records in six — and the national rolling average of 50,000 new daily cases is far outpacing June’s.
There’s no doubt that the decision to reopen rapidly in many states — which Trump urged — has played some kind of important role in the current surges. As a former Baltimore health commissioner noted: “The key is we did not have to be here right now.”
Yet Trump has shown zero signs of even trying to grapple with the cause and effect behind these new circumstances. Instead, he continues to lie about them, falsely claiming we have the lowest mortality rate in the world, falsely claiming that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless,” and absurdly claiming the virus will “disappear.”
Can this really be described as being in denial?
We know why Trump is doing this
Trump was privately warned in January by his Health and Human Services secretary that a pandemic was coming. He dismissed this as “alarmist,” then largely refused to act for weeks, only to see coronavirus rampage out of control here as a result.
And experts loudly warned in April that a rapid reopening could prove disastrous. Trump urged it anyway, and we’re now learning the experts were right.
We know why Trump did these things. He feared that publicly taking coronavirus too seriously would spook the markets, which he sees as crucial to his reelection. His allies frankly admitted reopenings would fuel the impression of rapid rebound, helping his reelection (or so they thought).
In those cases, Trump made an active choice to prioritize his own perceived political needs over what experts — including his own — recommended as in the best interests of the country. He has now seen them proved right twice.
We’re seeing something similar once again. Trump’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that localities minimize crowds at voting places by pursuing “alternative voting methods” amid coronavirus’s new spread.
It is a certainty that Trump will continue falsely claiming that vote-by-mail is subject to massive fraud, to make it politically harder for local officials to scale it up. We know why Trump does this. He has told us himself: He fears vote-by-mail makes it more likely that Republicans will lose the election — meaning that he will lose.
When Trump repeats these lies about vote-by-mail in the wake of the CDC guidance, will we claim Trump is merely “in denial” about the dangers of discouraging such alternative voting options?
Not clueless and hapless. Malevolent.
Once we dispense with the idea that Trump remains “in denial,” we’re left with a few interpretations. The most charitable is that Trump continues to have principled disagreements with experts over these matters, but there are zero indications he has any substantively grounded views on them of any kind.
A far less charitable interpretation is that he’s merely indifferent to the catastrophic consequences that are resulting from these failures — and will continue to do so — and that he’s prioritizing nakedly self-interested political calculations over any such concerns.
Trump has been steadily wrong in these political calculations, to be sure. At each stage, he has believed not acting was in his immediate interests, only to discover the consequences of inaction proved politically worse.
There may have been a species of denial at play in those faulty political calculations — a misguided faith in his magical ability to re-create his political reality through the force of will and tweet. But we can’t pretend any longer that Trump isn’t perfectly aware of what the real-world consequences of his actions — or inactions — will be.
The press critic Jay Rosen has repeatedly suggested that the effort to obscure Trump’s role in this ongoing fiasco is producing one of the biggest propaganda and disinformation campaigns in modern history. Central to getting this right is dispensing with the idea that Trump is a hapless, clueless actor rather than a deliberate and malevolent one.