The ridiculous notion that Donald Trump didn’t really intend to steal the 2020 election – because he actually believed he had won it – keeps being bandied about by Trump loyalists and enablers, as they desperately try to persuade Attorney General Merrick Garland that indicting Trump would be a political act rather than a legal and moral imperative.
To the extent that this reasoning has any currency whatsoever, it is in large part the fault of our top political journalists and their pathetic, spineless coverage of Trump’s campaign, presidency, and post-presidency.
Consider: At first, these journalists refused to use the word “lie” at all – based on what they said was uncertainty about whether Trump had the intent to deceive. And then, even after they acknowledged that he clearly knew what he was doing — and they started calling his lies lies — they didn’t explain his motivation for lying.
They didn’t call out the simple truth that Trump was always lying for a reason — that there was a specific intent behind each and every lie. (Failing to explore the “why” behind the lie is a chronic media malady.)
Just look at how Trump dealt with Covid. He lied that it wasn’t a problem, he lied that he had a plan, he lied about testing, he lied that bleach would help, he lied that it was going away. Why? Because he really believed those things at the time? Hardly. He desperately wanted people to believe he was competent, in control, and yet not responsible for so much death. (Shockingly, it kind of worked.)
The idea that because Trump lied so much you can’t say for sure what he really believed has it exactly backwards: His lies were incredibly revealing. They told you exactly what he wanted to happen – or to make happen.
Political reporters never really considered that at the time. They repeated his lies, sometimes skeptically and sometimes not. Those lies made great copy and got them on TV if they weren’t on TV already. Those lies made them successful. They thought they were doing a great job.
But having acknowledged that Trump was telling falsehoods, intentionally, the next question reporters should have explored and explained was: To what end?
He used them to take credit and avoid blame. He used them to make himself look good when he was bad. He used them to bully people into doing what he wanted. He lied about measurable things, like his golf game and the size of his crowds.
He lied about everything. But he didn’t lie randomly. He never lied to be humble, or to save someone else embarrassment.
He lied to get his way and to feel better about himself.
When political journalists felt particularly daring, they mocked Trump a bit, or slyly hinted that some people said he was delusional.
But they overlooked the crucial truth that his lies always served his interests. So you could his derive his interests from his lies.
Think about it: Reporters never pressed him to explain why he was lying — a huge mistake, rooted in cowardice and smug self-satisfaction.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that one of the most overt and egregious embraces of this ridiculous notion — that Trump’s “continued stream of falsehoods highlights some of the complexities of pursuing any criminal case against him” — came from none other than Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, in their article last month headlined “Despite Growing Evidence, a Prosecution of Trump Would Face Challenges.”
It continues, however, even though most of the looming charges of obstruction, sedition and conspiracy against Trump don’t even require a finding of intent. As Ryan Goodman, Norman Eisen and Barbara McQuade wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “Vigilante justice is against the law, even if you (wrongly) believe you are a victim.”
But even in regards to criminal charges that do require proof of intent, the lies have it.
Just Security, the brilliant national security website, has been routinely churning out unparalleled resources on the Jan. 6 attack, and it just published a new report meticulously chronicling 11 significant, obvious, and intentional Trump election lies – alongside the ample evidence that he absolutely knew they weren’t true.
So, for instance, Trump repeatedly claimed, in regard to voting fraud conspiracy theories, that then-attorney general Bill Barr “hasn’t done anything, so he hasn’t looked.”
By contrast, as the Jan. 6 committee has so clearly established, “Trump knew that the DOJ had taken extraordinary action to investigate allegations of fraud but found no evidence of widespread fraud.” He even expressed “his dismay in private communications with DOJ officials.”
Why did he lie? That’s not a hard one: He wanted the Justice Department to find evidence, so he lied and said they hadn’t looked.
The “Big Lie” is the most revealing of all. Trump wanted to keep being president. He didn’t want to admit he lost. Everything he said was in the pursuit of that goal.
And far from suggesting possible innocence, Trump’s lies actually add heft to the charges that he was acting corruptly. Indeed, juries are often instructed that they can consider false statements as indications of consciousness of guilt. That you lied makes you more guilty, not less.
History will judge the press under Trump very poorly, in large part because what our top political journalists never really grasped – and certainly didn’t tell their readers and viewers – is that Trump would say anything — anything at all — to get his way.
All Trump’s lies had one intent or another. That they were endless doesn’t change that.