Welcome to the Pre-Truth Presidency
WASHINGTON -- Forget the post-truth presidency, when it didn't matter -- or so the Trump White House hoped -- whether the president told the truth. In retrospect, those seem like the good old days. We have now entered even scarier territory, the pre-truth presidency: If an assertion isn't true, no worry. President Trump will find a way to make it so, or at least claim it is.
In The World According to Trump, the president makes a baseless assertion -- perhaps to distract from bad news, perhaps to vent, perhaps simply to attract attention, the narcotic he craves in ever-larger doses. Then Trump or his hapless aides scramble to collect evidence, however sketchy, to back him up. Or, scarier still, he relies on his Twitter-fueled, sycophant-enabled capacity to create his own reality-distortion field.
Trump gleefully elaborated on this approach in a revealing interview with Time magazine's Michael Scherer.
"Sweden, I make the statement, everyone goes crazy. The next day they have a massive riot, and death, and problems," Trump said, referring to his unfounded comment last month about "what's happening last night in Sweden."
In this way, Trump serves as a human Heisenberg principle, changing a measurable phenomenon by observing it. If he is wrong, it is only a matter of time until he becomes right, at least in his own head. As he told Scherer, "I predicted a lot of things that took a little of bit of time."
So it will be, Trump predicted, with his reiterated, if slightly revised ("mostly they register wrong") assertion that his popular-vote loss was the result of 3 million or more undocumented people voting. "Well I think I will be proved right about that too," Trump said. "We'll see after the committee. I have people say it was more than that."
Most politicians recoil from controversy. Trump seems to be convinced that controversy serves to amplify his message. The burden of added scrutiny is outweighed, in this Trumpian calculus, by the benefit of extra attention for whatever message he is peddling.
The consequent irony is that a president who denounces serious reporting and unwelcome facts -- "Any negative polls are fake news," Trump tweeted last month -- has no qualms about relying on the fakest of news, either as unchecked fodder for a tweet or to back it up after the fact.
Pressed by Scherer about his campaign trail insinuation that Ted Cruz's father was connected to Lee Harvey Oswald, Trump was characteristically unrepentant: "Why do you say that I have to apologize? I'm just quoting the newspaper just like I quoted the judge the other day."
The newspaper -- that would be The National Enquirer. Enough said. The judge -- that would be Andrew Napolitano, the former New Jersey Superior Court judge and Fox News commentator who claimed to have three intelligence sources saying the British had helped President Obama spy on Trump, a claim that Fox itself said it could not confirm, before yanking Napolitano off the air.
Scherer, pressing gently: "But traditionally, people in your position in the Oval Office have not said things unless they can verify they are true."
Trump: "I'm not saying, I'm quoting, Michael, I'm quoting highly respected people and sources from major television networks." He's just quoting -- this in the face of the statement by a British intelligence agency that it was "utterly ridiculous" to suggest it spied on Trump and testimony by National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers that such an allegation "clearly frustrates a key ally of ours."
Yet it is not simply that Trump refuses to accept reality, it is that he bends it to his will. In this Trump tower of dreams, if he tweets it, the truth -- or some asserted version thereof -- will come.
For example, in the hyper-partisan form of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Even as Trump was on the phone with Scherer, the California Republican was scurrying to the White House to announce that U.S. intelligence agencies had gathered and shared information about Trump and his transition team.
"Wow ... so that means I'm right," Trump told Scherer, reading from a news report. No, not even close. "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process," Trump had tweeted. "This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"
Trump was wrong then, and nothing Nunes had to report about incidental surveillance made him retroactively right. Claiming so may be good enough for Trump and the pre-truth presidency he oversees. It should not -- it cannot -- suffice for the rest of us.
(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group