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What’s happened to the truth under President Trump?

In just the last few weeks, President Trump has made a number of misleading or inaccurate statements on subjects ranging from Russian interference, to farmers and trade, to NATO defense. Judy Woodruff takes a closer look with Peter Wehner, who served in the last three Republican administrations, Lara Brown of George Washington University and Domenico Montanaro of NPR.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we heard, Michael Cohen's recordings contradict what the Trump campaign said they knew about model Karen McDougal at the time.

    It is one of a number of false statements that, over time, have come from President Trump or a member of his team.

    At the "NewsHour," we do not report on all of them. But, tonight, we want to take a moment to step back and look broadly at President Trump's record on truth-telling and what it means for our democracy.

    We start with some background.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're putting America first again, and we're seeing the incredible results.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When weighing what's true and what isn't, one of the president's favorite targets is the news media and the many news organization he attacks. That was the case last night when he spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City and stirred up the crowd.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Just stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • President Donald Trump:

    Just remember, what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But in just the last few weeks alone, the president has made a number of misleading or inaccurate statements on subjects ranging from Russian interference in U.S. politics to farmers and trade to how much member NATO countries spend on defense.

    Mr. Trump's statements on Russia have gotten the most attention, particularly after his news conference with President Putin in Helsinki, where he seemed to agree with Putin, instead of U.S. intelligence.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That brought condemnation from both political parties, including Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent critic.

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.:

    We have indulged myths and fabrications, pretended that it wasn't so bad, and our indulgence got us the capitulation in Helsinki. We in the Senate who have been elected to represent our constituents cannot be enablers of falsehoods.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The next day, Mr. Trump said he stood with U.S. agencies, but even then he put in a caveat.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. There's a lot of people out there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But a declassified intelligence report shared with Mr. Trump before he became president concluded that Putin personally — quote — "ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election."

    U.S. agencies have not suggested any other country intended to disrupt the election. Earlier this month, in a tweet about the impact of foreign tariffs on farmers, the president wrote that farmers have been on a downward trend for 15 years and "A big reason is bad, terrible trade deals."

    But that statement is not accurate. Farmers have earned less in the past few years, but that's not been the case for 15 years. In fact, net income adjusted for inflation reached a record in 2013. And many experts say the problem has not been trade deals, but commodity prices.

    The Washington Post, a news organization the president regularly criticizes, keeps its own list. It found the president has made more than 3,200 false or misleading claims while in office. And that was before the start of summer.

    It also analyzed a speech Mr. Trump gave in Montana earlier this month and found 76 percent of the claims the president made in the speech alone were false, misleading or unsupported by evidence.

    The latest "NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll asked whether voters think the president generally tells the truth; 58 percent said only some of the time or hardly ever; 36 percent said almost all of the time or most of the time. Republicans believed the president by a large margin. The poll also asked whether President Trump tells the truth more often or less than prior U.S. presidents; 56 percent said less often; 32 percent said more often.

    For a closer look President Trump and the matter of truth, we turn to Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. He served in the last three Republican administrations, Presidents Reagan and both Bushes. Lara Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University. She's also the author of several books on presidents, including "Jockeying For the American Presidency." And Domenico Montanaro, he's the lead political editor for NPR.

    And we welcome all of you back to the "NewsHour."

    Domenico, I'm going to start with you upon.

    We were just sharing with the audience some of these poll numbers; 58 percent of those polled say they think the president tells the truth some of the time or hardly ever. How does that break down among the electorate? Who are we talking about here?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Well, and if you add never into there, you get to 61 percent. So you have a full 60-something percent of the American people who think that this president either never, hardly ever, or only some of the time tells the truth.

    You know, and when you look particularly in the suburbs, where there's going to be all these key House races, you wind up with seeing that, you know, three-quarters of people who live in the suburbs, including especially suburban women, who are going to be so key to this election, really not having a lot of faith in this president or his ability to tell the truth.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Peter Wehner, the fact that we're even having this conversation tells us that something different is going on.

    As we said, you worked in the Bush White House 41, 43, you worked for President Reagan. What is different?

  • Peter Wehner:

    Well, what's different is that we don't have a run-of-the-mill liar in the White House. We have a pathological liar.

    This is a man who lies on personal matters, political matters, domestic, international. He lies morning, noon, and night. And it just is never — never-ending. So that's one thing. We have never had a president who is so pathologically — lies so pathologically, and lies needlessly often. That's one.

    The other thing is the number of people in this country who believe in the lies, who have accepted them. This has tremendous damaging effects on the political and civic culture of the country. A self-governing nation can't run if you can't have a common set of facts, if you can't agree on common realities.

    What you have got is a man in the White House who is engaged in not just an assault on truth, but an effort to annihilate truth.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Annihilate truth.

  • Peter Wehner:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's an incredible statement.

  • Peter Wehner:

    It's true. It's not just the lies. It's that he's trying to destroy the categories of truth and falsity.

    And that's really why he goes after the media, right, because the media has always been the institution in American life that has kept presidents accountable when it comes to what's true and what's not. And he knew from the outside of his presidency that he had to delegitimize the media, so he could get away with this kind of thing.

    And this has an enormous seepage effect in the life of a country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lara Brown, we all know — we talked about this before — politicians exaggerate. Presidents exaggerate. They stretch the truth. Sometimes, they have been found to be lying.

    Why — what is different about right now? What — we hear Pete Wehner saying this is an assault on the truth. How do you see it?

  • Lara Brown:

    Well, I would actually agree with that.

    I think one of the things that you see with this president and really across the administration is just a desire to lie on everything. I mean, there is such a volume of lies, that it actually becomes difficult to catalog. And it creates confusion among the public.

    And, as a result, many people end up trying to understand what is true, what is not. And that whole conversation about what is truth is precisely what allows his base to continue to support him and to believe his version of reality, and not the news media's actual version of reality.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet, Domenico, you watch these polls over time, going back to the campaign. Among the people who support President Trump, they have been willing to pretty much embrace everything he's done and said.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Absolutely.

    And when, you know, Lara talks about being able to categorize untruths or mischaracterizations, "The Washington Post" has tried to do that, and it's found some 3,200 misleading statements or false claims by the president.

    That isn't something, as you note, that's really had any effect on his base, obviously. In this poll, the NPR/"NewsHour" — "PBS NewsHour"/Marist poll, 85 percent of Republicans still support this president.

    Now, when it comes to independents, which is a really key group, they sort of turned on this president a year ago. And two-thirds of them say that they are not — they do not approve of the job that he's doing, and they don't believe him.

    And a lot of this also has to do with a lot of his personal attributes, his personal characteristics. You have 60 percent of people in this poll also saying that they're embarrassed by the president's conduct.

    Now, there are a couple caveats I want to put in here, because I went back and looked at the 2016 exit polls. And you might remember there that some 60 percent said that President Trump didn't have the temperament to be president. They said that he wasn't qualified to serve as president and that they would be concerned or scared if he won.

    And yet he won. And here we are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pete Wehner, as we look back over the last year-and-a-half of the president in office, are there moments, are there statements of — where something wasn't borne out by evidence that you think in particular stand out?

  • Peter Wehner:

    Yes, there are several. I mean, there's so many, it's hard to — I would say the Charlottesville event was very important, when he said that there were good people on both sides.

    I think the attacks on the Mueller investigation are extremely important, because this is an investigation trying to discern truth, and he's trying to destroy it. The one where he said that Hillary Clinton one because three million illegal votes were cast.

    I will tell you one that might strike people as trivial, but I think, in retrospect, was extremely important, that was the original lie at the dawn of the presidency of Donald Trump. And that was the crowd size, when he insisted and sent his press secretary out to insist it was larger than Barack Obama's.

    In one sense, people will say this is a trivial matter. What is it? Who cares?

    The reason it mattered is that this was right out of the box, not just a lie, but it was an assault on empirical, demonstrable facts. There were pictures that showed the difference.

    And that was the tell, as they say, in poker. That said that this guy was something different. He was going to go after truth in a way. And it's been a sustained, relentless assault on truth.

  • Lara Brown:

    I would like to, just for a moment, kind of put some of this into historical context.

    When you look back at other presidents who have lied, because most presidents have in some at least minor ways, sometimes justifiable ones, and sometimes categorically wrong ones, ones that were morally problematic, you still don't see anything like the sheer kind of volume that President Trump is doing.

    I mean, what we have, when we look back at FDR, he even admitted that he would be perfectly willing to mislead and tell lies if it were to win the war. And, of course, he was talking about World War II.

    When you look at Richard Nixon with Watergate, that was obviously an obstruction of justice. And that became a problem for the presidency, and it created a great deal of cynicism among the public.

    When you look at Lyndon Johnson or you look to the Pentagon Papers, we know that there was lying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Lara Brown:

    But, again, most of these things were limited by topic or limited in damage.

    This is not that kind of a situation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pete Wehner, finally, what does this mean for our democracy? People talk about a democracy is built on a foundation of accepted truths, reality.

    What is this doing?

  • Peter Wehner:

    It is hurting democracy. It's weakening the foundations.

    And that's why people have to stand up and speak out. Democracy is about persuasion, right, not coercion. And you can't persuade people if you can't agree on facts, you can't even agree on common problems.

    Beyond that, when you enter this realm, it deepens polarization, it deepens the sense of political tribalism. All of the anger, all of the divisions are made worse.

    But I would say a couple of things. Viruses create their own antibodies. And the public can do something about this. You can do it in your individual lives. People can do it in social media. They can make a commitment not to put party loyalties ahead of the truth when they're in conflict.

    They can vote against…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you think that is happening now?

  • Peter Wehner:

    I think you are starting to get a reaction. I'm sure you're getting a reaction against it, because people understand both the disorienting effect of this — that's one thing

    But there's something else going on as well, which is everybody knows in your individual life you can't live if you don't have a common understanding of truth. And that's true in a national life as well.

    I think Donald Trump, the effect of all of this is exhausting on the public. I think they're embarrassed, as was said earlier. And I think they're ashamed of what's happening. And I think there will be in 2020 and maybe in 2018 a reaction against.

    This is not as if America has a terminal disease and nothing can be done. Individual lives matter. If one person does something, it may not, but if a lot of people act together, you can change the political and civic culture. That's happened before, and it can happen again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pete Wehner, Lara Brown, Domenico Montanaro, we thank you all.

  • Lara Brown:

    Thank you.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Thank you.

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