Why Is the New York Times Lying about Trump?

New York Times headquarters. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Haxorjoe

The liberal paper of record should be careful about what really constitutes lying and truth.

Even amidst a cacophony of nearly nonstop media fusillades against President Trump, the New York Times’ charge has stood out. After months of stories presenting Donald Trump as a sexual predator, business fraudster, puppet of Vladimir Putin, tax dodger, walking emolument disaster and whatever else it can dream up, the New York Times called Trump a liar in a prominent headline—proclaiming “Meeting with Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie.”

Speaking in a closed door meeting with congressional leaders, Trump had apparently claimed that he would have won the popular vote were it not for the votes of millions of noncitizens. After escalating this bit of semi-private braggadocio into “a lie,” the Times justified itself three days later, explaining somberly that it had not made the charge lightly, but that it “ultimately chose more muscular terminology” instead of terms as “baseless” or “bogus” because, as editor Dean Baquet stated, Trump had made a similar assertion months ago in a tweet. “We should be letting people know in no uncertain terms that it’s untrue.” Times opinion columnists, who—with the notable exception of Ross Douthat—have for a year seemed to write about little else than how despicable Trump is, followed up, rolling around passionately with the L word. “Our president is a pathological liar. Say it. Write it. Never become inured to it,” wrote Charles Blow, in one instance among many.

Of course President Trump doesn’t know how many people voted illegally, but, in a country where millions of undocumented immigrants are commonly accorded driver’s licenses, access to public benefits and other accoutrements of civic normalcy, and after President Obama gave a pre-election interview to Hispanic media in which he seemed, in lawyerly fashion, to minimize the legal consequences of voting illegally, all while urging higher turnout, it’s difficult to believe the number is nugatory.

It clearly galls the new president that he lost the popular vote. So he repeats random speculations about voter fraud (though Rep. Steve King’s assessment of the extent of illegal voting strikes me as meriting serious examination) and inflates them. He does much the same thing in the even less essential question of the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd (plainly smaller than Obama’s in 2008). He does it in extolling the excellence of his very good golf courses. If one speculated about why Trump bothers, one might surmise that he thinks his supporters expect—and deserve—some pushback against a media determined, from the outset, to paint, as far as possible, his presidency as partially or wholly illegitimate.

In other words, Trump did what politicians do routinely: take more credit than they deserve, make an unsubstantiated claim, stretch the truth. Trump probably does it a little more. And New York Times editors conclude that instead of being a so-what issue, or fodder for a Saturday Night Live skit, it should be elevated into a “lie” to serve as the “not my president” talking point of the week, until it is replaced by a new one. (It was replaced by Trump’s doubling down on a previous Obama order pausing admissions of refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries, a policy that went virtually unnoticed when Obama did it in 2011.) The increasingly interlocking alliance between the establishment media and the protest left is a new phenomenon, one that hasn’t been seen in America since the radical 1960s.

When does a politician’s unsubstantiated statement merit being labeled a “lie”? The line between political misrepresentation and lying is not always a bright one. When, in 1988, Bob Dole accused George H. W. Bush of “lying about his record” (after taking a pounding from Bush’s attack ads in New Hampshire), the remark was taken as evidence of Dole’s hot temper, not Bush’s lack of veracity. When an official gives deliberately false or misleading testimony under oath before Congress, it is commonly deemed more serious, and if discovered has serious legal consequences. If the question is generally murky, one thing is clear: a casual and unsubstantiated political boast gets turned from a “so what” into a “lie” when the paper publishing it has fully internalized its role as part of the opposition.