Why Trump Is the most fact-checked president
Editor's note: To mark the midpoint of President Donald Trump's first year in office, The Atlantic asked 50 writers to analyze the ways that the Trump presidency has been unprecedented. (Read The Atlantic series.) PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan wrote about why Trump is the most fact-checked president.
It’s astounding even now, two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, how many things he says on a daily basis that just aren’t true.
Here are some of the president’s most frequent falsehoods: U.S. Steel is opening six plants (it’s not); Barack Obama’s administration had the same policy as Trump’s of separating children from adults at the border (it didn’t); Trump signed the largest tax cut in history (Ronald Reagan, among others, has him beat); a caravan of migrants was stirred up by Democrats offering health care and food benefits paid for by taxpayers (not quite); other countries owe the U.S. a lot of money for nato (this is false); the building of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border is well under way (nope). None of this is true.
Other presidents have spun whoppers to the American people for political advantage before Trump, and some of those untruths—regarding the realities of the Vietnam War, for example—were hugely consequential.
Trump’s falsehoods haven’t caused the deaths of thousands or any immediate calamity. Instead, it’s the drip-drip-drip of Trump’s exaggerations—and the reinforcement they get on social media—that makes his rhetoric unprecedented. That, plus his unabashed willingness to repeat falsehoods in the face of direct contradiction.
Take, for example, Trump’s justification for one of the most controversial policies of his presidency, the separation of children and adults at the southern border. Previous administrations had occasionally split up families, but Trump and his then–attorney general, Jeff Sessions, pursued a zero-tolerance policy on prosecuting all illegal crossings that made the separations common. Trump’s response to public outcry? He said the Obama administration had done the same thing. That was not true.
In October 2018, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes grilled Trump on the separation policy. His response: "Yeah, well, that was the same as the Obama law. You know, Obama had the same thing."
Stahl challenged him: "It was on the books, but he didn't enforce it. You enforced it. You launched the zero-tolerance policy to deter families with children [from] coming."
Stahl and Trump then parried back and forth, with Trump persisting until he got the last word: "It’s the same as Obama."
Weeks later, Trump was again asked about the policy, and he said it again: "Obama had a separation policy; we all had the same policy." This time he was challenged by the CBS reporter Paula Reid: "Sir, it was different. You decided to prosecute everyone at the border." Trump simply moved on to another reporter’s question about the European Union and Brexit.
Those interactions are pretty typical for Trump on any topic. He seems to repeat the same talking points over and over, going for whatever sounds best to his ear in the moment. It’s hard to tell whether Trump even believes what he’s saying himself. Sometimes he seems completely sincere; other times, it sounds as if he’s making a joke for his own amusement. Accuracy seems irrelevant.
Why does Trump lie so much? Only he can answer that question, but it’s certainly a long-standing behavior that dates back to his time in luxury real estate and reality television. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump said truth-bending was strategic: "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion."
As president, Trump has perfected rolling out one outrageous falsehood after another, then riding the wave of media attention to the next controversy. He almost never apologizes or backtracks.
Fact-checkers have had the opportunity to both debunk important falsehoods and spend hours correcting small ones. As the editor of PolitiFact, I know firsthand what this is like.
At the end of 2018, PolitiFact curated Trump’s most politically significant falsehoods and came up with a list of 10 substantive statements, from disputing Puerto Rico’s death toll after a devastating hurricane hit the island to saying how much Saudi Arabia was spending on American-made weapons. The Washington Post has a project to document every false or merely misleading thing Trump has said; it is at more than 7,000 misstatements and counting. Factcheck.org has dubbed Trump the "King of Whoppers" for his repeated falsehoods.
This coverage infuriates Trump’s fans. They are right to say that no president has been fact-checked more than Trump. So many Trump falsehoods have been analyzed, debunked, and explained by fact-checkers and journalists. And that’s the double-edged sword of our time. In the internet age, whatever a president says is sure to find a home full of believers with startling speed. But also: Those who do the checking can use the same technology to pull the curtain back on a president’s words. The public that wants the truth has access to entire databases of facts and analysis documenting the veracity (or lack thereof) of so much of what Trump has said, all just a few clicks away. Whether facts and evidence hold sway in our current political debates is a serious question. But for voters who want to make decisions based on facts, there’s an ample supply.