While President Donald Trump continues to rip apart the seams of honest discourse with his ceaseless collection of lies and falsehoods, some journalists remain reluctant to call him a liar. By resisting, the Beltway press continues to shy away from its primary task: truth telling.
Additionally, by avoiding the “liar” label, journalists really leave themselves with only one other option in terms of describing Trump’s erratic behavior: “delusional.”
The latest attempt to provide this odd cover for Trump came from Time Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs. Writing a preface to the magazine’s recent Trump-inspired cover story -- “Is Truth Dead?” -- Gibbs addressed the looming crisis in confidence by noting, “Like many newsrooms, we at TIME have wrestled with when to say someone is lying.”
Gibbs stressed that the magazine is hesitant to use the term in conjunction with Trump because it’s hard to deduce the president’s motivations when he spreads falsehoods. Meaning, journalists need evidence that Trump purposefully misleads people with his comments and allegations.
This continues the media’s unnecessary debate over whether it’s OK to call Trump a liar. “I’d be careful about using the word ‘lie,’” Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker cautioned in January. “‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.”
But then Gibbs added an additional layer to the argument when she wrote of Trump’s lies, “What does he actually believe? Does it count as lying if he believes what he says?”
Appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Gibbs expounded (emphasis added):
But to say that they are lying requires an additional level of knowledge that's very difficult to have of what their intention was. And the reason I think it's important is because in the case of President Trump -- and this came through with our interview with him over and over again -- some of the things that he says that have been disputed and completely disproven, it seems very clear he continues to believe.
And so there's these sort of -- there's almost the philosophical, theological question of, if you believe what you're saying, even if it's not true, is that still a lie? I will leave that to the academics.
In other words, when Trump spreads falsehoods, he might actually believe them, therefore he might not qualify as a liar. Or, the press shouldn’t call him one because that’s more of a “philosophical, theological question.”
That rationale rings hollow to me.
As the most powerful public leader in the world, the president of the United States shouldn’t benefit from a media debate about whether he believes the dishonesty he pushes. He ought to be as honest as possible, as often as possible. Presidents before him have tried to adhere to that standard for over two centuries. Trump should, too. And if not, it’s not the job of the press to come up with excuses for why he cannot.
And for the record, I don’t entirely buy the premise for this avoidance. Instead, I think pockets of the D.C. press are simply reluctant to call a prominent Republican, and especially America’s most famous Republican, a liar. They’re afraid and timid, and I’m convinced they would be neither if a leading national Democrat decided to habitually and unapologetically lie, and to do so without remorse.
Nonetheless, if some journalists persist and cling to the idea that Trump’s not a deliberate fabricator because he believes all the misinformation he spouts, then that leaves journalists with only one option: to announce that Trump’s simply delusional.
If, as Gibbs suggests, Trump is quietly convinced America is suffering through a historic crime spree, the unemployment rate last year was rigged, Mexico is going to pay for the border wall, the U.S. media deliberately ignores terror attacks, and millions of people voted illegally last year, that means Trump doesn’t function cognitively like most normal adults.
Keep in mind that in conjunction with Time’s cover story, Trump participated in a Q&A with the magazine on the topic of falsehoods in which he lied, by one account, 14 different times. (Trump seems especially obsessed with claiming credit for having predicted that Brexit would pass, even though he did no such thing.)
If journalists don’t want to call Trump a liar, are they willing to call him unstable?
As Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald noted, “That leaves two possibilities: Trump intentionally dispenses falsehoods any smart person knows will be detected as lies, or worse, he cannot discern between reality and what he wishes was true.”
Moving forward, news outlets have a choice. They can accurately label Trump a liar, or they can portray him as unhinged and unbalanced, based on the assumption that Trump believes the constant falsehoods that he spreads.
Or it’s possible there’s a third option: He’s both.