By Dan McGuill
Over the past two years, many thousands of broadcast hours and probably millions of words have been devoted to Donald Trump’s relationship with the truth. Equally, the President has made accusations of dishonesty and bias against the media and his political opponents a central part of his persona and presidency.
What lies are told about the President? Is he lying when he makes these allegations? In a feverish atmosphere of claim and counterclaim, when everyone seems to reflexively accuse everyone else of “fake news”, it can be difficult to know what’s what.
There are many articles that exist detailing lies and misleading claims made by the Trump administration. This article is intended as a neutral, reliable analysis of the lies, false allegations and misleading claims made about and against Donald Trump since his inauguration in January 2017. We’ve attempted to strip away the hyperbole, name-calling and generalizations, and examine the patterns and trends at work: what characterizes these lies and exaggerations, the effect they have, what might explain them.
We pay particular attention to selected examples — claims that have gained prominence among the mainstream opposition to Trump, revealing much about the methods, priorities, and tone of that opposition, and illustrating how this movement both cultivates and plays off a number of caricatures of the 45th President and at times falls prey to a handful of identifiable and repeated errors of thought.
This is nothing new. Supporters and opponents of every high-profile politician in American history have done exactly the same, but in the current cultural atmosphere, where “the truth” is universally, even manically, exalted as an abstract concept but then widely degraded in practice, it’s essential to confront, correct, and analyze patterns of falsehoods like these.
This is not an exhaustive list. For that, and a litany of fact checks of claims made by the President, you can browse the Snope archive on him.
The focus here is on attacks against Trump. So for the purpose of this article, we’re not interested in false claims that are intended to reflect favorably on him. Nor does this analysis address claims made against his family members, of which there have been many. It’s also limited to the period following the inauguration on 20 January. This analysis was primarily based on an in-depth search of our own archives.
The Many Donald Trumps
Broadly speaking, most of the falsehoods levelled against Trump fall into one or more of five categories, each of them drawing from and feeding into five public personas inhabited by the President.
- Donald Trump: International Embarrassment
- Trump the Tyrant
- Donald Trump: Bully Baby
- Trump the Buffoon
- Trump the Cruel Bigot
Some of these claims are downright fake, entirely fabricated by unreliable or dubious web sites and presented as satire, or otherwise blatantly false. But the rest — some of which have gained significant traction and credibility from otherwise serious people and organizations — provide a fascinating insight into the tactics and preoccupations of the broad anti-Trump movement known as “the Resistance,” whether they were created by critics of the President or merely shared by them.
Generally speaking, we discovered that they are characterized and driven by four types of errors of thought:
- A lack of historical context or awareness
- Cherry-picking of evidence (especially visual evidence)
- A failure to adhere to Occam’s Razor — the common-sense understanding that the simplest explanation for an event or behavior is the most likely.
Infused throughout almost all these claims, behind their successful dissemination, is confirmation bias: the fuel that drives the spread of all propaganda and false or misleading claims among otherwise sensible and skeptical people. Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for, find, remember and share information that confirms the beliefs we already have, and the tendency to dismiss, ignore and forget information that contradicts those beliefs. It is one of the keys to why clever people, on all sides of every disagreement, sometimes believe stupid things that aren’t true.
We’re going to take a look at the four major types of falsehood we found, which correspond with Donald Trump’s five public personas, and point out along the way how various errors in thought have played a role in their origins and their spread.
Donald Trump: International Embarrassment
What’s remarkable is the extent to which false claims about the President revolve around body language, nonverbal gestures and symbolism, all phenomena that are notoriously open to interpretation. These lies and misrepresentations are also often based on snapshots — visual evidence presented without proper context.
Take, for example, the claim that Trump was the only world leader at a G7 summit in May not to take notes, based on a photograph posted to Twitter by French President Emannuel Macron. Here Trump was portrayed as unprepared and out of his depth on the world stage, with a “ten-second attention span”. However, the claim was entirely untrue, with other images and video of the meeting showing that Trump did indeed have notes and a pen. Not only that, but the very image used to make the false claim clearly shows two other world leaders sitting with no note-taking paraphernalia. In this case, even the cherry-picked evidence chosen to make the point undermines it.
Or, from the same G7 summit, the claim that Trump was caught on video raising his middle fingerto Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni. Here we have Trump, contemptuous of other world leaders, once again risking international incident with his short temper and foul manners.
Except that he didn’t. The original source of the claim is revealing — the Twitter account of GiveHimTheFinger.com, an anti-Trump website that encourages his opponents to send the White House postcards designed as a middle finger. A longer video of the discussion shows that Trump and Gentiloni spoke cordially before the incident, which undermines the implicit logic behind the claim — that Trump was expressing anger or distain for Gentiloni. Indeed, no one has ever explained why Trump supposedly flipped him the bird, and so Occam’s Razor comes into play here.
While it is possible, of course, that Trump had such a mercurial change of heart about Gentiloni that he went from sharing warm words with him to publicly insulting him in a matter of minutes, is it not far more likely that the US President just had an itchy head?
And then there’s Newsweek’s claim that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “evaded” Trump’s “notorious… bone-crunching power handshake”, about which there has been a seemingly endless supply of every imaginable kind of analysis.
“In his visit to the White House Monday,” wrote Tom Porter in June, “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi neatly sidestepped the challenge, swooping in for two bear hugs with the president during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden.” What’s missing from this account, in a theme repeated throughout this collection, is historical context, either by deliberate omission or due to the author’s lack of awareness.
Modi, as has long been noted, is famous for hugging world leaders, a gesture he bestowed upon Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, as well as the last two presidents of France, among others. Rather than being an example of yet another world leader “fighting back” (as the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has described what are essentially firm handshakes), this was an example of India’s prime minister continuing to greet another world leader in the way he always has.
Lack of historical context and cherry-picked evidence also played a role in another particularly egregious episode, in which Occupy Democrats placed a photograph of Pope Francis frowning beside Trump, next to one of the Pontiff grinning beside Barack Obama.
“See the difference?” the caption asked. Of course: Pope happy, Pope sad. But proper context (and basic common sense) would make it clear that no meaning whatsoever can be gleaned from these two snapshots.
People in the company of someone they like don’t keep a smile constantly plastered on their faces while devoutly maintaining a scowl when forced to hang out with someone who is not their favorite. And our facial expressions often have nothing to do with the people in our immediate vicinity (think: trapped gas, or checking your phone at the dinner table). A photograph of Francis frowning next to Obama was not hard to come by. Nor was one of him grinning next to Trump.
See the difference?
Trump the Tyrant
The second major strand of falsehood we have observed is one that portrays Trump as a would-be dictator, straying beyond his constitutional powers and imposing his will on whatever and whomever he chooses.
It has to be said that these claims have primarily come in the form of blatantly fabricated posts and stories from disreputable sources. Like a satirical News Werthy article that reported that Trump was looking into an executive order to abolish impeachment, or an artist’s “Future Internment Camp” signs in various vacant lots, which were mistaken for genuine by some readers and observers.
Then there was the satirical article that reported Trump had signed an executive order declaring himself the popular vote winner in 2016’s presidential election, or the claim that he had imposed martial law in Chicago, using a video of a police tank which has been in use since 2010. However, there have been more serious claims made about Trump’s supposedly authoritarian tendencies; a story published by the website Learn Progress offers a good illustration of this:“Trump Says Americans Have “No Right” to Protest Him. TYRANNY” reads the headline. In reality, three protesters thrown out of a Trump rally in March 2016 later sued him, alleging incitement to violence. As part of that case, lawyers for the President filed a motion arguing, in part, that protesters did not have a right to disrupt a campaign rally to the extent that they effectively denied the event organizers their own freedom of expression.
This is far more specific and limited than the absolutist way the motion was misrepresented in the article’s headline. Once again, a clue as to the falsehood of the claim is to be found in the very evidence used as its basis. The motion itself is prefaced by the disclaimer: “Of course, protestors have their own First Amendment right to express dissenting views…” So not only did the evidence not support the claim that Trump thinks that Americans have “no right” to protest him, it actually supported the opposite.
A final example of how rushed and alarmist conclusions, a lack of context, and a pre-existing caricature of Trump as an incipient dictator have played a role in false claims made against him came early on in his presidency. In the days following Trump’s inauguration, claims emerged that his administration had literally rewritten the Bill of Rights, changing all mention of “people” to “citizens”.
The story horrified readers. “Not a joke,” read one widely-shared tweet, “not a drill.” But also, not true. The administration had changed WhiteHouse.gov’s summary of the Constitution, but not the Constitution itself. What’s more, the change from “people” to “citizens” in this summary had already been made during the tenure of President Barack Obama.
Donald Trump: Bully Baby
Closely linked to the “dictator” trope are several false claims based on Trump’s persona as a thin-skinned, narcissistic baby, lashing out at perceived insults and bullying much less powerful people. So when, in May, Stephen Colbert made a controversial joke about Trump performing fellatio on Vladimir Putin, it was almost inevitable that a fake story would follow, claiming that the President had forced CBS to fire Colbert, in a single phone call. Similarly, Alec Baldwin’s popular portrayal of Trump on Saturday Night Live prompted this fake story, which reported that the President had signed an executive order cancelling the show.
In the same vein, Crayola’s decision to drop the “dandelion” crayon was falsely attributed to pressure from an image-obsessed Trump administration, worried that children were using that particular color to create unflattering pictures of the President.
Sometimes these claims seem plausible enough to gain even more credibility and traction. In April, Trump met the public at the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll. A teenaged boy asked him to sign his “Make America Great Again” hat, and the President obliged, but appeared to toss the hat in the air.
This was presented as a callous act from a bullying, villainous Donald Trump by observers such as the Resistance Report web site, which wrote ” Trump Just Ruined This Kid’s Day at the Easter Egg Roll.” However, another camera angle clearly shows that Trump was playfully tossing the hat back to the boy, who happily receives the hat and walks away.
But even without the second camera angle, Occam’s Razor comes into play once again. Does it make sense that Donald Trump, asked by an enthusiastic young man to sign a hat bearing his iconic slogan, would sign the hat and then, smiling, deliberately throw it away from the boy? Or is it more likely that Trump was being playful with someone who acted admiringly towards him, and tossed the hat in the air with the intention of giving it back to the boy?
Trump’s “thin-skinned” persona has also been the source of falsehoods, like the one shared by writer Dana Schwartz in January, who claimed the President had doctored a photograph to make his hands look bigger. She attempted to prove this by comparing two pictures of the same embrace between Donald Trump and Barack Obama. The claim was based entirely on the fact that Trump’s left hand appeared bigger in one image than the other, but otherwise provided no evidence that the picture had been doctored.
This also ignored the fact that the two images were taken from slightly different angles and distances, enough to organically make one hand appear bigger than the other.
Trump the Buffoon
Another major strand of falsehood about the President is the one that feeds into his persona as a bumbling fool, prone to accidents and devoid of any cultural sophistication.
Here, one claim stands out. In March, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny came to the White House for a traditional St Patrick’s Day visit with the sitting President. During a speech, Trump recited a verse (the relevant section starts at 9:21):
As we stand together with our Irish friends, I’m reminded of that proverb — and this is a good one, this is one I like, I’ve heard it for many, many years and I love it:
“Always remember to forget the friends that proved untrue, but never forget to remember those that have stuck by you.”
The response was huge. Almost instantly, Trump was mocked for citing as an Irish proverb a poem written by a Nigerian man. The Daily Kos web site wrote:
[Trump] took his moment to read the following, which he described as an old “Irish proverb”…Within minutes, the true origins of the “Irish proverb” were known and surprise! Not Irish. In fact, the words were from Nigerian poet Albashir Adam Alhassan.
The Root added:
Alhassan was born to Nigerian parents in the Kano State of Nigeria, which, coincidentally, is not Ireland. But according to Trump, it doesn’t matter if a proverb isn’t Irish; he can make it Irish.
Alhassan himself told Buzzfeed:
It’s actually strange. I’m wondering what must have made him relate it to Ireland even if he loves the lines.
Stephen Colbert devoted this three-minute segment to eviscerating what he presented as Trump’s cultural deafness and downright ignorance:
“That’s very nice, that’s very sweet,” Colbert said of Trump’s recitation:
Very sweet thought. Only problem — Trump’s “favorite Irish proverb” is not a proverb, it’s a poem, and it’s not from Ireland, it’s written by a Nigerian poet… Irish, Nigerian — it’s an honest mistake.
Only problem, as Colbert might say, Trump never once claimed the proverb was Irish.
The video of Trump’s remarks has been played countless times, embedded into mocking reports, and retweeted by thousands of people, aghast at his tone-deafness. The clip would have been edited by staff at Late Night for use, and Colbert himself would have heard the President’s words immediately before launching into the segment (which is frankly difficult to watch) in the knowledge that it is based on an entirely fabricated characterization. Not once, apparently, did anyone hear what Trump actually said — “a proverb”, not “an Irish proverb”.
Why would Trump relate the words to the Irish? The answer to the question posed by Albashir Alhassan is once again so simple that it appears to have eluded almost everyone.
“As we stand together with our Irish friends,” is how Trump prefaced his recitation. Now remember what those words were. “Always remember to forget the friends that proved untrue, but never forget to remember those that have stuck by you.” Standing next to the leader of a country with a long-standing friendly relationship with the United States, accompanied by “Irish friends”, Trump recited a verse about the loyalty of true friends. It makes complete sense for him to have read these words, and not once did he ever describe them as “Irish”.
Set aside the fact that, far from being written in 2013, those words date back at least 80 years; set aside, even, the fact that they appear online in several places, described as an “Irish proverb“. Trump never said they were Irish anyway.
The entire episode is a remarkable example of something bordering on collective hallucination, most likely brought on by confirmation bias. Here hundreds of thousands of people — including professional journalists working for influential news organizations, and a chat show host with more than three million nightly viewers — literally heard Trump say something he never said, in most cases probably because it confirmed a pre-existing image of the President as a poorly read, culturally ignorant buffoon.
Other fake stories have simply been designed to make him look ridiculous, like the widely-shared photographs doctored to show Trump with fake diarrhea stains on his golf pants, wearing a diaperor balloon breasts, or posing with a stripper.
Trump the Cruel Bigot
The final strand of false claims we are examining are those that have contributed to, and fed off, an image of the President and his administration as racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, and cruel toward poor people.
Some are entirely fabricated or intended as satire, like the claim that Trump was planning to deport American Indians to India, and another that he had made English the official language of the U.S., or stories claiming that the President had banned the full-face Muslim veil or Sharia law.
Others, however, have gained more mainstream traction. The predominant theme, here, has been alarmism, particularly at the beginning of Trump’s tenure. On Inauguration Day, the actor and activist George Takei warned his Twitter followers that the new White House had removed references to climate change, healthcare, civil rights and LGBT rights from its web site. While that was true, content of all kinds was temporarily removed from WhiteHouse.gov and archived during a routine transition between the Obama and Trump administrations.
Similarly, there were claims that Trump’s administration had removed LGBT categories from the 2020 Census. In reality, such categories have never been included in the U.S. Census, reports that the Census Bureau had dropped plans to introduce them stemmed from a clerical error, and there is no evidence the Trump was involved in the Census Bureau’s decision-making anyway.
Trump has also been accused of various cruel cuts and attacks on funding and services, particularly around the time he proposed the 2018 Budget to Congress. In March, the Occupy Democrats web site claimed in a headline “Trump Just Announced Plan to End ‘Meals on Wheels’”. In this case, Trump proposed eliminating the Community Development Block Grant, which provides funding to several programs, including Meals on Wheels. However, only 3 percent of Meals on Wheels’ funding comes from federal sources like the Community Development Block Grant.
So not only did Trump not announce a plan to end Meals on Wheels, as such, but it would be an enormous exaggeration even to say that the effect of his proposals would be to end the program. We do not wish to downplay the fact that Meals on Wheels is a tremendously important program for many, and that any cuts at all might affect them; however, it is important to keep a sense of perspective in an environment increasingly fueled by outrage.
The president’s persona as callous and cruel also fed into, and was supported by fabricated stories such as the Satira Tribune’s claim that he had cut funding for the veteran suicide hotline, because he didn’t want the U.S. military to appear “weak”, or a fake Donald Trump tweet declaring that drug-testing would be a prerequisite for benefits recipients.
It has to be acknowledged that since January, many of Trump’s opponents, and even lukewarm supporters, have found considerable fault with his policies and behavior, based on accurate facts. There have been many occasions when Trump himself, undistorted and unfiltered, contributed mightily to the five personas we have outlined.
Indeed, in many instances the false claims against him carry a grain of truth. The president’s plan to scrap the Community Development Block Grant was real, and could very reasonably be expected to have significant consequences across a number of services and programs, including Meals on Wheels. All this is true, but it makes it no less false and no more acceptable to claim, on this basis, that he had singled out Meals on Wheels for elimination. He had not.
In some ways, these sorts of massive exaggerations and gross distortions are even more corrosive and destructive than fake news about diarrhea on the golf course, because they bear some distant relationship with the truth.