Plenty of presidents lie. Only Trump doesn't care if you catch him.

National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty

Some former White House aides write memoirs so they can set the record straight for historians. Others do it to rehabilitate their reputations, or just to make some money while they figure out what’s next.

In the case of Sean Spicer, the once respectable Republican aide who became President Trump’s first press secretary, the main purpose for writing a book seems to have been to re-ingratiate himself to a boss who probably forgot about him 10 minutes after he left, mainly by repeating a bunch of things that were demonstrably untrue when he said them and haven’t gotten any truer since.

If you really need to know more, here’s a pretty brilliant review of “The Briefing,” which just arrived in stores, by ABC’s Jonathan Karl. (It appeared in the Wall Street Journal, so I’m afraid you’ll need a password to read it, and I’m not giving you mine.)

Personally, I don’t intend to read Spicer’s memoir, for the same reason I don’t call 1-800 numbers for personal injury lawyers who advertise on billboards along the interstate. Life is full of deceit — there’s no reason to go seeking it out.

Also, the world is full of other books, some of which I haven’t gotten around to yet, that don’t contain lines like this description of the president: “He is a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow.” I swear I’m not making that up.

As it happens, one such book offers a very different window into the contentious relationship between presidents and the press corps. It’s a recent memoir, simply titled “Reporter,” by Seymour Hersh, one of the most important investigative reporters of the last half century. Most of what’s in it is verifiably true.

“Reporter” does suffer from an inexplicable omission of unicorn tandems. What it has, though, is a fascinating chapter, among others, in which Hersh recounts his work from the early 1970s, when, as a young reporter at the New York Times, he did a series of stories exposing the mendacity of the Nixon administration.

Suffice it to say that Nixon and his secretary of state, the beguiling Henry Kissinger, lied a lot, and they lied about stuff that really mattered. They lied about bombing Cambodia. They lied about the existence of a secret White House team known as the Plumbers. They lied about covert efforts to topple the Chilean president, Salvador Allende.

Hersh’s account is made more chilling by some of the notes and transcripts that were later released. At one point, hours after Kissinger flatly told Hersh he didn’t know anything about a secret scheme to cover up the location of bombing runs in Southeast Asia, Kissinger spoke on the phone with his deputy, Gen. Al Haig, who suggested they shouldn’t be talking to Hersh at all.

“Well, you can take that attitude but I can’t,” Kissinger said. “I knew about the operation.”

What I found fascinating about Hersh’s revisiting of all this wasn’t that Nixon and Kissinger knowingly misled the press and the public (this has been long established, after all), but rather why.

They lied because they were afraid. They lied because they strongly suspected that if reporters like Hersh found out the facts and wrote about them, the public would recoil in disgust, and the administration’s policies, exposed to scrutiny, would have to change.

They feared the consequences of truth. And, as it turned out, they had good reason, since Nixon ultimately had to flee office to avoid impeachment, the lies having eaten away the foundations of his crumbling presidency.

(Kissinger, on the other hand, was allowed to graduate to the role of American statesman, in no small part because of relationships he had cultivated in the media.)

If you think about it, this has been more or less the norm in American politics, to the extent that it’s normal for the government to lie at all. When presidents aren’t truthful, it’s because the repercussions of telling the truth are thought to be unbearable.

Which brings me back to Spicer’s memoir and the Trump administration, which from day one has pursued an entirely different kind of systematic deception than Nixon or anyone else who came before.

Trump and his minions don’t fear the consequences of truth, because they don’t believe those consequences really apply to them. The president doesn’t habitually lie — about Russian election meddling, or about his paying off a concubine, or about what he said on camera or into a tape recorder just yesterday or the day before that — because he thinks the truth will be politically calamitous.

No, he lies because he’s pretty sure he can make you believe whatever he wants you to believe (it worked for a self-promoting developer in the New York tabloid world), and there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for trying.

To put it starkly, Trump is the first president in my lifetime to essentially say to the press that covers him: “Go ahead, jump up and down, prove all the lies you want with your fact checks and your transcripts and your phony outrage. Nobody believes you anyway.”

In fact, if there was any doubt that this was Trump’s basic philosophy, he put it to rest just a few days ago, during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Don’t believe the crap you hear from these people — the fake news,” Trump said. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Now, as I’ve written before, my industry bears a lot of the blame for making this possible. My colleagues in the media often seem to blame Trump for creating and stoking the public’s abject distrust, when in fact it was our own vanity and triviality — the glib cable punditry, the obsession with rumors and ratings — that created him.

When you look through a telescope and see the light from a supernova, you’re not actually seeing a star erupt in real time — you’re seeing something that happened eons ago, whose effects are only now reaching us. And, similarly, when you watch Trump undermine the idea of provable truth, what you’re really watching is the reverberation of something that began 30-plus years ago, a slow burning out of public faith that the president merely exists to exploit.

But if there’s a burden on journalists to rebuild that trust (and there is), then there’s a burden on you, too, to be a shrewder consumer. Because make no mistake: Trump and his acolytes disdain you, in a way Nixon on his worst day did not.

They don’t think you’re smart enough to recognize truth or care about it. They don’t fear your judgment, because they don’t think you have any.

So by all means, be skeptical of the media — we’ve earned it. But don’t be blind. Don’t be taken in by a demagogue, or the sycophants around him, who would have you believe that everything you read that doesn’t conform to your worldview must be nothing but garbage, because he says it is.

That’s just a unicorn riding a unicorn, spearing you in the back.

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