trump book
Reading Time: 5 minutes Cover of Bob Woodward's new book on Trump presidency. (Amazon)
Reading Time: 5 minutes
trump book
Cover of Bob Woodward’s new book on Trump presidency. (Amazon)

A single quotation in the new book by Washington Post journalist and author Bob Woodward sums up the problem simply.

“Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit,” John Dowd, President Donald Trump’s lead attorney in the Robert Mueller special council investigation who resigned in March, told the president earlier this year. The quote appears in Woodard’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House.

Trump ‘failed’ test

Dowd’s warning came after a practice session simulating Trump testifying before Mueller prosecutors, in which the president “failed,” according to excerpts from the book.

Dowd’s concern derived from his knowledge of the president’s compulsion to constantly lie, his lack of knowledge and understanding of essential elements of the probe and of his behavior as president, and his irrational conspiratorial attitude about the investigation.

“This thing’s a god-damned hoax,” he fumed after the session with Dowd.

What Dowd was saying, in a nutshell, was if Trump testified, with all his character and perception flaws on full display, he would face an almost certain criminal conviction.

The problem: lies

The central problem, though, is the president’s obsessive untruthfulness.

“He’s a fucking liar,” Dowd once characterized the president, according to a CNN report on September 4.

Only the truth will set us free, it is said, but not if it reveals criminality.

And it’s not as if Dowd is an outlier. Woodward’s book quotes Gary Cohn, once President Trump’s chief economic adviser, as saying he views the president as a “professional liar.”

Another of Trump’s top advisers, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is quoted in the book as doubting the president’s essential intelligence and judgment:

“He’s an idiot,” Woodward quotes Kelly as saying in a small staff meeting. “It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was nonplussed after one meeting with the president where he strongly questioned why the U.S. was spending such large sums to deploy troops in South Korea. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis had told the president.” After Trump left the meeting, Woodward recounts:

“Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’”

So, that is why Dowd, after meeting with Mueller and his deputy, James Quarles, on March 5, cautioned Trump not to testify before the special counsel. According to Woodward, Dowd told Mueller and Quarles:

“I’m not going to sit there and let [the president] look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, ‘I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?’”

Mueller replied, according to Woodward, “John, I understand.”

A celebrated journalist

All of this might be viewed as so much overwrought, exaggerated, “fake news” heavy breathing, except for the fact that Woodward is no uncredentialed, denigrated muckraker. He is the winner of two Pulitzer prizes for his respected nonfiction political books on U.S. presidents, and with fellow Post journalist Carl Bernstein famously brought down Richard Nixon’s criminal presidency with devastatingly accurate investigative reporting in the early 1970s.

Which brings me back to official lying as a legal issue, as I mentioned in the headline.

If a president’s lies and those of his underlings — especially if strategic, disingenuous and dangerous — put the country at risk and its integrity in question, why should they be legally protected?

Lying in other contexts is legally actionable, such as telling lies to the FBI or federal investigators, or lying in a courtroom. Why should purposeful official falsehoods emanating from the White House be any different? Indeed, the risks are arguably greater in that respect than scamming the FBI.

It’s not a new idea in America.

A history of chicanery

The lead sentence in a MSNBC online article on April 22, 2014, read: “Despite what you may have heard, the Supreme Court will not consider whether lying in politics violates the First Amendment.”

The referenced court case was not about whether the president at the time, Barack Obama, might be lying to the American people, but whether a proposed political advertisement by the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List defamed a pro-choice political candidate by untruthfully stating that he endorsed government-funded abortion — and whether that was not protected by the First Amendment’s free speech provisions.

It proved moot, as Ohio Democratic Rep. Steven Driehaus ultimately lost his election and then retracted his original 2010 complaint to the Ohio Elections Commission, which earlier had ruled there was probable cause the ad was illegal. Ironically, the billboard ad was never erected.

But the issue remains. How much political lying and purposeful deceit should be tolerated? Thisis a profoundly more urgent question now during the chaotic, fact-averse Trump administration, despite political chicanery’s time-honored practice in America (if “honored” should be the right word)?

We’re used to it

A 2012 CBS News online article began: “Here are three things most Americans take as an article of faith: The sky is blue. The pope is Catholic. And politicians are liars.”

But, still, tradition isn’t sacrosanct or, at least, shouldn’t be viewed that way. Right?

The consensus among legal scholars seems to have coalesced around the notion that it would be a very slippery slope if government were given the authority to rule on what is true or not, and to punish transgressors. Like the “Ministry of Truth” in the classic political novel 1984 by George Orwell.

But the opposite — throwing it all up to the court of public opinion — breeds broad deceit because most Americans, desensitized through long decades of political mendacity, believe the whole election game is rigged.

“I think it basically is about the ends justifying the means,” economic professor Dan Ariel was quoted as saying in the CBS article. “We have an agenda that we want to get things done. And I think that everybody realizes that the system in Washington is such that if you’re pure at heart, you’re not going to get much. … If you think the fight is fair, you might want your representative to be perfectly fair. But if it’s not fair, and it’s not right and has lots of corruption, then you might want the candidate that you choose to be less moral because then they would be able to get more.”

Value in ‘falsity’?

Justices in a 2012 Supreme Court case considered whether a man committed a crime by publicly and falsely claiming he was a Medal of Honor winner. When Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to side with the government’s contention in the case that no circumstances exist in which purposefully false speech presented as fact has value, Justice Anthony Kennedy, “almost levitated out of his chair,” the article noted.

“I think it’s a sweeping proposition to say that there’s no value to falsity,” Kennedy countered.

Really? When, pray tell, does lying have “value,” except perhaps when employed by spies against adversaries or by generals trying to fool the enemy? Certainly the American people aren’t the enemy in this context, are they?

A truth commission?

As lying is illegal in our courts to protect the rule of law, why shouldn’t it be illegal in our politics, especially from elected officials, to protect the systemic integrity of our democratic republic? Why could not a ruthlessly independent, nonpartisan, professional commission be formed, along the lines of our judiciary, to keep our politics honest. I’m not talking about hunting down every little white lie, but tracking grand deceptive strategies that carry grave risk to the country, as the Trump presidency now does.

The problem, as we’ve seen, is that the system as now constituted allows Mr. Trump to evade accountability even as he insists the sun won’t rise tomorrow. And the only potentially timely check on his power to deceive, divide and endanger us is Congress, whose majority Republicans have abdicated their responsibility.

What remains is the sober reality that if the party that controls Congress is willing to let the nation’s chief executive malevolently hoodwink the American people and betray their trust, he (or she) can and will, and there is virtually nothing we can do about it.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...