The pantheon of deceit that President Donald Trump has constructed in his brief civic career is vast, and the regularity of his mendacity has the preciseness of a Swiss watch. What’s more, he exults in every petty deception because it’s the foundation for his notorious ascent into public view. And yet, it can still come as a shock to watch Trump bask in the shamelessness of lying.
Case in point: Trump’s cavalier boasting Wednesday to a group of potential donors that, while in conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he arrogantly insisted the United States has a trade deficit with Canada, despite having no idea if what he was saying was true in that moment.
There is nothing more damnable than Trump openly admitting to willfully lying to one of America’s close and valued allies. Surely, Trudeau knew, as he listened to Trump’s belligerent bluster, that the U.S. president was, at best, ignorant of the facts surrounding our trade relationship with our neighbor to the north; at worst, Trump was lying for no other reason than self-enjoyment. In the worst and most likely case, both were true.
Trump has made trade with other countries a centerpiece of his efforts to improve the domestic economy, promising to impose tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum products as well as withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Trump has presented himself as the necessary linchpin for all future arrangements, and has told the American people that he will negotiate directly with foreign leaders to produce trade agreements more favorable to U.S. interests.
But the revelation of knowing acts of dishonesty makes it clear to any foreign leader with whom he intends to negotiate trade deals that Trump has no depth of knowledge on serious issues and cannot be trusted as an honest broker. He can not possibly succeed at a bargaining table, if foreign leaders know they’re dealing with a congenital liar.
According to reports in The Washington Post, which obtained an audio recording of Trump’s Wednesday meeting with a group of donors at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac, in St. Louis, Missouri, Trump “made a blistering attack against major U.S. allies and global economies, accusing the European Union, China, Japan and South Korea of ripping off the United States for decades and pillaging the U.S. workforce.” In the course of this discursion, Trump admitted, without prompting, that he just made up the facts he presented during his meeting with Trudeau. (For their part, Canadian officials are at a loss to recall this meeting between Trump and Trudeau. As Alexander Panetta reports in the National Post, the “Canadian government is unsure what meeting [Trump is] referring to,” speculating that “the conversation happened by phone.”)
A transcript of the comments made at this private fundraiser in St. Louis quoted Trump saying:
. . . [A]nd, by the way, Canada, they negotiate tougher than Mexico. Trudeau came to see me, he’s a good guy, Justin. He said, no, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please. Nice guy, good-looking, comes in — Donald, we have no trade deficit — he was very proud, because everybody else you know were getting killed with our, so he’s [unintelligible]. I said wrong, Justin, you do. I didn’t even know. Josh, I had no idea. I just said, you’re wrong. You know why? Because we’re so stupid. [Unintelligible, laughter] And I thought they were smart.
I said you’re wrong, Justin. He said, Nope, we have no trade deficit. I said, Well, in that case, I feel differently, I said, but I don’t believe it. I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, Check, because I can’t believe it.
Turns out – duh! – Trump was wrong. The United States has a trade surplus with Canada. The U.S. Trade Representative reported that for 2016, the most recent period for which figures are available, the United States exported $12.5 billion more in goods and services than it imported from our northern neighbor. (The way the White House has chosen to spin this moment is to suggest that only goods, not services, count now when tallying up a trade relationship.)
Trump has made a career out of lying. He does it with such ferocity that some observers, like Politico’s Maria Konnikova, imply that it’s pathological. In an essay published shortly before Trump took office, Konnikova interviewed people who well knew the soon-to-be president.
“Those who have followed Trump’s career say his lying isn’t just a tactic, but ingrained habit,” she wrote. “New York tabloid writers who covered Trump as a mogul on the rise in the 1980s and ’90s found him categorically different from the other self-promoting celebrities in just how often, and pointlessly, he would lie to them.”
Bella DePaulo, a social scientist who has extensively studied liars and the make-up of personalities that regularly traffic in deceit, said Trump is unlike most of the people she’s researched. “His lies are both more frequent and more malicious than ordinary people’s,” she wrote for The Washington Post. “By telling so many lies, and so many that are mean-spirited, Trump is violating some of the most fundamental norms of human social interaction and human decency. Many of the rest of us, in turn, have abandoned a norm of our own — we no longer give Trump the benefit of the doubt that we usually give so readily.”
If that’s true, Trump loses any mitigating fig leaf. He’s not naively faking his way through difficult issues and situations with bluster. He’s aware that his lies are obvious, pointless, and easy to discern. We now have definitive evidence that this is, indeed, true because Trump told the world, albeit privately at that fundraiser, that his lying is willful, knowing, and purposeful.
Such behavior is reprehensible when discovered by, say, a spouse, coworker or casual acquaintance. But for someone granted with the public’s trust, gratuitous and simple-minded lying puts our society and all its norms at risk.