National Commentary

Presidential Lying & the Press, Part 1

nfbenton-mugThere are lies, damn lies and presidential lies.

All his life, Donald Trump has routinely used lying and deception as go-to tools in his toolbox for his business and electoral campaign dealings. He’s now president of the U.S. His prevalent pattern of lying and dissembling that he learned on the knees of the infamous Roy Cohn and Russian mafia hoods, can no longer be tolerated.

However, it still remains to be seen if the media will allow him to get away with it, and if it does, we’re all in very deep trouble.

Make no mistake, Trump’s assaults on the press and on fair elections are direct threats to our free society, to our democracy.

A free press is an absolutely indispensable component of a democracy, even when it is not functioning as it should. In the first edition of my Washington, D.C. Beltway weekly newspaper, the mayor of its community quoted Thomas Jefferson at a City Council meeting, “Jefferson said if he had a choice between a nation without a government and a nation without newspapers, he’d sooner choose a nation without a government.”

Trump’s non-stop characterization of the press as lying, degenerate and his arch enemy hit a day-one crescendo Saturday with the unbelievable performance by his new press secretary Sean Spicer, coming to the press room to read out five demonstrable lies about the turnout at the inauguration, then dictating to the press what it should cover and taking no questions.

Trump aide Kellyanne Conway followed up on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” when she uttered her now-famous phrase, “alternative facts,” and even more chillingly threatened reporter Chuck Todd by saying, “Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms (i.e. that he uttered lies the day before), I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.”

Since the inauguration last Friday, we’ve seen some heartening initial reactions to the Trump team’s lying from some in the press, from Jeff Bezos’ and Marty Baron’s Washington Post, in particular, with flashes of brilliance from some on-air folk at CNN (their feisty media news expert Brian Stelter being among the best so far), while the New York Times and other organizations have been mixed.

It was a big mistake, for example, for CNN to keep pathetic Trump apologist Jeffrey Lord as a news commentator, incapable of acknowledging Trump’s lies, and to bring on former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer to comment on the five lies that Spicer unloaded his first day. Fleischer feigned outrage on Saturday, but with Spicer’s first regular briefing Monday, he was totally cool with his fellow right winger.

That historic Monday White House briefing was a sad affair, showing how the malleable White House press corps was all set to roll over as has been its pattern for many years. It allowed Spicer to get away with his lies and thuggish behavior from Saturday. No pinning him down on what he said. No demanding an apology, since Spicer attacked them directly.

The late, great dean of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas (1920-2013), saw this coming, raking her colleagues over the coals in a scathing book, “Watchdogs of Democracy?” In it she documented the press corp’s refusal to hold George W. Bush’s feet to the fire in the face of the lies that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, including the claim that there were “weapons of mass destruction” there.

She did it because she knew the importance of a free press in a healthy adversarial relationship with the corridors of power and her disappointment as she turned the corner into her 80s and saw such lack in her younger colleagues.

On Monday and since, it’s been like the White House press corps decided to give Spicer a pass. So the lies continue. Spicer will introduce Skype connectivity to the press room so that the regular press corps there can be bypassed in favor of unvetted alt-right fake news organizations.

The method to all this madness is truly chilling, an attack on the two most basic cornerstones of our democracy.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at