Time for Careful Lying by Team Trump

by Neil H. Buchanan

Donald Trump lies.  He lies all the time.  He lies effortlessly.  He lies shamelessly.  He lies garishly and promiscuously.  Before, during, and after the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has lied repeatedly.

Trump is unfazed that he has no facts to back up his lies, and he seems not to care about the fact-checks that repeatedly expose his statements to be lies.  He lies so much that newspapers and TV networks finally felt honor-bound to stop downplaying Trump's lies with niceties and euphemisms -- "not backed up by facts" and "not truthful" -- and simply started to call them lies.

Trump's team has generally been equally brazen in their lies.  Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway repeat and amplify Trump's lies, and they too are apparently unconcerned that their lies are obvious even to a child.  Reince Priebus bothers to repeat Trump's lies, for example, the lie about Trump's "electoral landslide," not caring that it was in fact the 44th largest margin of victory out of 56 presidential elections.

Most of all, Trump and his team have lied carelessly.  Under increasing pressure, however, we are starting to see the emergence of what can only be called careful lying.  Not that the careless lies will stop, of course, but it is important to guard against having become dulled by the obvious lying to the more clever lies that some of Trump's people are now deploying.

Careful lying is not always successful, but it at least embodies an effort to say something that is not literally false in the 2 + 2 = 5 sense of the word.  It is an intent to mislead and deceive.  It is what perjury statutes try to capture, and what the oath "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" is designed to prevent.

When reporters and commentators pointedly stipulate that something is not "technically lying," they are talking about lying.  We have plenty of synonyms and ways to dress it up, but people know when they have been lied to, and it does not matter if the liar has figured out a way to deceive us without having to make up facts to do so.

Trump and Co.'s careless lying has been fed in part by their sense of being untouchable.  Now that they are feeling under siege, at least some of the people in the White House have been trying to figure out how to lie to people without ever being confronted with a reporter saying, "You said you were in Akron on Monday, but we have ironclad evidence that you were actually in Albuquerque."

Two examples of careful lying from the White House are illustrative of the concept.  First, after The Washington Post's blockbuster May 15 scoop that Trump had revealed highly classified information to two top officials of the Russian government, the Administration sent out Trump's national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, to do some careful lying.

The Post's Glenn Kessler provides a beautiful rundown of McMaster's willful deceptions.  McMaster had (emphasis on the past tense) an enviable record of integrity, so he was careful not to say that up is down or that freedom is slavery.  Even so, he made statements that were false and misleading.

We know this in part because Trump later contradicted McMaster.  Whereas McMaster had claimed that The Post's story "as reported is false," Trump then admitted in a tweet that he had in fact revealed the information to the Russians.  McMaster then was reduced to saying that Trump's having done so -- something that McMaster had gone to great lengths to convince us had not happened -- was "wholly appropriate."

At one point, McMaster said, "At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known."  Kessler correctly describes this as a "classic deflection from the key findings of the report, the PR version of three-card monte."

In other words, by saying that Trump did not discuss intelligence sources or methods or disclose military operations, McMaster tried to get people to think, "Oh, so I guess nothing bad happened."  But Trump did not have to discuss sources or methods in order to disclose non-military operations.  If he did that, McMaster could try to claim that he "never really lied."  Nonsense.

Remember what Trump did.  In his enthusiasm to impress his boss's associates, he did not say, "Israel told us about this specific way in which they gathered information."  He instead gave the Russians enough information that they could deduce the source of the intelligence.

This is the equivalent of telling someone who is under surveillance that you know verbatim something that she said aloud while sitting alone in her house.  You did not tell her that you have her house bugged, but you gave her everything she needs to know to figure it out.  And you will have blown your intelligence operation.

Again, many people are likely to split hairs about what McMaster did, saying that it does not quite amount to lying.  But there is a reason that "lawyerly" is often used as an insult.  "I didn't lie to you about taking your money, sweetheart.  I just deceived you."  Just because a lie is crafted carefully does not make it true, nor does it make it any less deceptive.

The second example of careful lying from Team Trump happens to be in my comfort zone: tax law.  Pushing back against the idea that Trump's unreleased tax returns contain information tying him to Russian money, the White House recently released a "certified letter" from a private law firm claiming that the last ten years of Trump's tax returns do not show "any income of any type from Russian sources."

Satisfied?  No one should be.  The letter, a one-page exercise in deception, was written by two lawyers who "work for a law firm that has extensive ties to Russia and received a 'Russia Law Firm of the Year' award in 2016," according to ABC News.  But it is not merely the authorship of the letter that makes it sketchy.

ABC News also quoted Jack Blum, a tax attorney specializing in white collar crime, who described the letter as "meaningless" and added: "There’s no substance to it. The letter is just another puff of smoke.  It has no meaning at all. It’s just another way to not answer the question."

Quite so.  New York Magazine quoted a tweet that should be in the running for "best subtle dig of the year": "Having practiced law for 20 years & written many carefully crafted letters, the letter from Trump's attys is a carefully crafted letter."

The letter in question plays with present and past tense, opportunistically chooses the years that it covers, and fails to define its terms.  The letter has by now been thoroughly trashed.  What is amazing is that anyone bothered to try to lie carefully in a way that was nevertheless so transparent.

For example, many commentators noted that there is nothing in the letter that covers the very real possibility that Trump is invested in -- or more likely owes money to -- shell companies that are part of a paper trail that would lead back to Russian sources.

The trade magazine Tax Notes quoted me on this matter:
"Buchanan said he wouldn't expect to find any flagrantly improper Russian connection explicitly stated on Trump’s returns. But, he wrote, 'information on the tax returns could be the starting point to trace the circuitous connections between Trump and Russia that are currently obscured by maneuvers that allow these lawyers to say, "Nothing Russian here!"'"
Again, I am not the only person who made the point about shell companies.  What I have not seen anyone else point out is that the term "Russian" as used in Trump's lawyers' letter could merely mean "directly owned by the Russian government."

In some contexts, that would in fact be an appropriate definition.  If I were interested in whether a bazooka was "Russian," I might only care if it is a weapon owned by the Russian military.  For example, I might want to call a bazooka in the possession of a Russian citizen who was a terrorist something other than a "Russian bazooka," because it would be important to distinguish between the government and some of its citizens who are violating the law.

But that is exactly why this type of wordplay is still lying.  I doubt that anyone reading the letter would have such a narrow definition in mind, because in this context "income from Russian sources" should clearly include private Russian banks, oligarchs, and so on.  Because the lawyers who wrote the letter do not define their terms, however, we can only guess that they might be covering themselves to be able to say, "Well, we didn't technically lie."

To be clear, my chief concern here is not with labels.  I am insisting on using a particular word -- lie -- because we should not allow the deceptive substance of what is being said to be excused for being "merely" misleading and out of context.

Whether we call them lies, deceptions, untruths, or "unhappy false talk," what matters is that the Trump people have recently decided that they need to be more careful about the way that they are trying to make people believe things that are not true.

It is a good sign, of course, that they now feel the need to bother to cover their tracks.  But they are still lying.