When Donald Trump says something, we rush to Google to find a reliable source. It’s not only exhausting, the government is losing our respect and trust.
When I was trying cases as a federal prosecutor, there was a jury instruction that made me cringe every time the judge read it at the end of my case. It always came at the same point in the jury charge, and as the judge approached the dreaded instruction I would curl my toes in my shoes as a way of releasing anxiety without letting the jury see me sweat. The instruction told the jurors that if they felt a witness had lied about one thing, they were entitled to disbelieve all of the witness’ testimony.
When Donald Trump was elected president, there was an undercurrent of comment that he was not as bad as he convinced us he is, and that once in office he would rise to the occasion of the presidency. This hopeful theory was put to the test on the day of Trump’s inauguration.
Speaking on behalf of the president and his administration, then-White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s public introduction to the world came with his demonstrably false claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever recorded. The experts said no, the photographs said no, and my own eyes said no.
Even a stupid lie can make you question all that comes after it. And so the seeds of disbelief were planted.
Having worked for the federal government for more than two decades, I was resistant to the idea that the institution to which I had devoted my professional career could change in any fundamental way due to a single administration. I was wrong.
What began as weekly fodder for “Saturday Night Live” was followed by false claims that voter fraud accounted for Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory; the Trump Tower meeting with Russians was to discuss adoption rules; there was no administration policy separating children from parents who applied for legal asylum; and thousands of terrorists are crossing the southern border.
Kellyanne Conway tried to convince us there was no objective truth, only “alternative facts.” And Rudy Giuliani told us that “truth isn’t truth.”
Unfortunately, truth has not come with time. Just Sunday, on Trump-friendly Fox News, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down when confronted with the lie about those thousands of terrorist border-crossings. Last week, the Justice Department acknowledged errors in ayear-old reportlinking immigrants to terrorism but refused to correct it — leaving the impression that the stain of misinformation was the point and not a regrettable mistake.
And Tuesday night, after Trump gave his televised Oval Office speech arguing for a border wall, CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta summed it up this way: “That address probably should have come with a surgeon general’s warning. It was hazardous to the truth.”
My default setting now is government is lying
Several news outlets have kept a running list of false or misleading Trump claims that now runs into the thousands and is longer than a CVS drugstore receipt. The evolution of this sliding trust is mirrored in the news media, which originally reported presidential and administration “misstatements,” then “falsehoods” and now “lies.”
From outward appearances, the administration does not acknowledge, or even understand, that it presents itself as liars. Recently, while scrolling through Facebook, I saw a headline that Sanders felt her legacy would include a “transparent and honest” effort at informing journalists. Given Sanders’ history of deflection and lies, I assumed the story was satire. It wasn’t.
The real danger of losing faith comes not in the disbelief of any individual claim by the government, but in the recalibration of our respect for the larger institution. I no longer listen to a government news conference and take what is said at face value.
I’ve always had a healthy skepticism for the shades of truth that come from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Now, my default setting is to assume that what my government tells me is a lie. I’m not alone in this credibility crisis. An NBC News poll from last year showed that more than 60 percent of Americans believe President Trump “regularly” has trouble telling the truth.
Don’t surrender to collective exhaustion
The systemic disbelief most of us are experiencing is exhausting. When the president, or his lawyer or his press secretary, says something, we are sent scrambling to Google to find a reliable source that we can rely on to tell us the truth.
There is a surrender that comes with repetition. Lies and scandals that would have outraged most of us before Trump taking office have been subjugated to varying degrees of irritation. And the more we are collectively exhausted, the more the administration can implement policies that will haunt us for years to come.
The sleight of hand that daily captivates our attention, with the rolling disclosure of political corruption, leaves us too weary to muster the political will to press effective objections to things such as doing away with regulations that prevent mining companies from dumping waste into public streams.
I yearn for the days when the press had the luxury of taking a little bit of nothing and making it into a lot of something: her emails, her emails! At some point, there will be a series finale to the Trump show. When that day comes, as a nation we must make the decision to bring back the premium we once placed on truth and integrity. The absence of anything for too long places it at risk of not being found.
Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice, for 25 years, in Detroit and Los Angeles.