Daniel Dale

Sweet Little (and Big) Lies

Air Date: July 28, 2018

Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star, discusses fact-checking President Trump and covering grassroots activism and rallies.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. When Donald Trump lies, lies, lies, there’s no more alert fact checker then my guest today. He tracks the 1800 and counting false statements by the President of the United States. Now that’s sad. My guest confronts his unusual propensity for bald-faced malicious deception, fabrication, and outright ignorance. Daniel Dale is the Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief covering the Trump Administration and other stories in the United States. He previously spent four years as a Toronto City Hall reporter and Bureau Chief covering Mayor Rob Ford’s administration from start to finish, and let’s get right to business. How do you deal with the art of the lie?

DALE: Well, it’s a bombardment of lies, sometimes seems like there isn’t much art to it. This is just what happens is it’s an avalanche. What I try to do is, is confronted every single time, even if that makes me seem pedantic or obsessed as I sometimes am called by the President’s supporters. I think that the role of the media is to provide facts to people and to challenge the dishonesty of people in power. And so when the President says 103 false things in a week as he did last week, I think, you know, as many times of those 103 as you can point that out, whether it’s on twitter, whether it’s in your articles, I think you should do it. So I just try to be vigilant, be alert and be the guy that people can go to, to find out the truth behind what he’s saying.

HEFFNER: Daniel is that 1800 figure still accurate or is it up now?

DALE: It’s …That’s as of Sunday, I believe it’s 18, 29.

HEFFNER: Ballpark…

DALE: That’s an average of.

HEFFNER: So as of June, almost July 2018, the President via twitter via press secretary statements or this discounts administration officials.

DALE: It’s just him.

HEFFNER: This is unusual. There’ve been nativist politicians. There’ve been racist, bigoted politicians, and there are elements of that in the Trump phenomenon, but this lie that almost refuses to disguise itself. I think of the Fleetwood Mac song, “Sweet Little Lies.” Little lies become big lies, how big are they becoming?

DALE: Well, there’s this curious mix of big and little so he’s lying about needless things, like he said recently, you know, he insulted representative Mark Sanford and a private meeting of Republican members of Congress and Republican members of Congress didn’t take kindly to this. They reacted by all accounts with groans and with silence. Trump tweeted, they responded with laughter and applause. That’s a little lie. What’s the point of that? We don’t know, but he’s also telling quite consequential lies, you know, about his trade policy, recently about immigration policy, blaming his own family separation decision on nonexistent democratic laws. And so we’re talking about policy matters. We’re talking about his descriptions of himself and we’re talking about basically everything under the sun, you know, everything he talks about, you know, he’s, frequently dishonest about.

HEFFNER: The origin of Donald Trump’s entrance into conservative Tea Party groupthink was that most vicious inaugural lie within this decade, which was to delegitimize the citizenship of President Obama. Why did not the press corps as a whole, you were alert to it, but why did the press corps as a whole not identify how troubling those lies were from their inception. Both that lie and then his campaign announcement lies, which called Mexican immigrants rapists.

DALE: When he started with the so-called birther lies, you know, he was still a seemingly a marginal political figure. He was a loud-mouthed businessman looking for attention. So I think in the minds of the White House, press corps, people covering Capitol Hill, you know, it was like, well, why am I going to pay attention to Donald Trump? I have serious issues to cover. So I think that was part of it then. I think when he started, you know, to launch his candidacy and started lying, I think it took the press corps awhile to adjust. I think they’re still adjusting, but I think, you know, especially at first, you know, they weren’t prepared to deal with a liar of this magnitude and frequency, because I think in part it was because, you know, calling a liar, a liar or a lie, a lie or even a false claim of false claim in news copy was seen as a departure from journalistic standards. I think it’s fundamental journalism. You know, the, the core part of our job is to point out what’s true and not. And that means, you know, not leaving the fact checking to the fact checker who writes his once a week, column, you know, on Saturday. It means that, you know, in the story when you’re reporting on something, a politician says, if it’s not true, it’s your obligation as a reporter to point that out. But I think, you know, for, for reporters, you know, weaned on this standard of objectivity and, and seeing objectivity as you know, reporting what the politician said, reporting what their critic said, and leaving at that, this Donald Trump thing took a while to get used to.

HEFFNER: And newspapers now, amid the second year, nearing the third year of the Trump Administration, the headline writers have gotten with the program. They’ve observed that this President doesn’t follow democratic norms. He dishonors his office by lying. We’re going to say in our lead, this is a lie we’re going to say in our headline, the president falsely claims, is that enough at this point? Should we be doing more?

DALE: Well, first of all, I think that that more of that can be done. I think still too often, you know, his, his claim is simply made the headline and the falseness of it isn’t pointed out and that’s, I think particularly the case on twitter. You know, I just coming over here on the, on the subway, I saw, you know, ABC News, not to pick on them, but they tweeted out a quote of the President’s from his, his rally in North Dakota last night and he said, you know, the European Union, as we all know, was formed to take advantage of the United States. That’s not true, but the falseness that, that was not noted in the tweet. So I think it’s still unfortunately not happening enough that he’s called out on these things immediately. As for whether that’s enough, you know, I don’t think it’s enough, but I don’t know what more we can do, you know, our job is to provide facts and try to provide some sort of democratic accountability. You know, we can’t arrest him from office. You know, we can’t shout it, shout at him, you know, what we can do is report on what he’s saying. So I think, you know, our, our realm of possibility here is limited. I know it seems insufficient to many of the President’s critics, but we are, we are limited in what we can do.

HEFFNER: Not just the President’s critics, though I think lay people, citizens who were frustrated with the President’s dishonesty with this administration’s proclivity for dishonesty. It’s absolute lack of candor. We were discussing George Lakoff, the linguist talking about needing truth sandwiches, much like we described where you reassert the truth as opposed to repeating the redundant lie and that’s one approach. But another approach in the broadcast world in which you intersect, you’re a print journalist but you appear on television as well, is not to carry the open megaphone of lies that are the Trump rallies and finally at last, at long last networks and some cable operators have recognized that they’re doing a disservice to their viewers if they air them because they’re just ad nauseam lies, ad hominem attacks. And so is that one approach too, because of the way that social media often relies on video and whereas video generated right here on the tube, is that an important approach too?

DALE: I think so. I think that, you know, given the frequency and magnitude of the President’s lying, I, you know, I think television networks can often be doing a disservice to their viewers by simply broadcasting him live. I think it’s a hard call in the case of supposed policy speeches and those are often interchangeable, as we know from his campaign rallies.

But you know, if the President says, you know, I’m making a major announcement on such and such, I think it’s understandable if networks want to cover that.

HEFFNER: But he’ll often say that and lie about that and say I’m making an important announcement on tariffs, and then it’s an attack on voting rights or something entirely different or just him riffing in attacking your native country, President Justin Trudeau, prime minister.

DALE: Yeah. He does that. Yeah. Or he’ll take advantage of the coverage he knows he’s getting and do 10 minutes of boasting, lying and riffing before he gets to the policy stuff.

HEFFNER: Because he doesn’t do traditional press conferences, he’ll entertain reporters and that’s really what he did during the campaign. He’ll bring them in with the pool of photographers and now the print journalists, the reporters and the photographers are going to these cabinet meetings.

DALE: I think it’s largely good that the President often takes questions at, at these kinds of things. You know, there are known as pool sprays and in political journalistic language, you know, and often, you know, under President Obama and others, you know, they frequently would simply pose for a photo and not respond to the questions on whatever pressing issues that were of the day. Of course they were also doing press conferences and that Trump isn’t, but you know, I think Trump’s engagement with the media in those forums is, is something to be admired. I think the content of what he’s saying to them is often not something to be admired. You know, he is again, being highly dishonest, but the active answering questions I think is good.

HEFFNER: He’ll speak off the cuff, but so much of that is proven to be lies later.

DALE: Yes. It’s such a challenge. I think, you know, I think what journalists should do they’re all at a tough spot. We’re all at a tough spot. I think something to remember is that he’s very frequently saying the same false things over and over and I keep track in my database on the Toronto Star website of how many times he’s saying these things. Some of them he said 40 plus times, many of them, you know, dozens of them he’s said 15 plus times. And so I think it’s the obligation of journalists to come armed with those facts. You know, know why what he is saying over and over is false, and be prepared and willing in that moment to challenge him. You know, he’s standing in front of Marine One helicopter or he’s on that plane, you know, go back and forth at him in the moment rather than leaving it to your story or leaving until the next day.

HEFFNER: Have those deceptions, deceits, the falsehoods, the lies, have they enabled him to destroy democratic norms. To what end is he lying?

DALE: It’s hard to know how much he is succeeding because he’s lying and how much is despite his lying. You know, the polling on his tax reform bill, for example, was very bad until after it was passed. This bill is, was underwater. The polling on the healthcare Obamacare repeal in place plans about which he was frequently lying was also very bad and they failed. They’re on the other hand, you know, the polling on the Mueller investigation on which he’s lying in has gotten steadily worse for Mueller and better for Trump. It seems like his lies are having some impact there.

And so, you know I talked to some Trump supporters and they told me that they know he’s lying but they don’t care. And sometimes it’s for kind of curious reasons. Sometimes they say, you know, I’ve had a bunch of people say I, like when he lies because he’s messing up the elites. He’s messing with their brains. And I like when he, when he gets them running around scrambling and punishes those people I don’t like, that’s kind of a nihilistic view of a political honesty that I think is hard for the media to deal with. But I think there’s another view of his lying that’s kind of rational. You know, I’ve talked to Trump supporters who say, look, you know, I know he makes stuff up. I know you know, he exaggerates but look, he put Neil Gorsuch on the bench. Look, he cut my taxes. And so there are things in this world that are more important to me than the President being honest. I think as journalists, as you know, purveyors of fact that can be troubling too. But, but I understand it.

HEFFNER: How can he discharge his duties, including appointing a new Supreme Court justice when he is constantly not being faithful to the truth?

DALE: Yeah, I mean it’s such a, it’s such a challenge for everyone, including Republicans, but Democrats, the media, voters, you know, you cannot trust anything that comes out of this President’s mouth. And I know that people felt that way about previous presidents, but you know, talk to any historian who’s been around for a while and we’ve never seen an avalanche like this. And so we broadly, you know, this country is in a position where, you know, the man who’s making huge decisions about the future of the country is making things up all the time about, about those decisions. It’s tough.

HEFFNER: One of the most, I think, troubling lies over the course of his presidency was about voting and delegitimizing or attempting to delegitimize the majority vote by insisting that millions of undocumented people voted, in that meaning he might’ve won the majority vote, which is false.

DALE: Yes,

HEFFNER: That’s tamped down somewhat. But to your mind, is that the lie that could potentially jeopardize our democracy in the long-term more than any other lie?

DALE: It’s, that’s a serious one. It’s, it’s hard for me to rank them. I mean, there have been serious lies about minority groups that I think, you know, do damaging things to wider perceptions of those groups. And I think that’s, that’s quite troubling.

HEFFNER: And those work in, in hand in hand. The lies about immigrants in the lies about illegal voting.

DALE: Yeah. I think, um, you know, I, it is damaging to faith in the electoral system when the President is saying that there is wide scale voter fraud and millions of undocumented people are voting. And I think yeah, in the long run, you know, especially if he says similar things in the lead up to the next election as he might well, I think, yeah, I think it could, it could do, do harmful things.

HEFFNER: And ultimately it will be Republican conscientious objectors who decide they, in addition to the press in the Democratic opposition, want to criticize the President for lacking honesty. Have you seen evidence based on your coverage that there will be any attempt on the part of the Republicans or even the Republicans who were leaving office like Jeff Flake or Bob Corker to hold him accountable for his words in a way that they haven’t thus far?

DALE: There are very few indications of that. We’ve seen, you know, occasional remarks by departing Republican members of Congress about the President’s lack of honesty. We saw an op-ed by Mark Sanford who the president lied about and also you know whose defeat the President contributed to, you know, immediately after his defeat he wrote a piece I believe in the Washington Post about how he was troubled by the President’s attack on truth. But these examples are few and far between.

For the most part, Republicans have contented themselves, resigned themselves at very least to this situation, because this President is helping them accomplish their policy goals and because they know that whatever they may think of the President’s character, their own voters overlap with the President voters.

I think interestingly also, you know, Democrats themselves are not doing as much of their own fact checking as you might expect. Certainly they do much more than the Republicans do. Certainly they’re calling him out on a variety of things, but I think for a lot of Democratic members of Congress as well, you know, their attitude is we, we, you know, we need to promote our own message. We can’t get engaged in a daily tit for tat. You know, our role isn’t to be fact checkers. It’s to persuade people of our positions. So I think for, to a large extent it’s been relegated to people like me in the media and the media itself is, is not as aggressive as I think it should be. So there’s, I think there’s a sort of a truth void throughout the American political system.

HEFFNER: A truth void. I was thinking about Flake in the context of tariffs and their impact on the price of milk or the price of goods in the fact that’s something you can’t deny, ultimately go to the supermarket and you can hold up that fact. Another example for Democrats that I’ve cited on this show is you can go to bridges and tunnels and school buildings in this country and say, here they are. They’re still broken. There’s still obsolete. There’s still the third world because you’re lying that there’s infrastructure. You’re lying that you were committed to redeveloping our transportation system, and so that’s one example of where the Democrats I think can, follow your example of speaking the truth in acknowledging that Donald Trump was a fraud in terms of being a builder, but when you say there’s a truth void, do you think the press now are more in… Do you think the majority of the press are cognizant of that truth void and therefore are not going to conveniently slip in tweets into every lede, into every teleprompter and that there will be an unrelenting focus on the truth?

DALE: I think the media has, has gotten better at this and certainly, you know, the, what the media, you know, aside from occasional areas, you know, what the media is writing or airing is truth, but in terms of holding the President accountable for his mistruths versus falsehoods, lies, whatever you want to call them, I think there’s still a reluctance to do it with the frequency that I think this President’s frequency requires. I think it’s being done for the biggest or most ridiculous or most obvious lies, but you know, he’s saying this stuff daily …

HEFFNER: What about the recognition that twitter is a lie machine. It’s a lie production machine.

DALE: Well, I think for, for this President, you know, every medium is, is a lie production machine…

HEFFNER: But that has the fastest velocity. Right? And it may be the hardest to track and get to the people. And I encourage all of our viewers to follow you on twitter where you are tracking these lies in real time.

DALE: I, yeah, I think, you know, I think my colleagues in the press corps doing a largely a very good job, but I think, you know, given the velocity with which the President’s lies travel on twitter, I think the media needs to match that with its own fact checking velocity, you know, again, because he’s repeating these things over and over, you know, reporters have to be armed with corrections right away. The problem though, as you know, is that, you know, the people who receive the president’s tweets, it’s not a, it’s not a complete overlap with the people who are following myself or the New York Times or Washington Post fact checker. So even if we do issue an immediate correction, sometimes that correction is only traveling to our own kind of follower bubbles and so that kind of mismatch between the President’s base and our quote unquote base is difficult and I don’t know how to, how to solve that problem.

HEFFNER: In solving that problem is there a difference that you find, one characterization of ally versus a falsehood versus a mistruth to be more effective in resonating with your readers?

DALE: Well, I think for the President’s critics, what it resonates more when I do use the word lie and I see that in, you know, my re-tweet numbers for example. I think there’s a kind of satisfaction for people who are watching this and feeling like, you know, am I going crazy or, you know, feeling the sense of frustration. They feel like he’s not being challenged or called out, you know, to have a reporter use the word lie I think, you know, can provide them a, a positive feeling. But I think, you know, even just pointing out that he said something untrue, I think you know, is often successful by the numbers as well.

HEFFNER: We still are in that climate where a minority of Americans, but still 30 percent of the country thinks that that is acceptable for someone, a President of the United States, to make a statement that when it’s flipped, or adjusted can then be interpreted as true. I wonder how you grapple with something like that where the underlying condition of the lie may be accurate.

DALE: I think that, you know, if we start letting those things go as reporters because there might be some underlying truth, then I think we’ve, we’re going down a slippery slope to, you know, to a bad, to a bad place. I think it’s our job to take the President’s words both seriously and literally and, and point out when the words as expressed are false.

If a certain percentage of the electorate chooses to see an underlying truth even though the claim is not literally accurate, that’s their choice. But I don’t think that we ourselves should relax our standards because those voters, even if they’re going to call us, you know, pedantic or, or small minded or insufficiently generous to the President. It’s our role is to interpret words as written.

HEFFNER: And what about contextualizing it at all? Just say, look, Donald Trump said this during the campaign and the reality is if we were to judge employment by how many people make over a certain amount of money, we really are under or unemployed at a much higher level.

DALE: I don’t think. I mean I try to provide context where it’s helpful, but, but often I think is not helpful. Example from recently was, you know, the President was claiming homicide in Chicago is way up. While homicide in Chicago is quite high, it’s actually down over the last couple of years, and so I pointed that out and then I had a barrage of his supporters saying, well you’re fine with this level of homicide, what he’s saying is that it’s a bad level of homicide and so it’s not my job in pointing out that it’s wrong when he said homicide is up to also say, well, you know, this is still an unacceptable level.

HEFFNER: Understood.

DALE: Yeah. So I think, you know, if people want to excuse away claims that are at, that are not literally true, that’s their job, it’s not mine.

HEFFNER: Final question, Daniel. The fact that these lies or deceptions are in plain sight is that not what makes them so difficult to correct, because they are overwhelming us. There is a malignant tumor of lie in the discourse.

DALE: Yeah. I think you identified a couple problems there. One is the frequency problem. You know, if, if the President is saying one false thing a day, you know, fact checkers and, and media outlets more broadly can thoroughly explain those and they might have a good chance in registering in people’s minds, you know, when he’s saying three point 5 false things a day or 15 false things a day as he did last week, you know, the chances of any one of those being remembered are smaller. And I think it’s a similar problem to what we saw with the Hillary Clinton email issue during the election. You know, she had one scandal. Trump had a whole bunch of scandals, but people remember that one because, you know, it was the one that’s being talked about daily. And I think, you know, the other issue identified is the President’s ease with lying, you know, it doesn’t seem like he’s, you know, he’s being sneaky that he, he’s in a, in a lawyerly political politician like manner trying to sneak past us, you know, it seems like he is being authentic because he’s just talking even when he’s being hugely dishonest. So I think the issue of content versus manner is, is a difficult one for the media to grapple with as well.

HEFFNER: And how do you not jump out the window after every rally?

DALE: You know, I choose, maybe it’s my instinct or maybe it’s my choice, but I find them interesting rather than maddening, you know, like I was saying to someone on twitter yesterday who was saying, you know, why do you cover these things? You know, it just nonsense. It’s just propaganda. I think these rallies are the best window into the President’s brain. And I think by fact checking, I think I can provide a kind of public service in, in response to this barrage of dishonesty. So I think I stay sane by feeling like I’m being useful in a way.

HEFFNER: I was about to say stay unmaddened and stay sane. Daniel thanks for joining me today.

DALE: Thank you very much

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.