Opinion | White House

When will telling the truth in politics matter again?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

It has always been a central plank of Donald Trump's approach to politics to make us doubt what the media tell us and, more often than not, what we hear and see ourselves. The president's path to success runs straight through widespread disinformation about everything from election security to health care to immigration.

Considering this, it is all the more surprising that in the past two weeks he decided to sit down for interviews with journalists, Chris Wallace of Fox News and Jonathan Swan of Axios, who have a proven disdain for lying and obfuscating. There are plenty of media friendlies to whom the president could have turned, and judging by the reaction to both interviews, he would've been better served to have done just that. 

As a Democratic partisan who is fully invested in a Joe Biden victory this November, I'm not complaining. When the president does these interviews, the Democratic Party's ads write themselves. And if his supporters are to be convinced that Trump isn't telling them the truth, they've got to hear it from the horse's mouth. 

But there is a disappointment that I feel as an American who has a president with such a blatant disregard for objectivity and truthfulness. At this moment in history, when a virus has claimed more than 160,000 American lives, we deserve a far better leader. 

If there is to be a glimmer of hope that Trump's voters recognize the deleterious impact of his lies, we could look at just three areas of Swan's interview where Trump's disregard for the truth should - and potentially could - matter to his voter base.

First, the narrative Trump tried to sell to Swan about America's response to the coronavirus was completely decimated. COVID-19 has been the most important issue to voters across the political spectrum for months now, and the latest surveys show that nearly 70 percent are very or somewhat worried about being infected.

The president's approach of minimizing both the threat posed by the virus and its death toll was fully exposed in the interview. Trump continued to maintain that the United States has handled the crisis better than other countries, bringing misleading charts to explain his thinking. As Swan pointed out, the president has been inaccurately marketing the death rate as a percentage of those infected, not a proportion of the population, as other countries grade their response. He also was misleading the public about how the virus is ravaging states such as Texas and Florida.

These aren't run-of-the-mill white lies. They're the stuff that affects public health, and when even Trump supporters began wearing face masks in public before the president did, it could make a difference. 

Another crucial issue is how we're going to be able to safely and securely hold the presidential election on Nov. 3. President Trump shocked Democrats and Republicans alike with a tweet last week suggesting the election should be delayed because mail-in voting is unsafe. Prominent GOP allies, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pushed back. McConnell noted that never in the history of Congress has America not had an election on time.

But that hasn't stopped Trump from pushing the narrative that mail-in voting, which is the same as absentee voting, is prone to fraud. Swan took him to task over this, too, leading to a hilarious exchange in which the president said, "We have a new phenomenon; it's called mail-in voting." To which Swan replied: "It's not new; it's been around since the Civil War." 

It seems Trump's advisers must have told him how poorly he's doing with seniors in Florida, because he otherwise inexplicably tweeted hours after the interview aired that it is safe to vote by mail in Florida. This comes a month after the president's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, placed robocalls for the Republican National Committee, calling mail-in ballots "safe and secure" in California's most recent special election.

Americans want to be able to vote in November without risking their health to the coronavirus. Yet the president appears to be more interested in spreading bad information than helping them exercise their constitutional rights.

Lastly, Trump's bumbled answer on intelligence that shows Russia has paid bounties for American soldiers in Afghanistan exposed his deference to Vladimir Putin, his lack of understanding of the historical relationship between the Taliban and Russia, and what any honest broker would call a shortfall of support for American troops. 

In the face of Swan's questioning, Trump called the bounties story "fake news" and not grounds for raising with Putin, despite the fact that the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan said Russia was supplying weapons to the Taliban. What's more, it wasn't altogether clear from his answer that he reads his briefing book on top of it all.

While this may seem like a smaller issue than health or voting, it should really affect those who voted for Trump because of his support for the military. Trump regularly claims that he's the most pro-military president in history and loves our service men and women, but calling a story about Russian bounties on American heads "fake news" is a surefire way to call into question his dedication to the military and American preeminence. 

There were other important topics discussed in the recent interview that should give any Trump supporter pause, but overall, it's clear that the president is not telling the truth to the public. 

If there's a line from the Axios interview that sums up Trump's side of things it would be: "You can't do that." It applies to everything the president doesn't like, especially information that flies in the face of his lies. And he's been saying the same thing about voting for Biden - claiming the suburbs won't be safe, the economy will crash, and whatever else he comes up with. 

When it comes to electing a president this fall who tells the truth, we absolutely must "do that."

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.

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