Donald Trump has said so many despicable things over the past few decades, especially since he entered politics, that it is hard to choose his most contemptible remark. But two of Trump’s recent comments, one falsely criticizing President Obama for failing to console families of fallen soldiers, and the other, making an unwittingly callous call to the widow of a fallen American soldier in an effort to score political points, surely rank among his most appalling.
Trump’s remarks, and the resulting news media coverage, reveals as much about evolving journalistic norms as it does about the president’s mental health. Since Trump’s election, Americans have seen a dramatic shift in the way the news media cover a president. They have been more willing to call out his never-ending falsehoods. Rather than simply report what Trump says, or balance his comments with remarks from his critics, the media have increasingly questioned the veracity of president’s statements.
Facing criticism for his lack of a response to the deaths of four soldiers killed in combat in Niger in early October, a reporter asked Trump at a Monday press conference why he had not publicly spoken about the issue. Trump, a man who had used his privilege and family connections to avoid military service during Vietnam, responded that he had written the families personal letters and would call them at “some point,” even though it's "a very difficult thing" to do.
“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls,” Trump claimed. “I like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it.”
Asked to explain, Trump said, “I was told that [Obama] didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't. They write letters.” (Obama frequently phoned, wrote letters, and met with such families privately, he did so without media coverage or fanfare.)
The New York Times headline about this exchange read, “Trump Falsely Claims Obama Didn’t Contact Families of Fallen Troops.” Other news outlets also reported that Trump’s comment was inaccurate. So did the media watchdog Politifact. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that, “The president wasn't criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact.” Reporters jumped on Huckabee’s comment as yet another White House lie.
Seeking to recover from that criticism on Tuesday, Trump called Myeshia Johnson, the widow of 25-year-old Sergeant La David T. Johnson, one of the soldiers who died in Niger. When he spoke to Mrs. Johnson, moments before she greeted his coffin at the Miami airport, Trump told Mrs. Johnson that, “He knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens it hurts anyway.”
Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida was with Mrs. Johnson en route to the airport when Trump called. “She was crying the whole time … and said ‘He didn’t even remember his name,’” Wilson said, noting that Mrs. Johnson “broke down” after her call with Trump, which was on speakerphone. The soldier’s mother has also confirmed the exchange.
The first wave of news stories about this incident relied on Representative Wilson’s comments. The second wave began soon after 4:25 am Wednesday, when Trump took to Twitter to respond to Wilson: “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof).”
While reporters have not explored whether Trump’s instinct for lying began during his privileged childhood, or during his business career, they’ve been willing to document Trump’s falsehoods, dishonest comments, inaccurate remarks, and deceitful statements.
Trump has uttered so many obvious lies in speeches and tweets—about how the crowds at his inauguration were the largest in history, how “voter fraud” deprived him of a popular-vote majority, how Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, and many others—that for the first time in modern history, mainstream papers have used the word “lie” in stories and headlines to describe a president’s statements.
After Trump said during a January press conference that the public doesn’t care about his tax records, a Pew Research Center poll revealed that two-thirds of Americans wanted the president to release his returns. When Trump claimed that he had received more electoral votes than any Republican since Ronald Reagan, the media quickly reported that he was wrong.
Following Trump’s claims that he would have won the popular vote if three million people hadn’t voted illegally, the headline on The New York Times front-page story read: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.” In the past, the Times might have headed the article “Trump Repeats Assertion” or “Trump Repeats Claim” but in an unprecedented move, it called a lie a lie.
The Times published a day-by-day catalog of “Trump’s Lies,” revealing that, from his inauguration through the end of June, he uttered at least one lie on 58 of his first 162 days in office. “Many Americans have become accustomed to President Trump’s lies,” the Times explained. “But as regular as they have become, the country should not allow itself to become numb to them.”
The Washington Post listed Trump’s 1,318 “false and misleading claims” during his first 263 days in office. Politifact has discovered that 69 percent of Trump’s statements were “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” outright lies.
Other presidents have told blatant lies to protect their reputations or hide misconduct, such as Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” But as the Times has observed, describing Trump, “There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths.”
Unlike the word “moron” (which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly called Trump), the words “lie” and “liar” are statements of fact, not opinion. Some argue that stating a falsehood is only a “lie” if you know that what you’re saying is untrue. By that standard, if Trump actually believes that he lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal voters, or that Obama didn’t contact families of fallen soldiers, he is delusional but not a liar.
Although the media has been willing to report and authenticate Trump’s track record of lies, their initial reaction to Trump’s Wednesday morning tweet reveals that it is sometimes hard to break old journalistic habits. All the stories reported Trump’s tweet that he had “proof” that Representative Wilson’s statement was “fabricated.” When reporters asked Trump at a Wednesday press conference for his proof, he simply said “you’ll find out.”
Later on Wednesday, Press Secretary Sanders admitted that there was no tape recording of Trump’s conversation with Mrs. Johnson. At a Thursday press conference, White House chief of staff John Kelly criticized Representative Wilson for listening in on Trump’s phone call with Mrs. Johnson, but did not dispute Wilson’s description of what Trump said.
With the Wilson story, reporters and editors reverted to their old ways, as they did during last year’s presidential campaign, of simply serving as Trump’s transcribers. But, by now the media has had enough experience with Trump to know that his Twitter tantrums are filled with lies and half-truths. Since Trump claimed he had “proof,” but offered none, why did the news media feel obliged to give him a free pass?
Trump’s false criticism of Obama is yet another illustration of his extreme narcissism and his willingness to say anything to discredit his predecessor. But his grotesquely insensitive phone call to Mrs. Johnson reveals something even more disturbing about Trump: his complete lack of empathy for others’ suffering. That trait is a component of megalomania: everything is about him.
Just as journalists are now willing to describe Trump as a liar, it is time for them to cross another threshold and observe that Trump is mentally unstable or perhaps even sociopathic—and not simply in editorials or op-ed columns, but also in news stories and headlines.
They should do so without having to attribute the description to mental health professionals or Trump’s critics, without putting the word sociopath in quotes, and without any of the formulaic “he said/she said” constraints that require the phony balancing of different sides. In short, the news media must acknowledge as a fact—not opinion— that Donald Trump is mentally unstable.
Tony Schwartz, who worked closely with Trump as the ghostwriter for his best-selling book The Art of the Deal, has tweeted:
Wag the Dog. Trump is willing to start a NUCLEAR WAR & kill tens of millions of people to divert attention from his failures. He is a madman
— Tony Schwartz (@tonyschwartz) October 7, 2017
The Washington Post has reported that billionaire Tom Barrack, Trump’s longtime friend and former business associate, was “shocked” and “stunned” by the president’s erratic behavior and inflammatory tweets. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a one-time Trump supporter, publicly suggested that his impulsive temperament is a threat to world peace.
Other Trump critics have used words like “unhinged” and “out of control” to describe the president’s mental health. Such an assessment might be easily ignored if they weren’t echoed by some of Trump’s closest supporters.
Until recently, mental health professionals adhered to the so-called “Goldwater rule” of refraining from diagnosing a public figure who isn’t their patient. But since Trump took office, a growing number of them have expressed their concerns about Trump’s psychological condition. One group has gone so far as to publish a book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President."
Americans have seen examples of Trump’s pathological narcissism throughout his presidency, especially during his recent trips to the visit hurricane’s victims in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. This is a man without an iota of compassion, much less an understanding that an important part of a president’s job is to comfort Americans during times of crisis.
Americans have been confronted with a president who lies out of habit; to score points; as a diversionary tactic; to cover up his misdeeds; and to hide his insecurities about his business acumen or his intellectual abilities. They recognize his mendacity. According to a Quinnipiac poll released in August, 62 percent of Americans said they think that Trump is "not honest," while 34 percent said he is honest.
If reporters begin describing Trump as a sociopath, his hard core followers will simply label the stories “fake news” and as evidence of the “liberal” media’s efforts to smear the president. But by using the word sociopath, the news media will be reminding Americans, particularly those Trump voters who may now have some degree of buyers’ remorse, that in addition to his failure to deliver on his campaign promises and his pathological lies, our president is also a deranged individual, a failure as a human being, and a danger to society.