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Washington Post's Glenn Kessler On The Full-Time Job Of Fact-Checking Trump

Donald Trump and His Assault On Truth cover
Donald Trump and His Assault On Truth
Donald Trump and His Assault On Truth cover

If you follow American politics closely — and lately, who doesn’t? — you’ve probably heard the statistic that President Trump has told nearly 20,000 lies since taking office. That we know the precise number of false claims is thanks to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker team, which has documented every statement, tweet, speech and interview so far.

Glenn Kessler has led the Fact Checker operation since 2011 and has been with the Post since 1998. He’s the co-author of the new book "Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims, and Flat-Out Lies."

You make the point at various times spots in this book that all presidents lie sometimes. How is the job of fact checking different in the Trump age?

Well, there was the volume of material in the first place. And in part, that's because President Trump is unusually loquacious president. He is not only tweeting at all hours of the day, but he often gives all sorts of interviews to report, you know, brief exchanges with reporters and interviews with conservative leaning media. And he pretty much, you know, has broken all the records for those sorts of sorts of events. Last time I checked, before Trump it was Bill Clinton, but I think Trump is now exceeded Clinton. Other presidents kind of kept their comments in reserve, they would reserve they would wait for a moment when they really wanted to make a point. And it would often be carefully crafted. And the president would read it. Obama in particular was very careful about that. And, I mean, even if he wrote his own stuff, he would make sure that he was reading it, it would be very precise. Trump doesn't do any of that. And there's not the same kind of scrutiny over what he what he's about to say or will say. And so it's just a phenomenal amount of material because he's not very careful about being precise or accurate.

He tells, effectively, 15 mistruths a day on average. So how does your job actually work when we say that The Washington Post Fact Checker has said that this statement is not true or is at best misleading, how do you find that information out?

Well, we have the two things that are going on. We have the regular fact checker column which runs generally every day of the week, or at least five days a week. We also have videos, fact checker videos. And these don't just focus on Donald Trump, they also they focus on all politicians, and we skewer Democrats, Republicans, independents, advocacy groups, whomever. And that's a very rigorous process. We hear a claim and then we dig deep into whether or not it is accurate. We talk to the politician’s staff. We try to find out how accurate it is or not. And then in the end, we award a Pinocchio rating. It’s like a reverse restaurant review. Four Pinocchios being the worst. And we started database of Trump, because we didn't want to be distracted from our core mission, which was writing these fact checks and using America as an entree to talk about difficult policy issues. And a lot of the things President Trump says are so wrong, that they can be easily fact checked in a couple of sentences. I mean, some of them are just bizarre.

So we said, Oh, we'll just have this database on the side. So we will, of course, fact check important things he says, but we'll also keep track of these other things. So we're not distracted. Unfortunately, it became an almost all consuming task, because you know, that his first year he was only saying six untruths a day. And we're now up. It's an average of 15 over the course of his presidency, but we're now up to 22 a day, in the last year, so it's become quite a burden and it's become as big a project as what we ordinarily do. which is fact check Joe Biden or fact check Mitch McConnell or fact check people like that, in addition to the president, who of course, we've been fact checking in a lot also, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Do you have any insight as to why he's telling more mistruths now than he was, let's say, two years ago?

Well, part of it has to do with how often he speaks, and tweets. Effectively he became his own press secretary, about a year into his term, year and a half into his term. And that's where we saw a real shift in the number of false claims because there was no longer a press secretary saying things. Now in the last few weeks, the new press secretary, his fourth, has started to hold a regular news conference and maybe that will reduce some of the pressure on Trump coming out talking to the media. I mean, he started to do it because he felt the others were not up to the task. And so, you know, they stopped giving press briefings and instead, Trump was doing it. But I should say they would never really, until you got to the coronavirus, news conferences. They were never really substantive news conferences. They were just Trump standing in front of a helicopter and batting away quickly, various queries, as opposed to a rigorous formal news conference where you know, the reporters stand up and they ask detailed questions. I mean, it used to be a way that presidents would kind of get their message out and deliver important policy prescriptions and also test how well their messaging is going because they'd be challenged by the press, and wouldn't happen every two to three weeks, even earlier in the days of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But he’s dispensed with that kind of normal basic news conference. And instead just would stand in front of the helicopter.

How often are the lies of the four Pinocchio nature, which is to say a bald faced lie as opposed to maybe a misstatement of fact, but essentially correct.

You mean for Trump versus opponents in general?

Well, I guess that's interesting. How about both?

As an example, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton or someone like that, or Ted Cruz…

A mainstream politician of the traditional mold.

Right, we fact checked Obama like 200 times, so, you know, I'm talking about people that we have fact checked regularly. Generally, it works out to end up with four Pinocchios about 15 to 20% of the time. In the case of Trump, it's about 65 to 70% of the time. He's just in a totally different realm. And the worst politician we ever had regularly checked before Trump was a Congresswoman from Minnesota, Michelle Bachmann and she earned four Pinocchios 30% of the time. So Trump is just in another status here.

We know from polling that more Americans, somewhere around 40%, support the president than trust the president when he says things, which is closer to about one out of three. What do you think that distinction exists?

It matches up with something else that we saw. At one point we did a poll where we tested whether or not Americans believed the false things that Trump was saying. So we did a very rigorous poll where we took 11 of his most frequently said false claims. We did not say it was Donald Trump. We just said, you know, which of these statements is true. And we'd have  either what Trump said or the opposite, and then ask people to pick the true one. And in that case, most Americans, including Trump supporters, picked the correct statement, not Trump's statement, they picked the correct statement true and disregarded the Trump statement. About 13 or 15 years ago, they had quizzed Democrats and Republicans and independents about whether or not it was important for a president to be honest and trustworthy. And 15 years ago, it was 70% of all stripes, no matter what political party said that it was important for a president to be honest and trustworthy. But when we asked the exact same question in a more recent poll, it was 70% for Democrats and independents. But for Republicans that had dropped to 49%. In other words, they knew Trump was not telling the truth, but they were kind of discounting that it was still important for them anymore. So I think it largely comes down to this partnership, where, you know, he's your guy, you're a Republican or a conservative, you like other things that he's doing, such as maybe the judges he's appointing, or things like that. And you've just decided that whether or not he tells the truth is just not that important to you anymore.

What do you think the effect on American politics and our democracy is of that erosion?

Well, long term, I don't think it's going to be good. One of the more disturbing aspects of Trump's presidency is that he has, you know, conducted, you know, a war against the news media. News media is supposed to provide dispassionate information about things that happened. Now, we don't always do a good job. Obviously we're human, we make mistakes. When we make mistakes, we correct them. Some people might argue, you know, on either side that there's a particular bias they don't like but in general, what we're supposed to do is provide: here's what happened. This is what happened yesterday. And Trump by saying the news media is the enemy of people, and things like that has really undermined Americans’ belief in the value of independent media. And in fact, it's particularly disturbing this week where you see police attacking reporters who are simply there filming things. I think that that kind of attitude towards the media comes from some of the president's rhetoric. One of the ways countries lose democratic traditions, it starts off in with attacks on the media as an independent arbiter. And what you have is then strongmen, saying no, don't believe what you read in the newspaper. I'm going to tell you what the real truth is. And that's a dangerous road to go down.

He obviously likes having your newspaper, The Washington Post and its owner Jeff Bezos, as a foil. Do you ever worry that this rigorous fact checking plays into his hands in some way? In that, you know, it gives him a punching bag?

We do the fact checks to inform people. What they do that information is up to them. And he seems unusually interested in our Pinocchios. I mean, we've documented about 20 times where he has talked about them, usually saying we're too nitpicky or something like that, but he also, you know, he's when we gave four Pinocchios to Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who was running the impeachment investigation, Trump couldn't stop talking about those Pinocchios. He brought them up constantly. Of course at one point he exaggerated, I think he said he got 10 Pinocchioss. He increased the number of Pinocchios.

The scale doesn't go that high.

He and his campaign are perfectly happy to cite our fact checks if it serves our purposes. So I’m kind of used to that happening.

Is there a particular topic or subject area where Trump usually tells the truth?

No, there is not one issue that I can think of that he has not exaggerated or told falsehoods. We go through a lot of these. In our book there's a chapter on how he talks about himself, often falsely. There's a chapter on how he talks about people that he dislikes where he's decided they are enemies. And we have lots of issue chapters on how he talks about economics or immigration foreign policy. We even have a current of coronavirus chapter and an impeachment chapter. And we also have a chapter on his Twitter feed, which is a vessel unto itself. I can't really think specifically of anything where he has consistently been accurate. I mean, it's unusual. He even exaggerates about things that are good things for him. Before the economy crashed, the economy was doing pretty well. But he would exaggerate the number of jobs created in his presidency by 600,000 routinely. Now, why would you do that when you already could say, I've got say 7 million jobs instead of, let's say, seven and a half million jobs. So it's just interesting.

He's not known as a policy wonk. I mean, we know he doesn't read the briefing book, and there's many examples. Is it possible that maybe he just doesn't know what's true?

Yeah, that's certainly in some of his comments are the result of ignorance, or it's really out of date. He's not bothered to understand new things. I mean, one of the things we're talking about is some of the weird things. He has a hatred of wind power, and he has a hatred of you know, he doesn't like the new light bulb standards and things like that. But when he talks about the light bulbs, he talks about old fluorescent light bulbs, which are rarely ever sold anymore. He seems unaware that that nowadays LED light bulbs, which actually work really well and give pretty decent light and last longer, and are less expensive than incandescent bulbs. And so he’s kind of stuck in a time warp from about 20 years ago. And you find that a lot of things so, I think that's a disturbing aspect of his character, which is where he doesn't absorb new information. A lot of his comments on trade, are really dated. And also ignorant, where he's been saying the same thing for 35 years and has never bothered to learn anything new or understand what might have changed in the interim. So you kind of hope that a political leader is, you know, willing to accept new information, be open to it, absorb it, adjust their policies in response to that information. But he instead is like perpetually stuck in kind of early 1980s mindset, I would say.

Do you think that there are times where it's sort of acceptable or understandable that a politician lies or misleads?

Well, I guess it depends on the situation. And I don't want to be categorical. I mean, you know, for instance, John F. Kennedy lied to the media to say he had a cold and had to head back to Washington. When he didn't have a cold, he had to head back to Washington because the Cuban Missile Crisis was brewing, and he had to meet with his top advisors to figure out what to do about that. So do you necessarily expect the president to say, oh, I've got to cut short my campaign trip because I got a crisis where they might they now have, you know, weapons that could destroy a major American city on an island 90 miles off the course of the U.S. It's understandable that Kennedy would not want to actually disclose that right away and think about it, and therefore he was forced to mislead.

But, you know, was it responsible of Nixon to lie about bombing Cambodia dropping tens of thousands of bombs in Cambodia and denying that he was doing it? Well, that's a policy lie. That's not acceptable. One of my favorite stories: One of our great presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, is now generally ranked in the top 10. He thought Gary Powers, who was a U2 pilot, had been shot down and killed over the Soviet Union. So he issued a statement saying that the U.S. did not have U2 flights or any such fights over the Soviet Union and this was a Soviet lie. And the Soviets were able to demonstrate that not only did they have a plane, but they had a live pilot. And Eisenhower regretted that deeply. And he later said that that was the biggest regret as president. He described exactly in those words. He said, that lie we told about Gary Powers. He thought for national security reasons, it was important to mislead but he did it based on incomplete information, whereas in the end, it would have been better to tell truth.

You're the The Washington Post going against the White House. These are two major, important institutions in America. Here at WAMC Radio, where I'm the news director, when we fact check local officials, local politicians, even elected officials in Congress in our coverage area, there can be retribution for that from press offices from time to time. I mean, politicians, let's face it, don't like being called out when they're misleading the public in some way. And they don't mind punishing news outlets with lack of access or a year in the wilderness or whatever. What advice do you have for newsrooms like ours, for how to fight through things like that?

Well, that's an interesting question. Certainly at the Washington Post, we have a bit of an advantage because generally people even if they get mad at us, feel like they want to always talk to us, though this particular White House…

You know, the Obama White House was terrified of getting Pinocchios. And so they worked very hard to try to convince us that they were right. The Trump White House waxes and wanes, and sometimes they engage, and sometimes they don't.  In the case of a smaller news organization, make sure you do is diligent and as fair a job as you can. And if you do, then you can be proud of your work. And if the people cut you off, well, that's their problem, not necessarily yours. You know, you have to feel good about what you did. And if you've provided a public service. It's important to do that. Back before I joined the Washington Post, There were some stories that I wrote where someone said, if you write that story, I'm never going to talk to you again. And in the end, I wrote the story. They didn't talk to me again. But I felt good about having written the story.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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