A gleeful Rush Limbaugh called it “the kind of press conference Republican voters have been dying to see for who knows how many years,” and it was certainly that. In an epic performance Tuesday, Donald Trump stood before the cameras and attacked the media with a literal vengeance, calling one individual reporter a sleaze and another “a real beauty” and berating the press in general for some 40 minutes as “unbelievably dishonest.”
And yes, conservatives who have longed for media that tell them what they want to hear, who have fumed for decades when their preferred version of reality is contradicted or challenged, were thrilled at the performance. Trump was venting not just his own frustrations but theirs as well; he was “telling it like it is,” and they just loved him for it.
But one small question, if I may: The phrase “telling it like it is” contains a strong commitment to the truth, does it not? It’s not “telling it like we wish it was,” or “telling it like it ought to be,” but “telling it how it actually is”. You can’t give someone credit for “telling it like it is” when they’re actually “telling it like it ain’t.” Or at least you shouldn’t, not if the truth is important to you.
So let’s explore:
Trump had claimed since January that he had personally given $1 million to veterans charities, part of a larger $6 million that he raised for those causes. He then repeated the claim for the next several months on national television, in speeches and in interviews, eager to spread the story of his own largess.
In fact, here’s the original Trump press release, describing the personal donation as a done deal and including a list of charities that were already pre-approved to receive the total of $6 million:
The fundraising claim served multiple functions for Trump. At the time, it gave him an excuse for ducking a Fox News debate, it highlighted his supposed wealth and it demonstrated his support for veterans, a cause dear to the heart of many Americans. And when questioned about it in the subsequent weeks and months, he and his campaign told the press repeatedly that the money had been donated and disbursed.
Yet money seemed to be missing; the numbers didn’t add up. When questioned, Trump and his campaign claimed the money had all been handed out to veterans groups. When the veterans groups in question were contacted, many said they hadn’t seen a dime of it. What was going on?
Reporters — including those at Fox News , at The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal — pressed the question, and for good reason. If a presidential candidate had repeatedly and publicly taken credit for a $1 million donation, but had never actually made that donation, then that would be legitimate news. Surely the American people ought to know that kind of thing about a person running for president, especially given the high public profile that Trump had given the pledge.
And what do you know? Trump had never actually made that donation. He took credit for it for months without actually coughing up the cash. He finally did make the donation last week, but only after the Washington Post published an expose confirming that Trump had flamboyantly written a check with his mouth but had failed to write one with his hand. In short, he was shamed into it.
The story about the additional funds contributed by others followed the same tortuous path. In the weeks immediately following the Trump fundraiser, some $3 million did make it to grateful veterans charities, but by late March the disbursement process just stopped, leaving almost $2 million unaccounted for. Investigations by the Associated Press and National Public Radio found that the remaining money wasn’t disbursed until just last week, again on the very day the Washington Post interviewed Trump about its fate.
Without media pressure, who knows what would have happened to it?
It was especially delicious to hear Trump “tell it like it is” Tuesday when he claimed that “I wanted to do this out of the goodness of my heart. I didn’t want to do this where the press is all involved … If we could, I wanted to keep it private because I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I wanna send money to the vets.”
No, nobody’s business. Juxtapose that with this, from January:
Part of Trump’s performance Tuesday was surely calculated bluster, designed to draw attention from the actual facts and focus it instead on the drama. But the anger? That was real. That was sincere. It was the anger of a man who had been caught in a rather large lie, and who didn’t like it much. How dare he, the great Mister Trump, be questioned! How dare he be held accountable for his own words and promises!
And if he’s elected president, he said Tuesday, we can expect a lot more of that attitude. That too was real and sincere.