For most of his life, Donald Trump has found words to be his friends. He has used them to build his business, dramatize his achievements and embellish his accomplishments. As important, he has used them to explain away his missteps and to paper over his problems. He built a 58-story building in glass and steel, but through his wordplay, it became 68 stories tall. He actually owns an 11,000-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, but in his telling, it's 33,000 square feet. Trump has used words extravagantly and cleverly to serve his ambition. He has called his method "truthful hyperbole," and oftentimes it is not even truthful. But it has worked — so far.
The White House understands the gravity of the allegation that President Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to end the Michael Flynn investigation. That's why the administration has vigorously denied the charge. And perhaps it's not true.
But the challenge for the administration is that in the court of public opinion, this is likely to turn into a case of "he said, he said" — unless there are, in fact, tapes. On the one side, you have James Comey, a distinguished civil servant with a history of speaking truth to power. While his critics feel that he has made several bad judgments over the last year, most people believe he is honest and sincere. On the other side, you have Donald Trump.
The Washington Post's reporters Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee describe Donald Trump as "the most fact-challenged politician" they have "ever encountered." They pointed out that, after having received a whopping 59 "Four Pinocchio" ratings during the campaign, Trump in his first 100 days made 492 "false or misleading claims," at an average of 4.9 a day. These fact checkers clarified that "those numbers obscure the fact that the pace and volume of the president's misstatements means that we cannot possibly keep up." By their count, there were only 10 days in the first 100 days where Trump did not make a false or misleading claim.
And his fibs are not over small matters. Prior to being elected, Trump claimed that Barack Obama was not born in America; that he met Vladimir Putin, who "could not have been nicer"; that he opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq "from the beginning"; that he watched Arabs in Jersey City cheer when the World Trade Center was attacked; that America's unemployment rate (just last year) might be as high as 42 percent; and that its murder rate was the highest in 45 years. Since his election, he has claimed that his electoral vote margin was larger than anyone's since Ronald Reagan, that China stopped manipulating its currency in response to his criticism, and that Obama had his Trump Tower phones tapped. Every one of these claims is categorically false, and yet Trump has never retracted one of them.
Trump's approach has never been to apologize because it wouldn't make sense to him. In his view, he wasn't fibbing. As his sometime rival and now friend Steve Wynn (the casino tycoon) put it, Trump's statements on virtually everything "have no relation to truth or fact." That's not really how Trump thinks of words. For him, words are performance art. It's what sounds right in the moment and gets him through the crisis. So when describing his economic policy to The Economist, he explained that he had just invented the term "prime the pump" a few days earlier. Never mind that the phrase was actually coined a century ago, has been used countless times since, and was in fact used by Trump repeatedly in the past year. At that moment, it seemed the right thing to say.
But Trump is now more than just a real estate developer, a franchise marketer, or a celebrity TV star. He is president, and he is dealing with matters of war and peace, law and justice. Words matter, and in a wholly different way than he has ever understood. They build national credibility, deter enemies, reassure allies, and execute the law. In high office, in public life, words are not so different from actions. They are everything.
It would be the ultimate irony if Donald Trump now faces a crisis in which his lifelong strength turns into a fatal weakness. His rich and checkered history of salesmanship, his exaggerations, fudges and falsehoods, leave him in a situation now where, even if he is right on this one, people will have a hard time believing that this one time Donald Trump is finally telling the truth.
Fareed Zakaria hosts CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," and makes regular appearances on shows such as ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet The Press." He has been an editor at large Time magazine since 2010, and spent 10 years overseeing Newsweek's foreign editions. He is a Washington Post (and internationally syndicated) columnist. He is author of "The Post-American World." For more of Fareed Zakaria's reports, Go Here Now.