Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
From tapped wires to paid protesters to big-league crowds.
Welcome back to Can’t Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking back at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.
As Donald Trump himself has pointed out, this whole first 100 days thing is a "ridiculous standard" for measuring success. He’s right, of course: The hundred-day mark, which lands on Saturday, is premised on a meaningless number that humans only care about because the base ten counting system is rooted in the number of digits a primate has on its hands (exhales).
His first 100 days as president would only be worth mentioning if Trump had ever issued some kind of signed document that he referred to as "my 100-day action plan to Make America Great Again," featuring 60 measurable promises, or if he had created a "First 100 Days" section on the White House website, touting "bold action to restore prosperity, keep Americans safe and secure, and hold government accountable." If he did those things, trying to diminish the importance of his first 100 days would be disingenuous at best, or dishonest at worst.
"Disingenuous at best, or dishonest at worst" is practically Trump’s motto, of course, right up there with "don’t pay contractors" and "I did try and fuck her. She was married." For most of his public life, he’s been an unreliable source of information—in fact, he’s actually been a pretty reliable source of bad information about things with serious consequences. For instance, when talking about his real estate seminar, he said, "success. It’s going to happen to you," but that school was actually a scam. Then there was the time he claimed that an "’extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud." But it wasn’t. And this other time, he claimed that on 9/11, he had "watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down," and that wasn’t true either.
It’s exasperating at times trying to hold Donald Trump to some sort of standard of honesty when A) he doesn’t seem to care, and B) he has adopted the term "fake news" and weaponized it against organizations that criticize him. Trump’s fake news label occasionally gets slapped on examples of bias or error that he’s right to criticize. But usually Trump just pulls the term out of his ass to escape from reality. So as part of the continued effort to push back against that rhetorical slippage, here’s some of the actual fake news Trump has unleashed on the world during the 100 days he’s been President.
His inaugural crowd was the biggest ever
There’s not much left to say about this. Trump promised "unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout" at his inauguration. The odds were always against that, given that Trump lost the popular vote and the inauguration was being held in deep-blue Washington DC, far away from most of his supporters.
It’s possible that the timing of the viral photos that circulated on inauguration day may have made for Twitter-friendly sight gags that overstated the difference in attendance, but that doesn’t change the fact that all available metrics say Trump’s crowd was smaller than Obama’s in 2009. Still, Trump could have just moved on, and crossed "biggest inauguration audience ever" off the list of possible human achievements he can claim—getting elected president at all is pretty good on its own, right?
Instead, at the first White House press conference of Trump’s young presidency, his shiny new press secretary, Sean Spicer, had to devote much of his time at the podium to claims that Trump’s had been "the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period." Then, when that was quickly debunked, Spicer spent days refining his attempt to wrongly paint the Trump inauguration as the most-watched of all time, mostly by cherry-picking data.
On January 23, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway gave a jaw-dropping interview to Chuck Todd saying team Trump hadn’t been providing falsehoods, but "alternative facts." Conway’s Orwellian slip of the tongue was a fitting kickoff to life in Trump’s America.
There was significant voter fraud during the election
On January 23, Trump revived an idea he first tweeted shortly after the election: that his election win would have been even winnier if millions of people hadn’t voted illegally. In a private meeting with Congressional leadership, he "claimed without evidence"—newspaper-speak for "probably a lie"—that 3 to 5 million undocumented immigrants had cost him the popular vote. Two days later, Trump tweeted that he would try and devote government resources to investigating voter fraud.
For many years now, right-wing activists have spent a great deal of time trying to prove the assertion that voter fraud is a massive problem in the US. You, the person reading this, may be part of the almost half of Americans who believe in their hearts that election fraud is a problem in the US.
The revived right-wing fury over fraud at the polls led to new crackdowns on voter fraud, like Arizona’s. And there are new voter ID laws now, like the one in Iowa.
But did Trump’s actual investigation reveal widespread fraud, leading to his humiliating popular vote defeat by Hillary Clinton? No one knows, because that investigation never happened. But state-wide investigations have turned up nearly no fraud—just dozens, or possibly hundreds of instances. In an election involving almost 140 million ballots, that’s pretty slim.
Sinister liberal imposters have been infiltrating town halls in red districts
On one hand, Trump’s February 21 tweet is sorta right: Liberal groups were very much part of a groundswell of anti-Trump fury directed at lawmakers in February when they held events in their home districts. But calling them "so-called angry crowds" paints them as insincere. And saying the events are "planned out" makes them sound underhanded. When the conservative media ran with the story, it became a minor conspiracy theory: Liberal "plants" were ostensibly showing up and conducting a misinformation campaign at what should have been conservative town halls.
Republican lawmakers, mind you, are supposed represent their entire constituencies, not just the people who voted for them. So when a group like the Michigan People’s Campaign shows up to express anti-Trump sentiment at an event in Detroit held by a Republican representative, that’s not an evil campaign of misinformation from George Soros. That’s just what democracy looks like (sorry).
People are being paid to protest Trump
Along similar lines, Trump would have you believe the protesters who showed up on tax day to demand his tax returns were "paid for." This goes back to something Trump told 60 Minutes in November about the people at anti-Trump demonstrations being "professional protesters."
This is a popular accusation in Conspiracy Land. A post on Infowars for instance, claims to have "proof" that anti-Trump protesters have been "utilizing paid protesters financed by George Soros." What it actually shows is that a liberal organization is hiring organizers. It’s normal for an organization—the National Right to Life, for instance—to fundraise, and then use that money to organize a demonstration—the March for Life, for instance. It doesn’t mean the people participating in a demonstration don’t believe the stuff on their signs.
The narrator of the video embedded in the Infowars post wants to know why Hillary Clinton won’t "command her SJWs to stop protesting" now that she’s lost. To Trump and his fans, it’s taken as an article of faith that no one would, in their heart of hearts, dislike Trump’s policies enough to protest for free. This type of astroturfing is probably familiar to Trump, who appears to have planted supporters at presidential speaking engagements.
The Federal Elections Commission investigated Trump for paying actors to cheer at a campaign event in 2015, but they stopped investigating the matter because, not because the accusation was false, necessarily, but because Trump isn’t alleged to have spent very much money.
Obama wiretapped Trump’s Campaign
After Trump tweeted on March 4 that President Obama had his "’wires tapped’ in Trump Tower" during the campaign, the Trump administration and other officials bent over backwards trying to retcon Trump’s assertion into something true. Or if it couldn’t be "true," something adjacent to a concept with a drop of truth in it. Or if it couldn’t be a drop of "truth" per se, a drop of truth-flavored falsehood.
FBI director James Comey almost immediately asked the Justice Department to refute Trump’s accusation. So then Conway tried to backpedal away from the whole idea of wiretapping—the surveillance state has many tools, she said, including smart microwaves. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, concluded that there’d been no wiretap. Then Trump himself walked back the claim that there’d been a wiretap, pointing out that "wires tapped" was in quotes in the tweet, whatever that means. Then Spicer quoted Fox News talking head "Judge" Andrew Napolitano, who said the surveillance was carried out by British intelligence, but the British called that claim "utterly ridiculous."
Then Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee received a tip from a source that appears to have been the White House itself telling him that the deep state had conducted surveillance on members of the Trump transition team (though not his campaign) when they were communicating with targets of surveillance overseas. But there’s nothing startling about that if you know how the US surveillance state works. "What would truly be ‘startling,’" wrote Jon Schwarz of the Intercept, "would be if the US intelligence apparatus hadn’t picked up many Trump staffers speaking with foreign targets of surveillance."
In other words, Trump’s claim that "Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory" was not true, or based on anything remotely true.
But the effort more or less succeeded, since, according to a CBS poll, 74 percent of Republicans believe Trump’s utterly false claim.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.