There’s no question that Donald Trump is the most flagrantly, compulsively, and voluminously dishonest president in American history — which is saying something, given the competition. He’s probably told 27 more lies during the time it took you to read this one sentence.
But as preposterous as it sounds, there’s a case to be made that he’s simultaneously America’s most honest president. Every now and then, in the midst of his unending eruption of prevarication, Trump will blurt out the truth about the United States in a way that no normal politician ever has.
Most recently, when asked whether he would consider sanctioning Saudi Arabia for its Mafia-like murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump was hesitant. Why? “Because they are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it. … Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon … I don’t wanna lose an order like that.”
Getting the Saudis to gift as much of their oil profits as possible to the U.S., particularly when it boosts large defense contractors, has been a priority of every president since World War II. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the chairs of Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, and Standard of California — that is, the four American corporations engaged with the Saudi state oil company Aramco — wrote to then-President Richard Nixon. If the U.S. was seen to be openly supporting Israel, they warned, “the whole position of the United States in the Middle East is on the way to being seriously impaired, with Japanese, European, and perhaps Russian interests largely supplanting United States presence in the area.” Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger obediently arranged for American arms to be shipped to Israel as inconspicuously as possible.
Indeed, the money that flows to U.S. multinationals due to our relationship with the Saudis may be a key reason that America has been able to run huge trade deficits for decades without damage to our economy.
But that’s not the kind of thing any standard-issue, high-level politician can say. Prior to Trump, Americans could only get this kind of honesty from fiction, as in the famous diatribe by the chair of a huge conglomerate in “Network”:
The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! … There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon!
And Trump’s Saudi comments are just a sampling of his startling truth-telling. Other examples include:
- During a 2016 Republican presidential debate, Trump said, “Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. … We should have never been in Iraq. … They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction.” At the time, this seemed like standing up in the Vatican and declaring that the whole concept of the holy trinity is stupid. But it turned out that GOP voters weren’t bothered by Trump’s reckless accuracy.
Furthermore, just before the 2016 election, Trump declared that America had “wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death, and more suffering — imagine if that money had been spent at home. … We’ve spent $6 trillion, lost thousands of lives. You could say hundreds of thousands of lives, because look at the other side also.” All of this was true (with the slight caveat that while the wars will eventually cost at least $6 trillion, we haven’t paid out all of that money yet). Trump’s reference to the huge number of foreigners our wars have killed, and implication that their deaths were a bad thing, was particularly unpresidential.
- During the 2016 campaign, Trump referenced the strong possibility that factions of the Saudi royal family were complicit in the 9/11 attacks — in the context of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. “Who blew up the World Trade Center? It wasn’t the Iraqis. … Take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents,” he said on “Fox & Friends.”
Yet more strangely for a Republican, Trump also acknowledged that George W. Bush was president in 2001 and might bear responsibility for what happened. “The CIA said there was a lot of information that something like that was going to happen,” Trump said during a CBS interview in February 2016. “Could he have done something about it? Well, his CIA said they knew about things happening.”
- Trump has even been honest about America’s overall history. When Bill O’Reilly demanded to know what Trump thought about Vladimir Putin being a killer, Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” On an earlier occasion when asked about Putin, Trump similarly remarked that “I think our country does plenty of killing also.”
- Trump has also told the truth about money in politics, from the unusual position of someone with the personal experience of purchasing politicians. In a 2015 speech about Jeb Bush’s Super PAC, Trump explained, “He raises 100 million, so what does 100 million mean? A hundred million means he’s doing favors for so many people. It means lobbyists. It means special interests. It means donors. Who knows it better than me? I give to everybody. They do whatever I want.” Then, as the other Republican candidates supplicated themselves before varied billionaires, Charles and David Koch in particular, Trump repeatedly and honestly referred to them as puppets.
I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2015
I turned down a meeting with Charles and David Koch. Much better for them to meet with the puppets of politics, they will do much better!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2016
- Trump even specifically called out pharmaceutical and defense corporations for ripping off U.S. taxpayers because “they have a fantastic lobby. They take care of all of the senators, the congressmen. They have great power.”
- According to “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl, Trump told her off-air that he attacks the press strategically: “He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.’” Interestingly, Trump understands the media well enough that he correctly felt he could tell the truth to Stahl without repercussions. Stahl didn’t mention this in public for almost two years. When she did so, it wasn’t on TV, and she didn’t reference this when she interviewed Trump on “60 Minutes” again in this past October.
- In a CNN interview just before the 2008 election, Trump said this about Nancy Pelosi: “When she first got in and was named Speaker, I met her. And I’m very impressed by her. … I like her a lot. But I was surprised that she didn’t do more in terms of Bush and going after Bush. … It just seemed like she was going to really look to impeach Bush and get him out of office, which, personally, I think would have been a wonderful thing, [impeaching him] for the [Iraq] war. … He got us into the war with lies.” This was true: It would have been a wonderful thing for the Democrats to impeach Bush, and it’s disappointing that they didn’t.
- Trump’s 2016 nickname for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was “Lyin’ Ted.” Cruz is indeed a huge liar.
Of course, telling the truth on all these matters has never caused Trump to behave differently from a standard U.S. president. We will still support the Saudis, no matter how gruesome their behavior in 2001 or 2018. We are still in Iraq and Afghanistan for the indeterminate future. We’ll keep on un-innocently killing people around the world. Trump is eagerly turning himself into a puppet for GOP billionaires, big pharma, and defense contractors. He’ll keep on talking about “fake news.” And Ted Cruz has been transformed, in Trump’s estimation, from “Lyin’ Ted” into “Beautiful Ted.”
But there should be a hopeful lesson here for any politicians considering whether they should risk telling the truth. Trump has broken every taboo in U.S. politics, including the bad ones. It turns out you can be honest on the most sensitive topics and the heavens won’t collapse upon you. Regular Americans actually don’t mind and will still vote for and support you. Leaders who want to tell the truth in hopes of changing the world can rationally give it a shot and see what happens. As we say grace this Thanksgiving, we should consider giving thanks for this unexpected but real forward progress.