Lying, corruption, and the Presidential election

Let’s talk about lying.

In this endless, soul-abrading electoral season, accusations of lies and corruption and rampant dishonesty have been tossed back and forth like so many hand grenades. Both candidates are described by their enemies as being the biggest liars in the history of American politics. And corrupt beyond description. And completely untrustworthy. And so on.

And it can all be difficult to sort out. Who is trying to mislead us; what sources can be trusted. And, of course, we all want our President to be a basically honest person. And we also have to ruefully admit that none of us could withstand the kind of scrutiny to which a Presidential candidate is subjected. I think I’m a reasonably honest guy. But if everything I ever said ever about anything was carefully parsed by a national media just looking for inconsistencies and errors, I’d probably end up looking terrible.

So here are some ground rules that I think reasonable people can agree on.

First, in order to call a statement a lie, the person saying it has to know it isn’t true. There has to be a deliberate attempt to deceive. That’s why policy differences shouldn’t really inflated to ‘lies.’ I saw an internet meme the other day: ‘twenty Hillary Clinton lies.’ Eighteen of them were just statements of policy. Example: Hillary stated that her tax proposals will result in ‘x’ dollars in new tax revenue. ‘That’s a lie!’ this meme shrieked. But a policy estimate is not the same thing as a lie. I suppose it’s possible that an economic projection could be a lie. If you said “The Tax Policy Center says this proposal will reduce the deficit by x amount,” and the TPC had never vetted the proposal, and you knew that when you said it, okay, that’s a lie. But that kind of thing rarely happens. Even if your proposal is bonkers, you can probably find a think tank somewhere to praise it. To call someone a liar, you have to know that they said something untrue, that the knew it was it untrue when they said it, and that they said it with intent to deceive.

Second, to judge the veracity of some statement or another, you need to know where the information came from and if it’s a reliable source. So, for example, there’s a new book about Bill and Hillary Clinton, published by WND Books. It has Hillary acting in a particularly shrewish manner. A little research shows that WND Books is a rabid right-wing publisher, having published, among many other fine tomes, a book accusing President Obama of treason. The putative author of this book, Dolly Kyle, claims to have had a 33 year affair with Bill Clinton. No proof, just her word on it. Even then, the most damaging stories in the book, she admits, describe events she didn’t see, but heard about second or third hand. This book, in other words (and I’m not going to tell you the title), is a very poor source for information about the Clintons. In fact, it really has no credibility at all. (A tell-all book by some supposed intimate of Donald Trump, published by, say, The Daily Kos, wouldn’t be terribly reliable either). FWIW, I automatically discount any story that was ever reported, at all, by Matt Drudge, or that ever appeared in Breitbart.com. The Drudge Report and Breitbart are automatically suspect sources.

Third, when it comes to charges of corruption and wrong-doing, we have to have solid, unimpeachable evidence. For example, Hillary Clinton gave paid speeches for big New York investment banks. Does this automatically mean that she’s corrupt? For many people on both the Right and Left, the answer to that question is ‘yes.’ She took money from Wall Street. That makes her a corrupt tool of the system. But that doesn’t follow. Corruption is a serious charge. You have to prove it. You have to demonstrate some clear example of a quid pro quo. She took this money, and she did that for it. No one has found a single instance of this for Hillary.  By the same token, Donald Trump is a New York real estate developer. That industry has traditionally had ties to criminal enterprises. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is mobbed up. I want proof before I’ll believe it.

So with those ground rules in place, let’s look at some news stories that have become part of the Trump’s-a-crook, Hillary’s-crooked narratives.

Benghazi. “Hillary lied; people died.”

Well, no. First of all, there’s absolutely no connection whatsoever between whatever lies Secretary Clinton may have told and the tragic deaths of Ambassador Stevens and the three security personnel. Even if the nastiest right wing Benghazi narratives were true, Benghazi has been thoroughly investigated and adjudicated. About all that’s left is this: the day after the attacks, she met with the families of those who had died, and told them that the Benghazi attacks were the results of an anti-Islamic video. Was this a lie?

No, it absolutely was not. Hillary Clinton didn’t lie to anyone about Benghazi. Her information didn’t happen to be entirely accurate. But that doesn’t make it a lie.

September 11 2012 was a terrible day for the State Department. A vicious, anti-Muslim video, Innocence of Muslims, had been broadcast throughout the Middle East, leading to spontaneous, angry rioting in most major cities, usually outside US embassies. For awhile there, it looked like the US embassy in Cairo would be overrun. In that ‘fog of war’ context, the Benghazi attack must have looked like similar riots in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

In fact, Benghazi was a little different; it was a more carefully planned and executed attack, though the Benghazi attackers did say they were responding to the video. Secretary Clinton did tell the Benghazi families that the attack on the mission was a spontaneous anti-video uprising. Meanwhile, she sent an email to Chelsea (just a quick ‘this is what’s happening’ thing) saying the attack had been made by Al Qaeda. That wasn’t true either; the attack was made by the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia.

In other words, on a particularly confusing day, with contradictory intelligence arriving all the time, the Secretary provided the victims’ families with an explanation that reflected the noise and confusion of a particularly difficult day. It turned out not to be true. That doesn’t make it a lie. For her to have lied makes no sense anyway; what was there to gain by misleading those families? What possible reason could she have, aside from an imaginary natural predilection for malevolence. It was a terrorist attack, and it was organized, and it happened in response to the anti-Islamic video. That’s the essence of what she said about it, and what President Obama said about it the same day.

Okay. What about Trump? Did Donald Trump lie about sexually assaulting various women? It’s not looking good for him.

In the second debate, Trump said, unequivocally, that the actions he described in the famous ‘Billy Bush’ video did not describe anything he’d actually done. Ten women have now come forward with stories of being assaulted by him. In every case, they had corroborating evidence–usually involving friends they’d told of the attacks at the time they happened. So, yes, I think we can say he did lie in the debate.

What’s really remarkable about Donald Trump, though, is that he consistently denies having said things in the past that he clearly and obviously did say. It’s really bizarre. When we’ve seen him say things, it really doesn’t make sense to deny it.

To be fair, though, it’s also clear that Bill Clinton lied when he said he didn’t have sexual relations with Monica Lewinski. That was a lie. But Bill Clinton isn’t running for public office this year. And as far as I can tell, his wife is generally a very honest person. Allegations are not evidence, and she’s been investigated more thoroughly than most previous candidates. And found not guilty every time. And when you hear about the various Hillary lies she’s supposed to have told, they tend to vanish into thin air. She just isn’t much of a liar. Honestly, she isn’t.

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