I had to email the Boy Scouts to find out if the President had invented a nonexistent phone call from the head of the organization. (He had.)
I had to email a Babe Ruth museum to find out if the President had made a bunch of false claims about the baseball legend while awarding him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. (He had.)
I had to email some of Michigan’s most prominent organizations to find out if the President had actually received a state “Man of the Year” award he kept claiming he once got. (Nope.)
I fact checked every public word Donald Trump said or tweeted for just under four years. The job was unrelenting. The job was unrelentingly weird.
Lots of politicians lie as a means to an end – to wiggle out of a scandal or to inflate their policy accomplishments. Trump was willing to lie about everything, all the time, often for no obvious reason. This was lying as a way of life.
And it took over much of my own life.
How it started
I started counting Trump’s false claims in September 2016, late in his race against Hillary Clinton, when I was the Washington correspondent for my hometown newspaper, Canada’s Toronto Star. I started because I was frustrated by a gap in most US media coverage. Trump’s incessant dishonesty was barely being mentioned in news copy, let alone treated as what it was: a central story of that campaign.
So I thought I’d tweet out an occasional list of the false stuff Trump was saying. Then Michael Moore, the filmmaker, tweeted that I made a list “every single day.” I suddenly got thousands of eager new Twitter followers. And I thought: My God, I guess I need to do this every single day…
I thought Trump’s deception was bad then. It got much worse. In 2017, Trump averaged 2.9 false claims per day. By 2018, it was 8.3 false claims per day. What started as a side project I could handle in a few hours a week started requiring regular all-nighters. By the time I joined CNN in mid-2019, it required a second reporter, Tara Subramaniam.
Trump’s 2017 dishonesty tended to be impromptu ad-libbing. His 2018 dishonesty was much more scripted; he used serial lying as a deliberate strategy in the midterm elections. Then he used serial lying as a deliberate strategy in his 2019 Ukraine scandal. Then he used serial lying as a deliberate strategy in his response to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic – holding daily “briefings” so wildly dishonest that CNN needed me to go on TV right afterward to debunk the nonsense viewers had just heard.
People almost certainly died because of Trump’s Covid-19 lying. And people died at the Capitol because of Trump’s lying spree about the 2020 election. Though there was some solid absurdist comedy mixed into the President’s dishonesty repertoire – I couldn’t help but be entertained by his imaginary “sir” stories about burly blue-collar workers crying in his presence – there were always dark consequences, too.
One of them was anger at journalists. I received hundreds of hateful emails, thousands of irate tweets, one graphic death threat I felt compelled to report to police. For all the Twitter moms’ concerns about my mental health, though, the job was always much more tiring than traumatic. I was typing at home in pajama pants, not covering a war.
I lost my composure only once. Watching an early pandemic briefing in which Trump falsely assured Americans that the virus was under control, I choked up for a minute thinking of all the people who would probably die because of the President’s mendacity.
There was nothing to be done to stop him. Whether it was his consequential coronavirus lies or trivial lies like the Michigan Man of the Year fabrication, he kept lying no matter how many times fact checkers noted he was wrong. People kept asking me if the work felt pointless given his imperviousness to correction.
It never did. The point was never to change Trump’s own behavior.
I had three aims. One, to get readers and viewers the facts they were not getting from their president. Two, to show other journalists when the President was lying so they might incorporate that information into their own work. Three, to take a stand for truth – to declare that there was still such a thing as verifiable reality, no matter how hard Trump tried to erase it, and that we weren’t going to surrender, no matter how hard Trump tried to discredit us.
A daily routine
And so I stuck to a daily routine I could never have imagined before Trump launched his campaign.
I would roll over in bed, turn off my alarm, and open Twitter to see what lies the President of the United States might have told while I was sleeping. And then, because Trump lied about a staggering variety of topics, I would try to rapidly educate myself on stuff I had known nothing about – trade with China, or Obama-era veterans’ health care legislation, or hurricane forecasting.
The lying sometimes continued until I had gone to sleep. Every time I felt like I had caught up, Trump would lie about something new – while still keeping many of the old lies in regular rotation. When I started tweeting fact checks of Trump’s rally claims moments after he made them, admirers viewed this as a kind of magic trick. In truth, it was pretty easy. The President kept saying the same false stuff over and over.
It was, in sum, a lot. In September 2020, I had to abandon my effort to produce a comprehensive count of the false claims: Trump was doing so much lying during the campaign that I physically could not keep up. By then, I’d tallied about 9,000 false claims since September 2016.
Trump never lashed out at me that whole time. (He did block me on Twitter in 2017.) And unlike aides to other politicians I’ve fact checked, Trump’s White House underlings never got in touch to try to scold me or to spin me out of a finding that he had been inaccurate.
I thought this was telling.
Whatever the Trump officials said publicly, they likely knew, too, that Trump lied a whole lot. They also knew that, whatever some guy wrote for a Canadian paper or said on CNN, they could get his lies to his base unchallenged through social media and friendly outlets like Fox News, One America News and Breitbart.
Being honest with the audience
Maybe my most disturbing experience on this beat was a trip to Trump-friendly towns in Ohio in 2017. I went to ask his supporters whether they knew he was lying. A bunch of them didn’t. Even worse, a bunch of them did – and told me they liked the lying because it was agitating Washington elites like me.
I never got a good sense of how many Trump supporters were genuinely interested in the work of fact checkers, though I noted with interest that some of the Trump 2016 voters who switched to Joe Biden in 2020 mentioned his lying as a factor in their disenchantment. This sliver of the electorate aside, it has never been more obvious that a good chunk of the President’s base has either followed him or preceded him down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.
Frankly, I don’t know how to reach this hard-core bunch. But we should remember that it is a minority of the country, and we shouldn’t let its belief in lies deter us from our mission of truth-telling. Whether we’re covering Trump or Biden or any other politician, we need to be straight with our readers and viewers.
Media coverage of Trump has improved since the inadequate 2016 coverage prompted me to embark on this project. By 2020, some traditional outlets would at least occasionally use the word “lie” in their Trump coverage; some would at least occasionally write stories focusing on the dishonesty. To be frank, though, I think the coverage of the lying remained inadequate to the end.
Too often, coverage of flagrantly dishonest Trump speeches still mentioned the dishonesty in passing or not at all. Too often, coverage still quoted the President’s lies without explaining that they were wrong.
Telling people what is true and what is false is a core responsibility of every news reporter and every outlet. Pointing out a lie is objective reporting, not bias. And as interesting as all of this has been for me, fact checking should not be left to the designated fact checker.