One of my heroes in journalism, the late 20th Century muckraker I.F. Stone, is most famous for his dictum that all governments lie. Sadly, that's been true -- albeit in wildly varying degrees -- with all the U.S. presidents of my lifetime. The list includes Republicans like George W. Bush (the Iraq war, the African uranium caper) and Richard Nixon (pretty much everything) and Democrats like LBJ (Vietnam) and, yes, even the relatively scandal-free Barack Obama ("If you like your health insurance, you can keep it," even after evidence emerged to the contrary, and his promise of "the most transparent government"...not even close.) But none dared to launch what a certain German minister of propaganda (today you might call him a "chief strategist") once called The Big Lie -- a falsehood so outrageous and so without basis that it's almost futile to contradict in any conventional way.
But Donald Trump went there. Armed with his iPhone and his two thumbs, the president-elect -- who takes the oath of office in 54 days -- experienced a Twitter meltdown earlier this afternoon, and ultimately told a shocking Big Lie to the nation he plans to lead.
The cause? News that Jill Stein -- the Green Party presidential candidate -- has raised more than enough money to try to initiate recounts in the three Rust Belt battleground states that Trump narrowly won on Election Night to give him his seeming Electoral College majority, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Hillary Clinton campaign is not actively supporting the recount but will send legal observers.
This comes as Clinton's "bragging rights" in the nationwide popular vote, swelled by huge majorities in populous coastal states such as California and New York, grows toward an impressive 2.5 million votes. The mounting evidence that Trump is arriving at the White House as president without a popular mandate, rejected by nearly 54 percent of the electorate, seems to be eating at the president-elect. He launched a salvo of Twitter posts in the morning and afternoon, insisting that he could have also won the popular vote if he's campaigned in those coastal states, and then he said this:
This was, without question, the biggest lie that Trump has told since he started his unorthodox quest for the White House in the summer of 2015. Not that he hasn't said other bat-guano crazy stuff during that time, like his claims that thousands of Muslims were seen in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks or that Clinton wanted to admit "650 million" refugees into the United States. But those assorted lies and untruths -- and he typically told as many as 20-30 a day while campaigning -- did not carry the imprimatur of the American presidency. Now, the global financial markets, key international alliances, and the good name of the United States of America hang on every word that Trump speaks or writes.
Today, he wrote with a wanton disregard for the truth. He presented no evidence to back up this claim of millions of illegal votes -- which, if true, would be a scandal to dwarf Watergate, and would rock the foundation of American democracy. That's because there is no evidence of illegal voting beyond a tiny smattering of unrelated incidents, in an election with more than 130 million voters.
Here's a good rundown of various studies of voter fraud in the United States since the start of the 21st Century. It's hard to identify, from prosecutions and news accounts, more than three dozen such cases among hundreds of millions of voters -- an infinitesimal rate. In Pennsylvania, state officials pushing a voter ID law under a Republican governor were forced to admit in legal filings that they didn't know of a single case of fraud. But now our new leader claims to know of millions.
There's two very, very important things at stake here. First, and foremost, is that no matter what the propaganda ministers of the world believe, the Big Lie can be confronted head on. It must. It must be confronted immediately, confronted hard, and with all the facts that reality can muster. Donald Trump -- especially when (barring a miracle) he becomes president on January 20 -- simply cannot be allowed, by the media or by anyone committed to truth, to "gaslight" the American people, to cast a fog over the democratic process so thick that it will allow his authoritarian impulses to flourish.
Yet, at the same time, we must acknowledge something equally important, which is that Trump's Twitter temper tantrum can't be allowed to distract us -- wittingly or unwittingly -- from the things that the president-elect doesn't want us to focus on. This weekend, that list would have to be topped by the growing entanglement between Trump's looming presidency and his international business ambitions. Just as the short-fingered-vulgarian-in-chief was launching his tweetstorm on Sunday, the New York Times was casting new light on his massive business conflicts, with projects from Argentina to Turkey to the nation of Georgia now on the accelerated track, in tandem with Trump's political rise. It is a presidential conflict-of-interest that is unprecedented in U.S. history -- a remarkable story that struggles for oxygen amid Trump's toxic tweets.
This is the media's challenge -- to cover Trump's lies and yet not lose sight of the big picture either. To cover the most dangerous political figure in America's 240-year history with reckless abandon and yet with a sense of control.