It certainly was a big week for “alternative facts” coming out of the Trump administration. There were the emails revealing that HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his wife picked out the costly dining room set about which he earlier claimed “no awareness.” There was President Donald Trump’s insistence that California is “begging” for a border wall when the state is actually suing the administration over its plans. And then there was that campaign stop near Pittsburgh that produced dozens of lies and other questionable claims by the president, from his having revived the steel industry (impossible even if the tariffs have some impact since he just signed that measure) to getting a majority of the women’s vote in 2016 (only if you don’t count women of color who voted against him “bigly”).
But all those prevarications pale compared to the revelation that President Donald Trump insisted to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the U.S. runs a trade deficit with Canada when, in reality, he had absolutely no idea whether it did or not. But wait, that’s just the half of it. In a fundraising speech Wednesday in Missouri when all this came to light, Mr. Trump didn’t simply admit to his ignorance, he gloried in it, telling the crowd that he absolutely had no idea what he was talking about but simply wanted to contradict Prime Minister Trudeau because the U.S. has been “so stupid” about trade.
Now, let’s unpack that a little bit. The president was caught in his own version of man-splaining on a topic, trade, on which he has long claimed to have expertise. He admits he doesn’t know the basic facts about the U.S. trade balance with its closest ally and neighbor, a relationship he’s attacked by seeking to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement. And when he’s caught in this lie, he’s not the least bit ashamed, he’s actually proud. Otherwise, why would he be telling all this at a fundraiser? Because he thought it was shameful to claim knowledge he didn’t have? Not quite.
This one really is an impressive performance that has a little bit of everything — ignorance, narcissism, misguided diplomacy and a disdain for the truth. Oh, and the requisite tweet the next day contradicting what he had previously said. But it’s all normal for a president who thinks nothing of heaping alternative fact-y opprobrium on U.S. allies while giving our geopolitical foes the kid glove treatment. Theresa May should count herself fortunate the Trump administration was finally willing to condemn the use of a Russian nerve agent to attempt to kill a former spy and his daughter in Great Britain. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointed a finger at Russia only Wednesday, which was 10 days after the incident.
By traditional accounting, the U.S. runs a trade surplus with Canada. This is not a secret. But let’s look at this in the most sympathetic way possible. If you change the methodology slightly (to the way Canada calculates the trade balance, for instance), you can come up with a small deficit. Mr. Trump admits he wasn’t aware of this, of course, but let’s say he just wanted to use the claim as an ice-breaker, a negotiating ploy. But is lying a good way to negotiate? Business ethics experts (including presumably those at Mr. Trump’s alma mater of Wharton) say it’s never good to lie because a negotiator’s reputation is too valuable to be treated so lightly. Your word is your bond and all that.
Here’s the best we can do: Mr. Trudeau probably wasn’t surprised by any of this. That the current U.S. president would present an alternative reality or simply try to bluster his way through something about which he knows little is now a well-established behavior pattern — like attacking the media or bragging that he’s the best ever at something. Surely, world leaders know by know he’s what Americans call a bull hockey artist (in slightly less delicate terms). And he sure is proud of it, too. Mr. Trudeau likely saw this line of attack coming, knew he had to ignore it and did. No harm, no foul, right? Unless, of course, you are the kind of eternal optimist who holds out hope that a face-to-face meeting between Mr. Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might lead to nuclear disarmament on the Korea peninsula. Maybe at high-stakes moments like that a little bit of credibility would come in handy.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.