Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency has presented problems for journalists the world over. But spare a thought for the people whose job it is to keep track of his lies: the Trump factcheckers.
Since taking office, the president has lied about everything from immigration figures to the number of burgers he served to the Clemson football team at the White House last week.
“It takes up a lot of our time just because he is constantly talking,” said Glenn Kessler, editor and chief writer of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column.
“The pace in Washington has changed. You could wake up and the president may have already had five or six tweets that cry out for fact checks.”
You could wake up and the president may have already had five or six tweets that cry out for fact checksGlenn Kessler
Kessler and the Washington Post responded by creating an ongoing database tracking Trump’s lies. But that comes with its own problems.
“It’s become an all-consuming task. In the month of October he said 1,200 things that were false or misleading. There’s some days where he’s topped more than 100 false or misleading claims.”
Indeed, according to the Fact Checker database, Trump has made 7,645 “false or misleading claims” since taking office. The most repeated lie – 187 times and counting – is that the Russia investigation is a “witch-hunt”, followed by Trump’s assertion, made 125 times, that his government passed “the biggest tax cuts in the history of our country”.
The president has also made 124 false claims about the US “losing” money to Mexico under the North America Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), and has claimed that the economy is the “greatest ever” 110 times.
“It’s exhausting,” said Linda Qiu, a fact check reporter for the New York Times.
“But the nice thing is President Trump repeats himself a lot. In that aspect it’s easier because it’s easy to factcheck.”
When Trump repeats one of his false claims, on employment for example – the president has overstated African American and Hispanic employment figures 94 times, according to the Washington Post database – Qiu said she is able to “resurface” fact checks she may have done a month before.
Qiu says she tries to watch everything Trump does. She will also read transcripts, and watch all the morning TV shows, and of course, read his numerous tweets.
The constant barrage takes its toll. Late nights and long weekends have become the norm among the political factchecking community. Qiu took a two-week vacation in April, and on her return Trump had churned out a new slew of untruths for her to catch up on.
The pace has been relentless since Trump’s victory.
“We haven’t had a break,” said Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org, the non-partisan site which aims to monitor and correct “deception and confusion” in politics.
The upside is that there is a clear demand for articles factchecking Trump. Since the partial government shutdown began on 22 December, through 13 January , FactCheck.org reported a 350% increase in page views compared with the previous year.
“I don’t want to write about Donald Trump every day. I would like to write about some other things. But it is what it is,” Kiely said.
Reporters have noticed another Trump trait: his tendency to make something up, then embellish his own lie each time he repeats it.
Qiu wrote about the phenomenon in the New York Times in December, noting how Trump had gone from announcing that United States Steel Corp was opening six new plants due to his policies. That was a lie, as was his later claim that US Steel was opening seven plants.
“The snowball effect of it has been pretty interesting,” Qiu said. Trump went on to claim US Steel was opening eight new plants, then nine.
Kiely agrees, and pointed to Trump’s attacks on Senator Richard Blumenthal.
“He started off saying [Blumental] lied about Vietnam, which was true, Blumenthal did make some inaccurate statements about his so-called service in Vietnam. He did not serve in Vietnam.
“Then that became this wild tale about him fighting in Vietnam saving people’s lives.”
Trump claimed Blumenthal had told stories of how “bullets whizzed” by his head in Vietnam, as well as “many battles of near death”. Blumenthal had never mentioned either of those.
It’s become an all-consuming task. In the month of October he said 1,200 things that were false or misleadingKessler
Speaking to these factcheckers, it is easy to detect a longing for a time when lies, mistruths and misdirections were more sophisticated, more tricky to unravel.
“The biggest challenge is it’s too easy to factcheck Trump,” Kessler said.
“It was more difficult to factcheck Obama because there was always a modicum of truth there,”.
“You ended up going way down in the weeds with officials who were highly knowledgable and wanted to defend their case. With Trump a lot of times the White House won’t defend what he’s saying because they have no defense.”
Qiu has her own memories of monitoring more subtle prevaricators during the 2016 presidential election.
“Someone like Ted Cruz had a lot more finesse and the factchecks would take longer because he was a much more skilled spinner,” she said.
Given Trump’s prolific rate of mistruths, a key part of the job is deciding what to call him out on. Qiu decided to ignore Trump’s claim that he had ordered “over 1,000” burgers for the Clemson football team, a claim which came just hours after the president said he had order 300 burgers. Kiely spoke of trying to avoid the “bright and shiny” lies in favor of focusing on policy issues.
Trump is probably the most famous liar in America. And covering him is arduous work. But the factchecking community could take some solace in that he appears to be unique in his ability to churn out falsehoods at such a pace.
“There’ve been some politicians that were fast and loose with the truth. But not like Trump,” Kessler said.
“And the ironic thing is 30 years ago I worked in New York covering finance. And he was exactly the same.
“Nothing has changed.”
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