By David K. Shipler
If you lie to your children, they will learn to lie to you. If you lie to your spouse, you will create a family culture of falsehood in which he or she will, unless strongly honest, lie to you as well. If you lie to your employees, don’t expect them to pass uncomfortable truths up the chain of command. And if, as president, you lie to the country and perhaps to your staff, many of them will breathe the miasma of fabrication that emanates from the top, and will surely assume that lying is an acceptable way of life in the White House.
So President Trump’s dismissal of Michael Flynn for lying is like a projection of Trump’s own personality flaw onto his subordinate. It is worth noting that this happened only when the Flynn offense became public, courtesy of the “dishonest” Washington Post, which Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he hadn’t seen—a lie in itself, given that he’d been told two weeks earlier by the Justice Department about the contents of wiretapped conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.
Does anyone think that the then president-elect did not authorize those conversations, that Flynn just flew solo without consulting with Trump? Is it possible that Trump ordered, or at least approved, Flynn’s discussing the post-Ukraine sanctions with the ambassador, perhaps obliquely suggesting that they could be eased by the incoming administration? Then, in the poisonous atmosphere of the West Wing after the inauguration, might Trump have wanted the substance of those discussions held closely, even from Vice President Mike Pence, who is no Russia fan? So, was Flynn just following his boss’s wishes in telling Pence that sanctions had not been discussed?
And by the way, shouldn’t the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency know that the Russian ambassador’s phone calls are monitored by the National Security Agency? Did Flynn figure on Trump’s having his back if transcripts were ever leaked? Note that the day after asking for Flynn’s resignation, Trump called him “a wonderful man” who was treated unfairly by the “fake media” and outed by leakers who committed a crime.
You see, Mr. President, this is what compulsive lying at the top leads to. Everything down below begins to look like a lie as well.
Did Trump ever stop to wonder why President Vladimir Putin refrained from the usual tit-for-tat after the Obama administration punished Moscow for allegedly hacking Democratic emails? Thirty-five Russian intelligence agents were expelled; normally, in retaliation, a similar contingent of American agents in Russia would have been sent packing. Trump credited Putin with being smart for not doing so. It now looks more like a quid pro quo. But we are asked to believe that the Deal-Maker-in-Chief was entirely unaware of the deal.
Flynn came to the post of national security adviser with a reputation for peddling distortions, sardonically called “Flynn facts” while he was head of the DIA. Had Trump not heard the term, or didn’t he care? Did Trump admire Flynn’s ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, reckless mismanagement, and zealous infighting? Evidently. But lying was the cardinal sin.
No, not lying, exactly, for Trump doesn’t mind lying to the American public. It’s his modus operandi. Pence doesn’t mind either, although he doesn’t do it with a bludgeon, like Trump, but with a slippery sheen. Here we enter a moral labyrinth: Apparently, lying is OK if you know you’re lying. Being lied to is something else. And if you lie in public while thinking that you’re telling the truth, because you’ve been lied to and don’t realize it, that’s outrageous and unforgivable. Pence claims to have been told by Flynn that sanctions had not been discussed, so Pence told the lie to the public, only to have the lie exposed by intelligence agencies’ transcripts of phone conversations. The only thing worse than lying or being lied to, it seems, is getting caught.
This incident is like a little fable demonstrating, once again, that it’s often the cover-up that gets you in more trouble than the offense itself. So it was with Nixon’s covering up his operatives’ break-in at the Democratic offices in Watergate. So it was with Bill Clinton’s denial—under oath—of his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Here, too, Flynn probably would have survived if he had simply acknowledged that he had tried to defuse an escalating spat with Russia. Perhaps he violated the never-enforced 1799 Logan Act’s prohibition on private citizens contacting foreign officials and undermining US foreign policy, but he would have gotten away with it.
Among the many aspects of human nature that Trump does not understand is the immense influence of a leader’s morality on the values of those who serve him. His ethical blindness in mixing his private business with his governmental role is an example, as the head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub, observed in early January. In criticizing Trump’s refusal to divest from his assets, Shaub declared, “Officials in any administration need their president to show ethics matters, not only through words but through deeds.” He noted that other officials would be held to account on such matters, and asked, “Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?”
Trump is modeling noxious behavior to his subordinates, who could run afoul of the law if they mirror his indifference to conflict of interest and corruption. In the area of truth-telling, too, he seems destined to warp the bureaucracy and receive falsely upbeat reports from those who want to curry favor or keep their jobs. That is what happened in the Soviet Union, a good-news system where displeasing facts were filtered out at lower levels, producing a leadership remote from grassroots reality.
Even in the open American system, where robust debate is essential to wise policymaking, Trump has already shown a desire to discourage internal dissent. When about a thousand State Department officials signed a complaint through the department’s official channel about Trump’s immigration ban, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “They should either get with the program, or they can go.” Contrast that with former Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to meet with those who criticized Obama’s hands-off strategy in Syria.
Disagreement is essential to good government, and a president who models lying damages his ability to get reliable information from the vast bureaucracies he manages. Only at their peril will officials down below be honest with him. In promoting the virtue of the lie, therefore, Trump seems destined to isolate himself from expertise and make ill-considered decisions. In so doing he lays the groundwork for the failure of his presidency.