The truthfulness of President Donald Trump and those surrounding him in the White House is and will continue to be a subject of intense media interest over the coming years. From Saturday’s falsehood-littered first media briefing to a meeting Monday night in which Trump insisted to lawmakers -- against all evidence -- that he had only lost the popular vote because millions of fraudulent votes were cast, the new administration has shown that it cares little about the literal truth of the information it gives the American public.
The mainstream media reaction has been palpably angry. In a remarkable series of tweets last night, The New York Times called out Trump and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer for a collection of untruths. On its front page Tuesday, the paper addressed the president’s claim about voter fraud with a headline that flatly said he was lying: “Meeting with Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie.”
So far, most of the new administration’s mendacity has been focused on things that appear to embarrass Trump. That includes things like his popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton or the acres of empty space on the National Mall during his inauguration and the countless empty seats along the route of the parade that followed.
But as the inauguration fades into the past, what will be really instructive about the future direction of the Trump administration is how it deals with a different kind of fact -- the ones that, unlike crowd size and whether the skies miraculously cleared as soon as Trump began his inaugural address, actually have an impact on the lives of the American people.
That’s what one reporter at Spicer’s Monday afternoon press briefing appeared to be trying to get at when she asked him “What is the average national unemployment rate?”
What many saw as a strange “gotcha” type query meant to catch Spicer out over a specific statistic, was really something else entirely. The official unemployment rate is currently 4.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but on the campaign trail, Trump frequently insisted that the official figures are fraudulent, insisting that the “real” rate could be as high as 42 percent.
The issue the question was trying to probe is whether or not the Trump administration is going to accept the assessment of economists and other experts when they do their best to gather hard evidence about the state of the country.
To his credit, Spicer gave a rough description of how the BLS looks at unemployment in the country, pointing out that the official rate is one of several measures that the agency takes “so that economists can view them and...look at different landscapes on...how to make economic policy.”
Without trying to defend Trump’s indefensible 42 percent claim, Spicer promised that in the White House, “[the] economic team is going to look at a multitude of statistics and drive economic policies.” However, Spicer also made it plain that when his boss thinks about things like unemployment and job creation, he is less focused on hard numbers than he is on what is, effectively, anecdotal evidence.
“[W]hen he sees people that are hurting, that haven't had wages lifted up, that are unemployed, that can't save for their kids’ future, that are having a trouble with their healthcare costs, that's what he really cares about,” Spicer said. He added, “Those are the kinds of things the president, he's not focused on statistics as much as he is on whether or not the American people are doing better as a whole.”
Spicer defended Trump’s focus on relatively trivial actions, like pressuring the Carrier company to preserve between 800 and 1,000 jobs in Indiana -- not even a rounding error in national employment numbers -- rather than focusing on the bigger picture.
“I think for too often in Washington, we get our heads wrapped around a number and a statistic,” Spicer continued. “And we look at and we forget the faces and the families and the businesses that are behind those numbers. And so, I think that's where his head's at, is trying to look at those people that come to his rallies, that have come to his event, that he's met with in person that are struggling and say, ‘Mr. Trump, I'm working as hard as I can. I'm working two jobs, I'm doing everything by the rules, and I keep getting screwed.’”
The thing is, the United States is a big country. Somebody’s always getting screwed somewhere. Somebody else is also getting really rich. But lots and lots of other people are muddling along somewhere in the middle. The chance that someone motivated enough by their own circumstances to come to a rally or to cut a politician a big check falls in that broad middle is probably a lot smaller than Trump and his team seem to want to admit.
Many people close to Trump have complained that the person who has the most influence over his decision-making is, frequently, the last person he spoke to. What the nation and the media will need to be vigilant about in the years ahead is the danger of federal policy guided more by anecdote and feeling than by provable facts and well-researched figures.