Politics & Policy

Trump’s Strange Beliefs

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, April 25, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Just how much does the president buy into conspiracy theories?

Does President Trump believe everything he says?

If not, we can shrug off some recent tales reportedly told by the president of the United States. If so . . . there’s good reason to wonder if the stress of the office is starting to weigh on Trump’s judgment.

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman is one of Trump’s favorite reporters — he grants her interviews frequently. She recently reported that Trump is making an assertion that is uncomfortably close to insisting two plus two equals five:

But in January, shortly before his inauguration, Mr. Trump told a Republican senator that he wanted to investigate the recording that had him boasting about grabbing women’s genitals.

“We don’t think that was my voice,” Mr. Trump told the senator, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Since then, Mr. Trump has continued to suggest that the tape that nearly upended his campaign was not actually him, according to three people close to the president.

It’s really odd for Trump to claim that the exchange never happened nearly a year after he apologized for making the remarks, declaring, “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”

In a similar reversal, Trump apparently no longer believes this statement he himself made last summer: “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.” Haberman and Jonathan Martin report that the president “has used closed-door conversations to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.”

Trump logged on to Twitter Wednesday morning and dredged up a long-debunked, long-forgotten false claim against MSNBC host Joe Scarborough:

So now that Matt Lauer is gone when will the Fake News practitioners at NBC be terminating the contract of Phil Griffin? And will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the “unsolved mystery” that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!

The so-called unsolved mystery was indeed thoroughly investigated. Lori Klausutis passed away in 2001 while working as an intern in one of the district offices of then–Florida congressman Joe Scarborough. The medical examiner determined that she had lost consciousness because of an abnormal heart rhythm and had fallen, hitting her head on a desk, and the head injury caused the death. No one has ever presented any plausible evidence to suggest that Scarborough had anything to do with Klausutis’s death or that there was any foul play.

Does Trump really believe that Scarborough killed that young woman? If so, it did not prevent him from appearing on Scarborough’s show several times.

There a plausible argument that these recent comments are just par for the course with Trump, never a disciplined speaker and always eager to use any claim available against those he perceives as enemies. How many times in the past three years have you heard some variation of, “Oh, you won’t believe the crazy thing Trump just said?” After a while, the unbelievable gets pretty believable — maybe even boring. For decades, Trump’s public persona was built on over-the-top boasts, insults, and not-quite-plausible claims. He didn’t change much as a person when he became a presidential candidate and then a president.

But sometimes Trump has effectively insisted two plus two equals five. In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were accused of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park. Considerable public outrage surrounded the trial of the “Central Park Five,” and juries convicted the young men. But then, in 2002, a serial rapist in prison confessed to raping the jogger, and DNA evidence confirmed his guilt. The convictions of the five teens were vacated in 2002, and the district attorney withdrew the charges.

In October 2016 interview with CNN, Trump insisted that the DNA evidence was irrelevant and that guilty perpetrators had been set free:

They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.

The man responsible for selecting federal judges apparently believes that allegedly-coerced confessions are more compelling and persuasive evidence than biological evidence studied at the genetic level.

A nutty belief or theory expressed in private is pretty harmless. Putting it out on Twitter is more troubling, and what’s most concerning — what the president’s staffers and the American people must guard against — is the possibility that these implausible beliefs are influencing the president’s decision-making.

Strange or unverified beliefs are pretty common among Americans. Roughly half of Americans believe in ghosts or that the earth has been visited by aliens, about 60 percent of Americans believe that the lost civilization of Atlantis existed, and about 20 percent believe that Bigfoot is a real creature. One could argue that presidents are entitled to a few strange beliefs of their own. John Quincy Adams believed that the earth was hollow, and he approved an expedition to its center; Nancy Reagan famously put great faith in astrology; both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter believed they saw UFOs; and Theodore Roosevelt claimed he saw Abraham Lincoln’s ghost in the White House.

A little while back, Ben Domenech asked his Twitter followers, “What’s the conspiracy theory you deep down think might be true?” The answers were a mix of familiar — JFK’s assassination, TWA Flight 800, referees fixing ballgames — and then some hilarious, bizarre, and occasionally strangely plausible offerings: Alex Jones is secretly a project to discredit conspiracy theorists, Stevie Wonder isn’t really blind, and NBA superstar Michael Jordan accepted a deal to suddenly retire and briefly pursued a baseball career to avoid a suspension for gambling.

The key question is, When does a belief in an unsupported theory begin to affect one’s duties and responsibilities?

Chances are, your belief in conspiracy theories, ghosts, or Atlantis doesn’t really interfere with your ability to do your job well. If you’re an auto mechanic, the carburetor is still fixed the same way whether you think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or not. But a conspiracy theorist in the role of, say, a federal prosecutor or doctor could unleash some dire consequences.

The key question is, When does a belief in an unsupported theory begin to affect one’s duties and responsibilities?

Americans have to hope that Trump is just shooting his mouth off and doesn’t actually believe that his predecessor was a secret infiltrator from Kenya, that his voice was mimicked on the Access Hollywood tape, and that MSNBC’s morning show is hosted by a modern-day Jack the Ripper. If the president really thinks those things, then invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment doesn’t seem so unthinkable.

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