When Donald Trump told a huge, bald-faced lie to NBC’s Today Show, he did it for a strategic purpose: to keep journalists from digging too deeply into his past and thus keep Americans from acquiring a clearer understanding of his lifelong conduct and character.
The move, on May 15—or about a million news cycles ago—is worth revisiting as the perfect illustration of how masterfully the presumptive Republican nominee has manipulated the conventions of news to confuse public perceptions, especially when it comes to his decades-long history of deceiving business partners, customers, employees, journalists, vendors and wives.
Indeed, the whole incident may well have been orchestrated by Trump in a smart political move to convert a crystal clear case of deception into a muddled question of whether he was a perpetrator or a victim of deceit.
The story begins with a 1991 audio tape that the Washington Post obtained last month from a source it will not identify, which turns out to be a crucial detail.
Trump’s distinctive, if younger, voice, cadence and speech patterns were clear on the 14-minute tape, which captured an interview People Magazine reporter Sue Carswell conducted 25 years ago with “John Miller,” supposedly a newly hired vice president of the Trump Organization.
In tacky detail, the freshly hired publicist told Carswell exactly what was on the mind of Donald Trump as he was divorcing his first wife after she learned of his years-long affair with Marla Maples, soon to be the second Mrs. Trump.
“He’s living with Marla and he’s got three other girlfriends,” Miller bragged on behalf of Trump.
Miller said he was fielding People Magazine’s questions because Trump was too busy with other matters, including dealing with brand-name beautiful women like Carla Bruni and Madonna, who was supposedly pestering Trump for a date.
Predictably, the audio obtained by the Post generated all sorts of news stories, not about Trump’s promiscuity or his simultaneously disrespecting his wife and mistress. The stories were about whose voice was on the tape.
“Some mysterious audio tapes surfaced today,” Scott Pelley, the CBS Evening News anchor, declared hours after the story broke on May 13. “The question is—is the voice on them Donald Trump.”
John Roberts, a Fox news senior correspondent, raised the same question, as if the facts were in dispute. Had these reporters and others engaged in a basic reportorial function, checking the clips, the story would have had a different tone.
Instead, the news theme—Trump or no Trump on the tape?—continued the next morning when NBC’s Today Show played a snippet of the audio.
Savannah Guthrie asked, “Is it you?” on the tape.
“No,” Trump said, “I don’t know anything about it. You’re telling me about it for the first time. And it doesn’t sound like my voice at all. I have many many people that are trying to imitate my voice and you can imagine that. And this sounds like one of the scams, one of the many scams.”
Guthrie then said the Washington Post reported that using a fake name “is something you did rather routinely, that you would call reporters and plant stories and say either you were John Miller or John Barron, but in fact it was actually you on the phone. Is that something you did with any regularity?”
That would have been a smart first question, as many people assume the facts in a question and then deliver self-damning answers. But Trump, a student of how reporters operate who’d just denied to Guthrie that the voice was his, did not bite.
“No, and it was not me on the phone—it was not me on the phone. And it doesn’t sound like me on the phone, I will tell you that, and it was not me on the phone.”
Back in 1991, People Magazine’s report on the interview took a mocking tone as it outed Trump as “John Miller.” Days later Trump called People and ’fessed up to his deception, which the magazine dutifully reported back then.
In federal court testimony before that, Trump admitted using the name “John Baron” when calling people supposedly on Trump’s behalf, as New York City newspapers reported at the time.
We can label what Trump told Guthrie a lie, a knowing deception, for two reasons.
First, in his emphatic Today Show denials, Trump left himself no escape hatch, such as saying he did not remember. Keep in mind that last fall Trump told voters he has “the world’s greatest memory.”
Second, Trump’s admission back in 1991 that he was Miller and Barron (or Baron) was unequivocal.
So what reasons would Trump have to go on national television show and tell such a blatant, easily proven lie?
For that we need to go back to the source of the tape obtained by The Washington Post. The paper won’t say who its source was but Carswell, the only other voice on the tape, told Fox’s Megyn Kelly that Trump was the source of the tape acquired by the Post.
Carswell said she did not release the recording. Indeed, if Carswell wanted to make news she could have sold a piece with her byline on it about the 1991 interview and Trump’s subsequent confession.
That Trump would put out a tape and then deny his voice is on it may seem bizarre to many people, but makes perfect sense to journalists. They are accustomed to publicists and defense lawyers dishing on their clients for strategic reasons. Especially in gossip and criminal matters, the most damaging or salacious news items are often planted by the person who appears to be the one damaged, but who is in fact trying to control the damage by muddying up otherwise clear waters.
For example, defense lawyers often leak damaging facts about their clients. They want to raise public doubts, influencing jury pools by shaping the news that potential jurors may hear, read or see.
Trump’s purpose became clear in his last few words to the Today Show’s Guthrie when he sought to discredit her questions.
“And when was this, 25 years ago?” Trump said. “You mean you are going so low as to talk about something that took place 25 years ago about whether I made a phone call… let’s get on to more current subjects.”
There you have the strategy behind the lie. Trump does not want reporters telling people about his past. If they must hear about it, he wants to confuse and dispute those stories.
Trump doesn’t want people to know he once went to bat for a major cocaine trafficker whose Ohio case landed, briefly and mysteriously, before a federal judge in New Jersey who is Trump’s sister. That the trafficker later ended up living in Trump Tower.
He doesn’t want people to know that he spoke up on behalf of a labor fixer and convicted felon and the investment banker for the brutal Scarfo crime family. About the mob-owned concrete company he did business with. The convicted felon he partnered with, and who stood next to him at the opening of the Trump SoHo Hotel. And on and on and on.
By attacking journalists as “going so low as to talk about something that took place 25 years ago” Trump is trying to hide his conduct even as he attacks his expected Democratic opponent for the misconduct of her husband two decades ago.
It’s a smart strategy only if journalists continue to fail to do their duty, which is to ferret out the facts that candidates would rather keep out of sight, and to make sense of things candidates would make too confusing to be judged.