The assault on truth began on Inauguration Day 2017 almost immediately after President Donald Trump took power and uttered his first words.
He overstated the “carnage” he was inheriting, then later exaggerated his “massive” crowd and claimed, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that it had not rained during his address. He repeated the rain claim the next day, along with the fabricated notion that he held the “all-time record” for appearing on the cover of Time magazine.
And so it went, day after day, week after week, claim after claim, from the most mundane of topics to the most pressing issues.
Over time, Trump unleashed his falsehoods with increasing frequency and ferocity, often by the scores in a single campaign speech or tweetstorm. What began as a relative trickle of misrepresentations, including 10 on his first day and five on the second, built into a torrent through Trump’s final days as he frenetically spread wild theories that the coronavirus pandemic would disappear “like a miracle” and that the presidential election had been stolen – the claim that inspired Trump supporters to attack Congress on Jan. 6 and prompted his second impeachment.
The final tally of Trump’s presidency: 30,573 false or misleading claims – with nearly half coming in his final year.
For more than 10 years, The Fact Checker has assessed the accuracy of claims made by politicians in both parties, and that practice will continue. But Trump, with his unusually flagrant disregard for facts, posed a new challenge, as so many of his claims did not merit full-fledged fact checks. What started as a weekly feature – “What Trump got wrong on Twitter this week” – turned into a project for Trump’s first 100 days. Then, in response to reader requests, the Trump database was maintained for four years, despite the increasing burden of keeping it up.
The database became an untruth tracker for the ages, widely cited around the world as a measuring stick of Trump’s presidency – and as of noon Wednesday it was officially retired.
Whether such a tracker will be necessary for future presidents is unclear. Nonetheless, the impact of Trump’s rhetoric may reverberate for years.
“As a result of Trump’s constant lying through the presidential megaphone, more Americans are skeptical of genuine facts than ever before,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said.
An assessment of the Fact Checker database shows the dramatic escalation in the rate of Trump’s dishonesty over time. Trump averaged about six claims a day in his first year as president, 16 claims day in his second year, 22 claims day in his third year – and 39 claims a day in his final year. Put another way, it took him 27 months to reach 10,000 claims and another 14 months to reach 20,000. He then exceeded the 30,000 mark less than five months later.
Trump made false claims about just about everything, big and small, so the Fact Checker database provides a window into his obsessions (and the news cycle) at the time. When Trump felt under siege or in trouble, he responded by trying to craft an alternative reality for his supporters – and to viciously attack his foes. Nearly half of the false claims were communicated at his campaign rallies or via his now-suspended Twitter account.
Claims about immigration spiked just before the 2018 midterm elections, as Trump unsuccessfully tried to keep the House of Representatives in GOP hands with exaggerated claims about “caravans” of undocumented immigrants approaching the border. Then in late 2019 he responded to the uproar over a phone call in which he urged Ukraine’s president to announce an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden with more than 1,000 false and misleading claims on the issue in just four months.
False and misleading claims about the coronavirus pandemic emerged in 2020, so that by year’s end he had made more than 2,500 cornavirus-related claims – more than all of his trade claims over four years, even though trade has been one of the animating features of his presidency. Trump touted phony metrics to claim he successfully defeated the virus, pitched ineffective “cures” and constantly attacked former president Barack Obama for alleged failures, such as leaving a “bare cupboard” of ventilators (there were almost 17,000) and bungling the response to the swine flu pandemic in 2009-2010 (the response was considered a success).
In October, Trump was largely quiet for six days as he recovered from his own bout with covid-19. But even so, he made nearly 4,000 false or misleading claims that month, an average of 150 a day on the days he was not ill.
In speech after speech, he laid the groundwork for challenging the election, making baseless claims of potential election fraud, while attacking Biden as a mental incompetent – and a “grimy, sleazy and corrupt career politician” – who could not possibly emerge as the victor.
“It’s going to be a fraud,” Trump told Sean Hannity of Fox News a month before voters went to the polls. “This is a terrible thing that’s happening to our country.”
After his election defeat, Trump spoke or tweeted about little except to offer lies about a stolen election, even as he or his supporters lost more than 60 court cases as judges repeatedly rejected his claims as bogus. After Nov. 3, he made more than 800 false or misleading claims about election fraud, including 76 times offering some variation of “rigged election.”
At his Jan. 6 speech at the Ellipse, in which he incited the attack on the Capitol, Trump made 107 false or misleading claims, almost all about the election.
The aftermath of what Biden and other Democrats now call the “big lie” hovers over Washington as both parties figure out whether there can be a return to a shared set of facts undergirding national debate, or whether one of the major political parties will remain captive to the sorts of conspiracy theories that marked so many of Trump’s final year of claims.
The events of Trump’s final weeks demonstrated the extent to which his alternate reality became woven into the fabric of the Republican Party, with the majority of GOP lawmakers voting against certifying Biden’s victory even after the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.
One hallmark of Trump’s fibs was his willingness to constantly repeat the same claims, no matter how often they had been debunked. One-fifth of his nearly 2,500 claims about the economy was the same falsehood – that he was responsible for creating the greatest economy in U.S. history. After the coronavirus outbreak tanked the economy, he amped up the rhetoric to say he had created the greatest economy in world history. Neither claim is true; under just about every metric, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton had more robust economies during their presidencies. Even before the pandemic, Trump’s economy was already faltering because of his trade wars, with the manufacturing sector in a technical recession.
Nearly 300 times Trump falsely said that he passed the biggest tax cut in history. Even before his tax cut was crafted, he promised that it would be the biggest in U.S. history – bigger than President Ronald Reagan’s in 1981. Reagan’s tax cut amounted to 2.9% of the gross domestic product, and none of the proposals under consideration came close to that level. Yet Trump persisted in this fiction even when the tax cut was eventually crafted to be the equivalent of 0.9% of the gross domestic product, making it the eighth-largest tax cut in 100 years.
Trump’s penchant for repeating false claims is demonstrated by the fact that the Fact Checker database has recorded about 750 instances in which he has repeated a variation of the same claim at least three times.
The Fact Checker also tracked Three- or Four-Pinocchio claims that Trump has said at least 20 times, earning him a Bottomless Pinocchio. Trump completed his term with 56 of those entries, including three – about the “rigged election,” allegations that Dominion voting machines changed votes and the falsehood that GOP poll watchers were denied access to vote-counting – that only emerged in the final months of his presidency.
The Bottomless Pinocchio list gives a rough approximation of the types of major falsehoods Trump said during his presidency. Roughly 25% exaggerated about his accomplishments, and 15% misled about his policies. Another 15% dissembled about the Russian investigation or the probe into the Ukraine phone call. Roughly 10% each were fibs made out of whole cloth, attacks on people he considered foes, falsehoods about the coronavirus, phony claims about the election, or false statements about Biden and his proposals.
As the 2020 election neared, Trump nearly 50 times falsely reassured his supporters that Mexico was footing the $15 billion bill for his barrier along the southern border. U.S. taxpayers are paying, mostly via money Trump diverted from authorized military construction projects. This was perhaps Trump’s most famous campaign promise – during the 2016 campaign, Trump more than 200 times said Mexico would pay for the wall – so he simply pretended he had fulfilled it in an effort to reassure his base that he had succeeded.
Many repeated claims just barely missed the cutoff for a Bottomless Pinocchio, such as the claim that he repealed a provision of the U.S. tax code that prohibits religious organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. (All he did was issue a toothless executive order, but he obviously thought it was important to evangelical groups that he falsely claimed he achieved one of their key political objectives.)
Trump rarely abandons his falsehoods, so as he neared the end of his presidency his campaign rallies became longer and longer. Each speech had a familiar pattern. He would cycle through various grievances about the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller III and the impeachment over his Ukraine call. He trashed Obama, various Democrats and of course Biden. He falsely extolled his achievements in trade, foreign policy, the economy and immigration. He offered false assurances about the pandemic and warned darkly about fraud in the upcoming election.
The growth of falsehoods over the course of Trump’s presidency is illustrated by one remarkable statistic.
The Fact Checker team recorded 492 suspect claims in Trump’s first 100 days. Just on Nov. 2, the day before the 2020 election, Trump made 503 false or misleading claims as he barnstormed across the country in a desperate effort to save his presidency.
The database website has a search engine that will quickly locate suspect statements made by Trump. Readers can also isolate claims by time period, subject or venue.
Maintaining the database over four years required detailed examination of every Trump speech, news conference, press gaggle, campaign rally and interview, as well as more than 25,000 tweets. The fact checks of Trump’s statements in the database amount to about 5 million words.
The database includes any statement that might merit Two or more Pinocchios under The Fact Checker’s rating scale. Trump often would repeat the same falsehood two or more times in a speech but only one instance of a claim per venue would be counted. The database did not include Facebook posts because they were often duplicative of tweets and likely staff-generated. The tally also generally did not count retweets, except for retweets of false or misleading videos.
The fact checks in the Trump database were written by a Washington Post team that also included Salvador Rizzo, Meg Kelly and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. Graphics reporter Leslie Shapiro created the database website.
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com