The front page of Saturday’s New York Times featured White House correspondent Peter Baker’s “news analysis,” “Trump’s Foggy Truth Meets Fog of War.” The ostensible subject is the controversy over Iran’s culpability in the attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. But Baker, whose reporting has grown harsher and more partisan against President Trump, used the crisis as a springboard to attack Trump as a liar who can’t be trusted while the threat of conflict looms.
To President Trump, the question of culpability in the explosions that crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman is no question at all. “It’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it,” he declared on Friday.
The question is whether the writing is clear to everyone else. For any president, accusing another country of an act of war presents an enormous challenge to overcome skepticism at home and abroad. But for a president known for falsehoods and crisis-churning bombast, the test of credibility appears far more daunting.
For two and a half years in office, Mr. Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that even his own former communications director once said “he’s a liar” and many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted.
Fact-checking Mr. Trump is a full-time occupation in Washington, and in no other circumstance is faith in a president’s word as vital as in matters of war and peace. The public grew cynical about presidents and intelligence after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on false accusations of weapons of mass destruction, and the doubt spilled over to Barack Obama when he accused Syria of gassing its own people. As Mr. Trump confronts Iran, he carries the burden of their history and his own.
At least Baker found some non-partisan sources to back him up — Obama spokespeople.
“Trump’s credibility is about as solid as a snake oil salesman,” said Jen Psaki, who was the White House communications director and top State Department spokeswoman under Mr. Obama. “That may work for selling his particular brand to his political base, but during serious times, it leaves him without a wealth of good will and trust from the public that what he is saying is true even on an issue as serious as Iran’s complicity in the tanker explosions.”
Indeed, in his telephone interview on Friday with Fox News, Mr. Trump offered a measured response, avoiding any kinds of threats or discussion of military action. While he condemned the Iranians, he has pointedly not publicly floated the possibility of retaliation, and, in fact, he once again said he was open to talks with Tehran. “I’m ready when they are,” he said.
Still, Mr. Trump’s strained relationship with the truth has been a defining feature of his presidency. As of June 7, The Washington Post’s fact-checker had counted 10,796 false or misleading claims since he took office.
(Newsbusters has pointed out that the Washington Post’s fact-checking methodology amounts to more of a misleading partisan cudgel than a fact-finding mission.)
But it has taken a toll on his credibility with the public. A Quinnipiac University poll last month found that only 35 percent of Americans trust Mr. Trump to tell the truth about important issues versus 52 percent who trusted the news media more.
Baker manfully admitted, eventually, that Trump isn’t the only entity in the world whose word is suspect: Terrorist-supporting Iran may not be wholly above-board in its dealings either.
Iran has denied responsibility and suggested that the episode was a “false flag” operation by the United States to frame it and justify aggression. But Iran has its own credibility issues, and even Mr. Trump’s critics were generally not rushing to accept Tehran’s word.