Column: Meet Daniel Dale, the man with the Herculean job of keeping track of Trump’s lies
If Daniel Dale were a figure in Greek mythology — instead of the Washington bureau chief for Canada’s Toronto Star newspaper — he might be Sisyphus, the man who kept rolling a rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again. Or perhaps Hercules, who was tasked with cleaning out a king’s vast stables — and we all know what’s in stables.
Dale arrived in D.C. in time to cover the last two years of the Obama administration — and the ascending candidacy of Donald Trump. Since September 2016, he has kept a running tally of every untruth, false claim and outright lie by candidate and then President Trump. It’s demanding, even exhausting work for him — and for his readers, including a half-million-plus Twitter followers, it’s indispensable. Nearly a hundred years ago, Ernest Hemingway was also a reporter for the Toronto Star, and he would later write that “the best ammunition against lies is the truth.”
When you started this in September 2016, during the presidential race, you could have had no idea what this would end up involving, the tracking of every single lie that the man who would become President Trump would tell.
No. I did not know. At first I did not think I was going to do every single claim or every single lie. I thought I would just do it occasionally, on days where it seemed like he was being especially dishonest.
And then Michael Moore, of all people, the filmmaker, tweeted maybe five days into me doing it, saying something like, “Every single day, this Canadian journalist shames the U.S. media by pointing out every lie Trump tells.”
And I got thousands of followers from that, and I seriously thought, “Oh gosh, I have to do it every day now to satisfy these people.”
And then I thought I would probably be done with Trump, because I thought he was going to lose the election. Then, one of my first thoughts sitting there at Hillary Clinton’s so-called victory party in November 2016, election night, was, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to keep doing it for years now.”
How has the actual job of doing this changed?
It is not the only thing I do. I am the Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, and so my job is to cover the bilateral relationship, write about the trade and cover Washington more generally. I write about Trump, write about Congress.
It’s just gotten harder over time, in part because Trump has gotten more dishonest over time, and I can quantify that.
In 2017, he was averaging 2.9 false claims per day by my count. And then in 2018, it was over eight per day. I forget if it was 8.3 or 8.6.
What are the mechanics of this? You must have started with notebooks, and now you’ve moved to a spreadsheet?
Yes, there is a spreadsheet. The thing about Trump is that many of the lies he tells are so transparently dishonest that it barely takes any work to fact-check them.
An example I like to cite is when he was criticized for his highly political speech to the Boy Scouts Jamboree in 2017. He was asked about this criticism and he said, “No, no, the head of the Boy Scouts called me and told me it was the greatest speech ever given to the Boy Scout Jamboree.”
So I just sent an email to the Boy Scouts media contact and he emailed back saying that never happened. No one ever said that. No one ever called him.
Do you have to check the repeats, like his constant claiming about the 3 million “illegal” votes that were cast that constituted Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in the popular vote?
I count the repeats, but by my last count, of about 4,900 false claims, those include hundreds, maybe into the thousands, into the four figures, of repeats. But because he repeats himself so often, it does get a little easier over time.
Is there any strategy to these falsehoods? Or do they just get thrown out willy-nilly?
I think in some cases there is a clear strategy of lying for political ends. And I think the best example of that was during the midterm election campaign. What was notable to me about that period was that many of the lies were being written into his speeches.
Usually, the lying is Trump ad-libbing — it’s him deviating from his text. In that [campaign] case, immigration lies in particular were being written into his rally speeches.
In many cases, I think it is unstrategic. I think it’s just Trump being Trump. I don’t know if it’s his natural state, or if it’s a learned behavior, after lying successfully as a real estate guy and lying successfully as a playboy celebrity to get his name in the tabloids.
Something you see extremely frequently is him exaggerating statistics or data points that are already good for him. He’ll say, “This is the lowest unemployment rate in 18 years.” And then he'll say, “The lowest unemployment rate in more than 18 years.”
Does that count as a lie?
Yes. I track what I call false claims. Many of them are lies. Some of them, people might more commonly call exaggerations. But, yes, if it’s factually incorrect, then I count it.
I do use the word lie, but for my database, I call it a database of false claims, because I think while a significant percentage are lies, I'm not sure about all of them.
As we know with this president, he’s often confused or ignorant of policy specifics. And so I don’t know that he intentionally attempted to deceive with all 4,900-plus. So many of those are lies, but I can’t say that for all of them.
The Washington Post began counting untruths when Trump took office and now counts more than 10,000. Do they have a different counting method from yours?
They do. They count what they call false and misleading statements, so the methodology is quite different. There are many claims that they count that are factually correct; they are simply true statements that they call misleading, because of a lack of context or because Trump used to say something different.
There’s some differences there. But I’m happy the Post is doing it, because they’re an important American media outlet and we agree on the majority of them, for sure.
When you started doing this, in September of ’16, were you shocked to hear untruths coming out of the mouth of a candidate when they’re so easily checked?
I wasn't shocked that he was lying. But I was flabbergasted by the frequency and the triviality of many of them. We know that politicians lie. But what you more frequently see are politicians — when they’re telling absolute lies, it’s to try to get their way out of some jam or some scandal or controversy. And then you see them twisting, exaggerating, taking grains of truth and just adjusting it for their own political purposes.
What we saw was that Trump was simply making things up about everything, for no apparent reason, about the smallest things.
The Canadian versus U.S. audiences — is there a difference in perception and response to your work tracking these?
I think so. I think a lot of Canadians are happy I’m doing it, as well as a lot of Americans. I get hate mail from Canadians and Americans alike. I get a lot of angry emails, tweets, people saying, “You’re obsessed. You suffer from Trump derangement syndrome.”
I get a fair number of “Go back to Canada” messages from the Americans. They’re pleased to be able to say things like, “You're a foreigner meddling in our democracy.”
Oh, like Russia!
Like Russia, right. I’m the real Russia. I get stuff like that and that makes me laugh.
Are American reporters covering the White House less inclined to challenge something and say, “This is not true”?
I think they are, and I want to emphasize that I think that the vast majority of the White House press corps are fantastic reporters who’ve done superb journalism, digging up various things about the way the administration is operating, or Trump’s behavior, or Trump’s business dealings.
But on this particular matter, the subject of challenging his dishonesty, I think the coverage has been inadequate and the level of deference far too high. He’s been in politics for four years, and still he’s almost never confronted to his face when he lies, even when it’s a lie that he’s told literally dozens of times before.
In sit-down interviews, the attitude I think is still too frequently, “Let’s just get him talking, let’s just have him generate as much content about as many subjects as possible. And we don’t want to play prosecutor. We don’t want to get into a fight with him. That’s not our job.”
And I just think this is not how politicians should be handled. No one is saying you have to be belligerent with him. But when the president is being consistently dishonest, it’s incumbent upon journalists — you can be polite about it — to press him, to challenge. And I just think it too rarely happens.
But it’s most important that he’s challenged in print or on air. It’s less about fighting with him in person than about pointing out to your readers or your audience that he’s not being accurate, and that I think is still relatively rare.
It’s gotten marginally better over these years. But he’ll have a rally where he makes 35, 30, 25 false claims. And if you were to read the next day’s paper and read the story about that rally, or you watch the cable news, network news or local news, people have almost never been told that the speech was filled with dishonesty.
The coverage will be like, “Trump debuts new attack on [Democratic presidential candidates Joe] Biden or [Pete] Buttigieg or [Elizabeth] Warren” or whoever. Or it’ll be like, “Trump previews immigration announcement.” Those things are significant as well. But there has to be room made in all the coverage to note how dishonest he’s being, and it’s still relatively only rarely happened.
How does the White House treat you?
They ignore me. I’ve literally only dealt with them once, when I had a scoop about Trump’s comments in NAFTA negotiations. I had to ask them for a comment.
But otherwise, they just pretend I don’t exist. Most presidents — they don’t want to get Pinocchios [ratings for stating lies]. They don’t want to be declared false. And so their team will try to spin the fact-checkers, or more generously, will offer alternative explanations and context.
Trump’s team, I think, know that he’s lying all the time. Their attitude is, “Let's just pretend these people don't matter at all.”
A lot of newspapers and news outlets have had to grapple with whether or not to use the word “lie,” which has a distinct meaning.
I honestly think that it was only my paper that was willing to use it. The Star has been great about this, in part because we had some of these discussions when covering our late [Toronto] Mayor Rob Ford. He lied about not smoking crack, which he did. And so we had to talk about this in 2011, 2012: Can we use the word “lie”? Is that appropriate in news copy?
And we just decided, yes, in some cases. And then when Trump came along, we didn’t even have to have a discussion.
It is obvious that this candidate and this president is lying a lot. I understand that in many cases, reporters are uncomfortable discerning the intent. I think intent is necessary to use the word “lie.” And so you can’t use it in all cases.
And I tell that to people when they scold me on Twitter for using the term “false claim.” They’ll say, “Why are you soft-pedaling? Why are you normalizing this?”
And I say, “Look, I just don't know in this case that he’s doing this on purpose.” But with all that said, in many other cases, it is clear by any reasonable standard that Trump is intentionally making things up.
I’ve heard the argument from people — the New York Times and others — that if you use it a lot, it loses its power. I just think that’s so bizarre. Like if someone commits 100 crimes, in our newspaper, we say that person committed 100 crimes. We don't say that the person committed two crimes and 98 non-legal behaviors.
If you say we can only use the word “lie” occasionally because it loses power if we use it frequently, then Trump wins when he lies frequently, because only one or two or whatever of those 100 are going to be described correctly.
Do you think he believes what he says?
It’s so hard to know. I think in some cases possibly. I think in many cases he does not. You can sort of trace the evolution of a lie and sort of see how he formulates it.
One case — I think it was at one of the midterm campaign rallies — he told a joke about Democrats giving illegal immigrants free cars. He was, “They want to give illegal immigrants free healthcare, free education. Next thing you know it’ll be a free car!”
And then, in the next day’s rally, he said, “Have you heard this? Democrats want to give illegal immigrants free cars!” So he turned it from a joke to an assertion of fact.
You see him work-shopping these.
There are people who say, “Well, he might just be delusional, he believes all of it.” I think maybe in a smattering of cases. But I think for the most part, he is aware of what he’s doing.
You’ve got a big Twitter following now of people who think that this is so important, and they’re delighted that you’re doing it. Do you get cards? Flowers? Thank-you notes?
I occasionally get letters in the actual mail, which as you know is reasonably rare these days. I get lots of nice emails. I frequently get people offering to buy me drinks — I don’t drink.
But people sincerely suggesting that they want to donate to my vacation fund or a spa fund — people seem concerned about my welfare, my well-being, my sanity.
As journalists we don’t expect to really hear from readers when they’re happy with us. And so to get all this nice feedback along with the hate mail is really wonderful.
Are you ready for the 2020 election, and the consequences of perhaps a Trump second term?
I don’t know if I’m ready to fact-check him until 2024. It just seems like a lot of years to be doing it.
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