New York Times
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
August 02, 2017
WASHINGTON — Has President Trump told you about the time the head of the Boy Scouts called to say his was the best speech ever delivered to the more than century-old organization? What about when the president of Mexico picked up the telephone to let him know that his tough enforcement efforts at the border were paying off handsomely?
The anecdotes, both of which Mr. Trump told last week, were similar in that they appeared to be efforts to showcase broad support for the president when his White House has been mired in turmoil. But they also had another thing in common, the White House conceded on Wednesday: Neither was true.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, confirmed at her daily briefing what the Boy Scouts and the Mexican government had already asserted publicly, which is that neither phone call that Mr. Trump referred to had occurred.
The stories were not fabrications, Ms. Sanders insisted. “Multiple members of the Boy Scouts leadership” had praised Mr. Trump’s speech in Glen Jean, W.Va., after he finished last week, she said. And Mr. Trump and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico had discussed border enforcement last month on the sideline of the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany, she added.
“I wouldn’t say it was a lie — that’s a pretty bold accusation,” Mr. Sanders said. “The conversations took place, they just simply didn’t take place over a phone call, they happened in person.”
The nonexistent phone calls added to questions about Mr. Trump’s credibility and that of his White House, already in doubt given shifting explanations on matters large and small, including the size of the crowd at Mr. Trump’s inauguration and his involvement in drafting a statement about why his son Donald J. Trump Jr. had met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the campaign.
The calls appeared to be the latest evidence that the president, who prefers impromptu storytelling to a fact-checked script, is willing to shade or even manufacture events to suit his preferred narrative — even when the story is easily disprovable and of little consequence.
“He’s been lying his whole life, almost reflexively, and it’s almost as if he finds it more satisfying and easier than to speak with precision,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who later wrote a biography of Mr. Trump, “The Truth About Trump.” “When he was a kid, he lied about whether he hit a home run or not, and when he was a young man, he lied about how tall Trump Tower is — how many floors it is and the actual floors in feet — and he lied about which beautiful women were interested in him.”
Mr. Trump has written about how he bends the truth when it suits his purposes, asserting in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” that “a little hyperbole never hurts.”
“People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” Mr. Trump wrote then. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
The major difference now, Mr. D’Antonio said, is that as president Mr. Trump is fact-checked assiduously.
Mr. Trump’s latest tangle with the truth began on Monday, when Mr. Trump announced at a Cabinet meeting that Mr. Peña Nieto had been on the phone to him.
“Even the president of Mexico called me,” Mr. Trump said, touting his success in cracking down on illegal immigration. “They said their southern border — very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.”
The Mexican government said on Wednesday that no such telephone call took place. In a statement, Mexico’s secretary of foreign relations said Mr. Peña Nieto told Mr. Trump during the Group of 20 summit that deportations of Mexicans from the United States had fallen 31 percent over the first six months of the year, compared with the same period in 2016.
On Tuesday, it was the Boy Scouts’ turn: A leaked transcript of an interview the president had with The Wall Street Journal quoted him saying that the head of the Boy Scouts had called him full of praise for a highly political speech Mr. Trump had delivered at the National Scout Jamboree.
“I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them, and they were very thankful,” Mr. Trump told The Journal.
On Wednesday, the Boy Scouts of America said it was not aware of any call from its national leadership to Mr. Trump. In a statement, the organization said that an earlier statement from Michael Surbaugh, the organization’s chief, apologizing to scouts for Mr. Trump’s speech, “speaks for itself.” Mr. Surbaugh had expressed regret to those who were “offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.’’
It is hardly unprecedented for a president to use a story to inspire or motivate, or to embellish a yarn for the sake of punctuating a poignant message. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a frequent and animated storyteller, and Ronald Reagan was so partial to a heart-tugging anecdote that his tales sometimes aroused suspicion that they had come from a movie in which he starred rather than real life.
For his first inaugural address — the first to be delivered from the West side of the Capitol facing Arlington National Cemetery — Mr. Reagan wanted to recount the story of a World War I soldier, buried in Arlington, who had written in his journal about his pledge to give everything for his country and died in battle the next day. The only trouble, his speechwriter told him, was that the fallen soldier was buried in his hometown, not at Arlington, according to H. W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas and biographer of Mr. Reagan.
But the president, enamored of the story, opted to leave it in his speech anyway, and say the soldier was buried “under one such marker,” leaving his actual resting place vague. The White House was later forced to concede that the man in question was not, in fact, under a marker at Arlington.
A version of this article appears in print on August 3, 2017, on Page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Those Calls to Trump? They Didn’t Really Occur.
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