When Donald Trump ludicrously accused Hillary Clinton, at the first presidential debate, of trying to fight the Islamic State for her “entire adult life,” Clinton didn’t offer a rebuttal. Instead, she issued a request: “Please, fact-checkers, get to work.”
They were already working. Thanks to the brazenness of Trump’s deceit, fact-checking, that unglamorous journalistic activity once mostly relegated to niche websites and little boxes beside newspaper articles, is having a moment. Big news organizations now assign teams of reporters to fact-check the debates in real time. CNN, among other networks, is using its bottom-screen chyrons to challenge Trump’s most obvious lies. And every day, full-time fact checkers take a false claim, or three, or four, and meticulously explain why it is wrong.
I decided a month ago that this wasn’t enough.
What we’re experiencing from Trump is a daily avalanche of wrongness. The essential truth of this election cannot be conveyed with an examination of any one particular chunk of ice. The story is the massive accumulation of nonsense, big stuff and little stuff alike, day after day.
I’m now spending much of my time immersed in Trump’s dishonesty. I’m the Washington correspondent for Canada’s Toronto Star newspaper, and since September 15, I’ve published a daily tally—or as close to a daily tally as I can produce while also sleeping occasionally—of every false claim the Republican presidential candidate has uttered in a speech or interview. At the end of each day or the beginning of the next, I tweet a screenshot of the list, then publish it on our website, thestar.com.
The fewest inaccuracies I’ve heard in any day is four. The most is 25. (Twenty-five!) That doesn’t include the first two debates, at which I counted 34 and 33, respectively. Over the course of 33 days, I counted a total of 253 (including some that repeat).
I’m not doing anything particularly innovative with what I call #TrumpCheck. Trump has been dutifully fact-checked all campaign by several others, including Politifact and the Washington Post’s excellent Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. American readers who have bitterly joked that America’s fact-checking has been outsourced to Canada are far too hard on their own journalists. Some of each list I make borrows from the analysis of Americans.
What I’m doing differently, though, is keeping count. Because I think the count is a story in itself. And it seems that at least some of the American electorate agrees. The TrumpCheck lists have been more widely read, retweeted and shared than anything I’ve ever written, even the stuff I wrote about a crack-smoking mayor. They have put me in the crosshairs of trolls who had been wonderfully unaware of my existence. And they have shown me, again, the limited power of truth to reach people who are sure they already know it.
When I arrived in D.C. last year, I thought 2 a.m. fact-checking was a thing of my past. I was excited to finally get to experience the bliss of normal political dysfunction. From 2010 to 2014, I had covered the surreal Toronto administration of infamous Mayor Rob Ford and his lesser-known brother Doug, a city councilman who did not suffer from addiction but shared the late mayor’s allergy to accuracy.
During the Toronto mayoral election two years ago, the bombastic blond media-bashing conservative-populist outsiders—yes, Toronto finds the Trump phenomenon eerily familiar—made so many false claims that I decided the only way to convey the truth of the election was with the blunt, accessible tool of a list. A typical headline on the “Campaign Lie Detector” fact-check feature I hastily invented: “Doug Ford says 21 inaccurate things during radio appearance.”
It occurred to me this September, during a particularly outrageous and dishonest Trump Thursday, that the lie detector needed to be reincarnated. I had a third once-in-a-lifetime liar on my hands—and this one was even worse.
My first day making a Trump lie list, September 15, I counted 12 false claims. Among them: Trump falsely claimed again to have opposed the Iraq War, falsely claimed that Clinton’s campaign invented the phrase “alt-right,” falsely described his rocky visit to a church in Flint, Michigan, falsely claimed his poll numbers with black voters were skyrocketing and falsely claimed Hispanic poverty has worsened under the Obama administration.
Reporters noted some of this on Twitter. But the fact-checking largely stayed confined to personal social media accounts, out of articles and cable segments and corporate feeds seen by many more people. These are some of the headlines Trump got that day: “Donald Trump reveals more details of his tax plan.” “Donald Trump releases one-page summary of medical records.” “Donald Trump: The Fed Is Very Political.”
That is perfectly understandable. All of the above is real news. Other than the Iraq lie, which was already old news by then, none of his false claims was, in itself, tremendously significant.
But I think they added up to something crucial. All together, one of the day’s most important news items was really this: “Candidate makes up a whole bunch of things in rapid succession for no particular reason.” It went largely untold.
That’s why I include in my lists even the small errors that provide easy fodder for the Trump supporters (and sometimes non-supporters) who accuse me of pedantic nitpicking. While I’d make the lists more unimpeachable if I stuck to the big falsehoods, I think the accumulation of little ones is sometimes just as revealing.
Trump, for example, likes to read the lyrics to the song “The Snake” as an allegory for the supposed danger posed by Muslim refugees. He has repeatedly claimed it was written by singer Al Wilson, who performed it in the late 1960s. In fact, it was written in the early 1960s by Oscar Brown Jr., the late singer and civil rights activist, whose family has asked Trump to stop using it.
Some Trump supporters chortle when I point this out. But it matters to the Browns, and I think it tells us something about this potential president. Every politician sometimes gets things wrong about complicated issues, sometimes practices evasive dishonesty. Trump gets things wrong all the time, pointlessly, about almost everything, and almost never corrects himself. Even if he’s not intentionally lying, he’s habitually erring. At very least, it suggests a serial carelessness with facts and a serial resistance to conceding error. Both traits seem relevant to the discussion of who should be commander-in-chief.
The fairest question I get asked is why I don’t do a daily fact check of Clinton. The short answer is that I don’t even really have time to check Trump, which amounts to a part-time job on top of my job writing regular articles about the campaign. The better answer is the same as the one New Yorker editor David Remnick offered in September when he introduced a series called “Trump and the Truth”: Trump is on a whole other level requiring its own special kind of coverage.
“Hillary Clinton has had her bald-faced moments—moments that are too kindly described as ‘lawyerly,’” Remnick wrote. “But, in the scale and in the depth of his lying, Donald Trump is in another category.”
I would never argue that Clinton is a thoroughly honest person. She has lied at length about her email server. She has lied about her stances on the Trans-Pacific Partnership . You can make a convincing case that she is inauthentic. But on a daily basis, she is, believe it or not, predominantly factual. The two general election debates, for which I fact-checked both Trump and Clinton, have shown how much more accurate she is than her opponent: Clinton made four false claims at the first debate to Trump’s 34, five false claims at the second debate to Trump’s 33.
Save for one critical tweet by Trump advisor A.J. Delgado—“Perfect ex(ample) of what I mean by ‘silly fact-checking’ Sigh” —the Trump campaign has ignored me. His fans have not. Nothing I’ve ever written has made so many people so angry.
Perhaps it’s simply that all the retweets expose my work to a larger number of people and therefore a larger number of crazed people. But it also seems clear that there’s a devoted reluctance, among a substantial number of Trump supporters, to believe that their man is anything but the straightest of shooters. When I drive around the country reporting election stories, I meet friendly people who say they support Trump because Clinton is a pathological liar. When I’m at my desk in Washington, I hear from Trump’s vaunted base—and its Canadian franchise—in vitriolic emails.
They’ve accused me of being controlled by the CIA. They’ve accused me of having a sexual attraction to Clinton’s “colostomy bag.” (Fact check: what is even happening, man.) I’ve been told to “get a life” and, more confusingly, to “get a job.” And, at times, I’ve gained some more insight into the mind of Trump’s unshakable loyalists.
“Find something important to report on,” one of the more respectful correspondents emailed in late September. “98% of the population could care less about what false things were said. They are people in politics…”
In fact, I’m told the same thing every week by sympathetic left-wingers—that I’m wasting my time, that Trump’s enduring base of support proves that nobody cares.
I don’t think that’s right.
Truth is a worthy end in itself, whether or not it sways an election. Some polling suggests that the critical coverage of recent weeks might be having an impact on public perceptions: In the ABC/Washington Post poll released this week, just 34 percent of voters viewed Trump as honest and trustworthy, down from 42 percent the month prior. (Clinton was also at 34 percent, another sign of her reputation for duplicity.) And the Twitter reaction to my lists suggests there is still a significant market for nonsense-debunking. The September 15 list got more than 2,000 retweets, as many of the lists do.
To some extent, I know I’m fact-checking to the converted. I think the lists are popular with anti-Trump readers partly for their cathartic value—because they tell powerless bystanders that the perpetrator of this heist isn’t just being allowed to waltz out of the bank. Maybe the man is still going to get away with it, but at least somebody is waving their arms and shouting, “Hey, wait!”
The man himself, of course, almost never appears to care. Fact-checking sometimes prompts normal candidates to abandon or modify their false claims, often to spin some sort of explanation. Trump simply keeps on lying.
I saw this as recently as Monday night, when I fired up YouTube to watch Trump’s rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He peddled his previous lies about Clinton’s supposed plan for “open borders with the Middle East” (ridiculous), illegal immigrants being treated better than military veterans (ridiculous), his supposed endorsement from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (actually, a union of ICE officers). This time, he added a spate of new lies on the subject of voter fraud.
Exhausting, as always—I tallied 22 false claims between the rally and Trump’s three interviews.
Trump had been falsely saying, over and over, that the United States has a trade deficit of nearly $800 billion. That’s wrong, as I’ve pointed out—it is closer to $500 billion, unless you specify that you’re only counting trade in goods and excluding trade in services, in which case it is $746 billion, more or less close enough. But Trump doesn’t make such specifications. Except, this time, he did.
“We have nearly an $800 billion annual trade deficit, in goods, with the rest of the world,” he said.
You didn’t notice? You don’t care about this tiny technical thing? I’m still claiming it as a victory. When you’re fact-checking Donald Trump, you take what you can get.