Trump versus the truth: The most outrageous falsehoods of his presidency

“I have never seen a president in American history who has lied so continuously and so outrageously as Donald Trump, period,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said.


Dec. 31, 2020, 4:30 AM EST

By Jane C. Timm

President Donald Trump spent his first days in office pushing false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd.

He has spent the final weeks of his term blitzing the American people with falsehoods and far-fetched conspiracies as part of a failed attempt to overturn the election he lost — cementing his legacy as what fact checkers and presidential historians say is the most mendacious White House occupant ever.

“I have never seen a president in American history who has lied so continuously and so outrageously as Donald Trump, period,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said in an interview. “Dwight Eisenhower used to say one of the most important tools a president of the United States has is that people believe what he says."

But that belief in the president’s words has become increasingly dependent on the political party to which a person belongs. Trump decries reports that are unflattering and facts that don’t fit with his world view as “fake news,” fueling a growing partisan information divide on everything from the contagiousness of the coronavirus to the reliability of the media.

Trump’s run for the presidency was fueled by political prominence gained by promoting the racist “birther” lie about President Barack Obama, and his 2016 victory was secured by a campaign rooted in false claims about immigrants and inner-city crime.

Once in the White House, the president routinely made false claims about everything from toilet flushes to tax reform. Some of Trump’s false claims drove policy, while conspiracy theories were elevated in tweets and in public and private conversations with foreign leaders.

In the last year of his term, Trump’s countless false claims about the coronavirus muddied the U.S. response to the pandemic, which has killed 339,062 people as of Dec. 29, according to an NBC News count. The president’s utterly baseless claim that the election was stolen from him delayed President-elect Joe Biden’s transition for weeks — hampering the incoming administration’s efforts to prepare for wide-scale vaccine distribution and endangering national security, according to experts.

“After two centuries, it is impressive that Americans still are inclined to believe what a president tells them, especially at a moment of crisis,” Beschloss said. “When a president breaks that bond of trust with the American people, it makes it harder for future presidents to have the kind of moral authority that enables them to protect us.”

NBC News has fact-checked Trump for more than four years. Based on thousands of hours of reporting and hundreds of reported fact checks, four issues stand above the rest as the falsehoods that define the Trump presidency.


Dozens of times since the start of the outbreak that has killed 1.7 million people around the world, Trump publicly downplayed the severity of the novel coronavirus, suggesting it would go away on its own, while comparing Covid-19, the disease it caused, to the seasonal flu.

“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows,” Trump said Feb. 28, with dozens of cases but no known fatalities in the U.S.

“We’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” Trump said March 10, when there were just over a thousand known infections and 30 deaths.

His view was disputed by public health experts, including the government’s own top scientists, who predicted that even with a strong, coordinated response, the virus wasn’t just going to “go away.” Later, the journalist Bob Woodward revealed that Trump had told him at the same time the president was publicly downplaying the virus’s severity, he knew it was more dangerous than the flu and “deadly.”

After states enforced tough lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus — wreaking havoc on the economy and putting millions out of work to try and save lives with hospitals and emergency services overwhelmed — Trump pressured governors to reopen quickly, while experts cautioned against it. To support his push, he falsely claimed cases were going down throughout the spring even as experts warned the virus was uncontrolled; in a news conference April 22, he lambasted coverage of experts who warned of a dangerous potential second wave in the fall and the winter as “fake news.”

A month later, Trump again said things were improving: “At some point, it’ll go away. It may flare up, and it may not flare up. We’ll have to see what happens,” he said May 15. By that point, at least 1.5 million Americans had been infected; 88,101 had died. The numbers decreased slightly in the summer as cities that were home to early surges drove down their caseloads, but by the fall, the virus had taken root in nearly every U.S. community; regional surges have led to one steady nationwide increase.

Trump continued to compare the virus to the flu even after he recovered from Covid-19 himself in early October.

In mid-October, as the nation readied for an expected winter surge, he tweeted: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!"

His tweet inaccurately inflated flu deaths while downplaying the coronavirus’s danger. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said Covid-19 is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.

Trump also routinely spread misinformation about testing, the efficacy of masks, and potential and unproven treatments for the virus, once claiming that injections of antibacterial cleaning agents like bleach might clean the lungs of the virus.

Ten months in, more than 19.4 million people in the U.S. have been infected, but public polls show a partisan divide on the understanding of the basic facts about the virus, which a large number of Republicans still believe is no worse than the flu. Numerous cases have been tied to large White House events.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who appeared maskless at the White House before contracting Covid-19, has said multiple times since his recovery that he was wrong — and lamented the politics driving anti-mask sentiment in a public service ad.

Voter fraud

“VOTER FRAUD IS NOT A CONSPIRACY THEORY, IT IS A FACT!!!” — President Donald Trump, Dec. 24, 2020.

When Trump won the Electoral College — and thus the presidency — in 2016, he told lawmakers he only lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal votes. There was no evidence of that, something his own lawyers noted in an election court filing opposing the Green Party’s recount efforts after the election, but the new president was undeterred.

At the start of his administration in January 2017, Trump urged states to undertake more voter roll maintenance in the name of rooting out fraud, stirring alarm over aggressive purges that voting rights advocates feared would disenfranchise eligible people. He then launched a commission to seek definitive proof of his claims of widespread fraud; the group disbanded without finding any proof of it.

Numerous academic studies and criminal investigations
, too, have searched for widespread voter fraud over the years and come up empty-handed. But there is ample evidence that restrictive voting laws aimed at preventing this alleged fraud disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.

Just over three years later, as Biden was closing in on the Democratic nomination and the rapid spread of Covid-19 was making clear the public health risks of people congregating at the polls, Trump began pushing a number of falsehoods specifically about voting by mail.

Throughout 2020, Trump baselessly claimed that changes brought on by the pandemic — namely the large-scale expansion of mail-in voting in most states, led by governors of both parties — were fraudulent, or that they created opportunities for fraud or foreign meddling. There are numerous safeguards that keep U.S. elections secure.

When Trump lost the general election, he blamed voter fraud and sent his lawyers to court to try and reverse the results. In a free-wheeling news conference that lacked even a shred of evidence, his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, alleged everything from a “centralized” fraud scheme to election interference by foreign communists. Just a handful of fraud cases have been uncovered in key states: in Pennsylvania, three Republicans have been charged with illegally voting.

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