Getting away with it — Trump's debate lies greeted with media shrugs

His war on American norms

A quick pre-election pitch.

If you’ve been enjoying PRESS RUN since its launch in February, or have just recently become a reader, please consider subscribing for $6 a month. This newsletter is only possible because of the support of readers like you who are backing a new kind of independent journalism.

Stay healthy.

Be kind.

Subscribe to PRESS RUN

Trump's first sentence in the debate last night was a lie, when he claimed more than two million Americans were "expected" to die form the Covid-19 virus, therefore America's current death toll of 220,000 isn't so bad. From that point on, Trump lied without pause during the 90 minute debate. He lied about the Russia investigation, climate change, Hunter Biden, the pandemic, and on and on. He also spouted ugly conspiracy theories.

Yet when the sitting President of the United States could not answer a single debate question truthfully, that wasn't the big news from the forum last night. For CNN's Jake Tapper, the major take-away was that Trump didn't "set himself on fire," like he did during the first debate, when he hectored and interrupted Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace nonstop. Indeed, Trump's decision to tone down his manic behavior seemed to be the media's focus point on the debate. His nonstop lying, much less so.

"He spoke with an inside voice," reported the New York Times. "He interrupted little." The paper for four years has steadfastly resisted calling Trump a liar in its news coverage.

As historian and media critic Eric Alterman noted following the debate, "One of Trump's (and the Republican Party's) greatest victories in their efforts to undermine our democracy is how little attention is being paid to the fact that virtually everything he said last night was a lie."

It's another example of how Trump has waged war on our political norms — and often won.

Lying defines Trump's presidency. He uses the avalanche of untruths not just for partisan political gain, but to chip away at our democracy — to undermine the country's faith in shared facts. And he does it at a truly stunning rate. Last night was a painful reminder that presidential debates cannot be staged when one of the two participants is a madman. He never deserved to be on the national stage in front of tens of millions of viewers and given a chance to lie nonstop.



Of course, none of this is normal. Up until Trump, when presidential candidates showed up at debates they acted like adults and tried to elucidate their vision for the country, allowing Americans a commercial-free forum to judge their elector choices.

Not in 2020.

Perhaps sensing another looming debate defeat, Trump and his allies spent much of the week preemptively attacking the moderator, NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker. “She’s a radical Democrat,” Trump told supporters on Monday in Arizona. “The Debate Commission is nothing more than an accomplice to the Radical Dems in their efforts to rig the 2020 election,” tweeted Lou Dobbs, one of Trump’s favorite Fox personalities. “Next debate moderator, another with deep Democrat ties,” added right-wing talk radio host Mark Levin.

In the end, it's doubtful the debate spectacles changed many minds. But in a larger sense they matter because it's the latest example of how Trump has been able to destabilize our democratic process, how he's been able to wage war on key institutions and watch them bend to his will.

It's all part of Trump's exhausting war on the norms. It's not normal to lie about the size of your inauguration crowd, as Trump did on his first day in office. And it's not normal to demand the United States Attorney General lock up your political foes, as Trump did this week.

During the nearly four years in between, Trump set his sights on Beltway traditions — large and small — and obliterated them with astonishing ease against meek pushback.

Like when Trump:

• Opened his remarks at the National Prayer Service by attacking Arnold Schwarzenegger for low ratings on “The Apprentice.”

• Refused to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

• Gave Infowars  White House press credentials

• Nominated members of his golf clubs to senior roles in his administration.

• Changed the national motto on the presidential coin from “E pluribus unum” to “Make America Great Again.”

And it's not normal to wage war on presidential debates, of all things. But Trump did his best to destabilize them, too.

The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates was created as a way to maintain order during the election seasons so that voters would get three opportunities to hear the two major-party candidates square off for three nationally televised debates. This year, Trump shred all of that.

At the first debate, he trampled the established rules, making it impossible for there to be anything remotely resembling a revealing or intelligent debate. It was clearly the worst presidential debate in American history.

After Trump became infected with Covid-19, the commission announced the second debate would be held virtually in order to protect everyone's safety, and Trump promptly refused to participate. He then cut a side deal with NBC and appeared at a televised town hall forum directly opposite Biden's previously scheduled town hall on ABC. The competing events made it impossible for voters to watch and evaluate both candidates at the same time.

By his sub-basement standards, Trump "behaved" at the Thursday debate. He also lied nonstop. And the press didn't seem to notice.

Subscribe to PRESS RUN


Amy Siskind, host of the Trump-centric podcast, "The Weekly List," recently produced an amazingly thorough compilation of all the norms Trump has shred during his presidency:

Experts in authoritarianism advise keeping a list of things changing, subtly, around you, so you’ll remember. Days after the 2016 presidential election, I started a list. Each week, I chronicle the ways Donald Trump has changed our country. This selection, adapted from more than 34,000 entries — or about 1 percent of the total — focuses on the norms he and his administration have broken. The List offers us a road map back to normalcy and democracy.

Follow me on Twitter


Josh Turner, “I’ve Got It Made” (featuring John Anderson)

Two iconic voices, one great fiddle song.

I don't need a gold mine or a long limousine
I'm not the kind of man to surrender my soul to material things
Just give me a cane pole and a shady spot to sit
To me that's about as close to heaven as a man can get