Anatomy of A Lie
Donald Trump’s lies about the track of Hurricane Dorian – now forever to be known as “Sharpiegate” – certainly had a buffoonish, comedic side. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this latest round of Trump’s mendacity as merely an insignificant amusement.
Compulsively lying about trivial matters isn’t trivial, especially when you’re the president of the United States.
And anyway, it’s not trivial when a president speaks to the public about what to expect from an imminent natural disaster. Real people depend on such warnings to make crucial life decisions about how to protect themselves and their families.
Trump’s lie that Hurricane Dorian was forecast to hit Alabama, and especially the dishonesty that followed in his vain attempt to cover up the initial lie, reveal (yet again) his deep insecurities.
The timeline tells the story:
- August 29-30: A week before Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the United States, The National Weather Service (NWS) published models showing a slight possibility (5-10%) that a corner of Alabama could be touched by Monday, September 2:
- August 31: By the next day, however, the forecast had changed dramatically. The Birmingham NWS said that the forecast track had shifted east, and if the current track continued, “we’ll be looking at dry conditions here in Central AL.” Its new forecast map showed the hurricane coming nowhere near Alabama:
- September 1: The NWS published another updated forecast map showing that Hurricane Dorian had moved even farther north, and was headed up the east coast. The path of the hurricane was now expected to come nowhere near Alabama:
- September 1: Donald Trump tweets that Alabama “will most likely” be hit by Hurricane Dorian “(much) harder than anticipated:”
- September 1: Minutes after Trump’s tweet, the Birmingham NWS answers: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east:”
At this point, it was clear to all that Trump’s statement earlier in the day had been inaccurate. But it still didn’t have to be a big deal. Trump could have put the entire matter to bed by saying something like, “My tweet could have been stated better. I should have made it clear that although some original forecasts had suggested that Alabama might be hit, current forecasts show that Alabama isn’t in danger.”
A statement like that would have been dishonest in and of itself – the vice of Trump’s original statement was lack of truth, not lack of clarity – but it probably would have been enough to put the story to bed.
But he didn’t say anything like that. Instead, he doubled down with more lies.
- September 2: Trump pretends that his tweet the day before said something different from what it actually said. And then he launches a days-long campaign to defend the pretend statement, not the real one. Trump tweets that his previous statement was true because he only “suggested” that “under original scenarios” Alabama “could possibly come into play.” Of course, Trump’s tweet the day before had said nothing of the kind. Rather, it had described the made-up threat to Alabama as getting worse.
- September 4: Trump holds up a crudely doctored (and outdated) August 29 chart from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Someone had used a black Sharpie to alter the chart to create the false appearance that the cone of danger extended into Alabama. The White House has refused to either admit or deny that Trump himself had made the alteration, although an anonymous White House official was quoted as saying, “No one else writes like that on a map with a black Sharpie.” Asked about it, Trump says, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know:”
- September 4: Trump tweets out yet another outdated August 28 chart from the National Hurricane Center, which he labels as “the originally projected path of the Hurricane.” The NHC chart showed a slight possibility of an impact in Alabama. He demands an apology from “Fake News,” even though this August 28 chart had absolutely nothing to do with Trump’s statement, four days after the August 28 chart had been revised to show that Alabama wouldn’t be touched, that Alabama “will most likely” be hit “(much) harder than anticipated:”
- September 5: Trump tweets that “Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path.” This might have been close to the truth on August 28, although a 5-10% chance of being touched isn’t the same as “was going to be.” But it doesn’t even begin to defend Trump’s actual tweet on September 1, by which time it had been well known that Alabama was no longer even remotely threatened by the hurricane.
- September 5: Trump tweets out 4 more charts that were already thoroughly obsolete when Trump made his September 1 statement, claiming that “Just as I said, Alabama was originally projected to be hit.” Of course, the statement that “Alabama was originally projected to be hit” wasn’t “just as [he] said” on September 1. Not even close.
- September 6: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency within the executive branch under Trump’s control, issues an unsigned statement criticizing the Birmingham NWS for having spoken “in absolute terms” when it contradicted Trump’s September 1 statement. It pointed to Hurricane Advisories #15 through #41 as evidence that tropical-storm-force winds “could impact Alabama.”
Now Trump had not only doubled-down on his own lie for the better part of a week, he had also corrupted the supposedly independent NOAA, enlisting it as an aider and abettor.
But nothing in Advisories 15 through 41 supported either Trump’s statement that as of September 1 Alabama “will most likely” be hit by the Hurricane Dorian, or that it would be hit “(much) harder than anticipated.” In fact, the charts cited by the NOAA show precisely the opposite. Take a look, for instance, at Advisory 32, the one that was issued on the very morning that Trump made his statement:
Advisory #32 contains two charts. One shows the predicted path of the Hurricane itself, which doesn’t even come close to Alabama. The other shows the probability of storm-force winds outside the path of the Hurricane. That chart shows that a miniscule sliver of Alabama had a 5% to 10% chance of experiencing high winds.
Then compare the September 1 Advisory to Advisory #28, which was issued on August 31, the day before:
The August 31 Advisory also contained two charts. The first, like the September 1 chart, shows that Alabama was projected to be well outside the path of Hurricane Dorian. The second chart shows a 5% to 20% risk that Alabama might experience high winds, as opposed to only a 5% to 10% risk on the morning of September 1. And the August 31 forecast shows a larger portion of the State being at risk than the September 1 forecast.
In other words, on September 1, when Trump made his statement, there was virtually no risk that Alabama would be hit by Hurricane Dorian, and even the risk of Alabama being hit by high winds, always minimal, was diminishing, not increasing.
Meaning that the forecasts cited by the NOAA, rather than confirming Trump’s September 1 statement, put the lie to it.
Look, this isn’t a close call. The stuff about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama “(much) harder than anticipated?”
He. Just. Made. It. Up.
Sharpiegate showcases two categories of Trump lies that I described in an article I wrote shortly after Trump took office.
One category in Trump’s arsenal of lies, that I call “The Whopper,” arises out of his hangup about size. Everything is exaggerated. Sometimes, though, assigning an out-sized magnitude to something is so inaccurate that it’s no longer just an exaggeration, it’s a lie.
Here, the idea that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian was arguably just an exaggeration. Although it was untrue at the time Trump said it, at least it had been true (sort of) at an earlier date.
But the idea that the threat to Alabama had grown larger – that Alabama was about to be hit “(much) harder than anticipated” – was just made up. It was a flat-out lie. No forecast showed that the threat to Alabama had grown larger in recent days. Just the opposite – the threat to Alabama had grown smaller, to the point where it had become non-existent.
The double-down lies that Trump told to try to cover up that initial lie are classic examples of another category of Trump lies, “The Kellyanne.” The Kellyanne starts with denying, or at least ignoring, something Trump actually said, and pretending that he actually said something else. Then you defend the “something else,” heaping scorn on anybody who has the gall to quote what the president actually said.
Here, Trump makes no attempt to defend what he actually said on September 1 (that the hurricane was likely to hit Alabama much harder than expected). Instead, he defends what he pretends he had said (that although some original, outdated forecasts predicted a slight possibility that Alabama might be touched by the storm, that was no longer the case).
None of this is surprising. It all follows a pattern. Trump’s insecurity is such that he simply can’t allow anyone to believe that he might be wrong about something. So he lies to cover up.
And this isn’t about Hurricane Dorian. It’s about Donald Trump.
When never being wrong is an article of faith, and the construction of a wall of lies is needed to show that you’re not wrong, the subject matter of the lies is far less important than what they reveal about the teller’s character, insecurities, and mental fitness.
It’s one thing when your batty, know-it-all uncle insists on having the last word on everything because he’s constitutionally unable to be wrong about anything.
It’s something quite different when it’s the president of the United States.