Of all Donald Trump’s signature verbal tics—from “bigly” and “tremendous” to “sad!”—perhaps the most telling and ominous is the phrase “believe me,” which he uses as a kind of exclamation point. He likes it so much he often says it twice, as though he were afraid his audience might have missed it the first time.
Careful speakers are as sparing with the words “believe me” as careful writers are with exclamation points, and for the same reason: both are subject to the law of diminishing returns. People who say “believe me” a lot can’t help suggesting one of two things—that they have reason to worry we won’t believe them, or that we should just take their word for it and not ask too many questions. In the mouth of a politician, “believe me” always sounds either fishy or authoritarian.
In Trump’s mouth, it now sounds both. His growing reputation for mendacity has tainted his pet phrase with unintentional irony. Believe him? Why should we? Lies and half-truths were the fuel of Trump’s presidential campaign; shameless whoppers that would have destroyed a more conventional candidate ended up carrying him to the White House. Since taking the oath of office (with his hand on two Bibles—believe him!), Trump has kept up the torrent of untruthfulness.
His falsehoods are often pointless or trivial. They wouldn’t help him much even if most people believed him—and most people don’t. He has lied about the scale of his electoral victory, about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, about the murder rate, the unemployment rate, and other empirical facts available to anyone with access to Google. He has also made up, or passed along, nontrivial falsehoods, such as the claim that his phones were illegally wiretapped by President Obama.
This background of casual dishonesty is what makes the stories about Trump’s possible collusion with the Russian government so troubling. Trump insists there’s nothing to them, and for all we know, he’s right. It’s possible that the ongoing communication between Russian intelligence officials and members of Trump’s campaign, first reported in February by the New York Times, was all routine and above board. It’s possible it had nothing to do with Russian efforts to help Trump’s campaign by hurting Hillary Clinton’s. It’s also possible that if anything was not above board, Trump himself was not involved. But we can no longer take his word for it, and he should not ask us to.
This would be true even if Trump had a sterling reputation for truthfulness; it is especially true because he does not. Nor, for that matter, do the people with whom he has surrounded himself. His first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had to resign after it was revealed that he had lied to the vice president and the FBI about the subject of his post-election conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. A few weeks later the Washington Post reported that Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general and one of Trump’s earliest supporters, had misled Congress under oath when he insisted during his confirmation hearing that he “didn’t have communications with the Russians” before the election. It turned out that he, too, had spoken with the Russian ambassador—twice.
The day after that was revealed, Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any involvement with the FBI’s ongoing investigation into “matters that deal with the Trump campaign.” That was the very least he could do, but for Trump even that was too much. The president complained bitterly to his closest advisors about Sessions’s decision to step aside. And one can well understand his point of view: What was one more little fib when there had already been so many?
A man who routinely lies when nothing is at stake can be counted on to lie when everything is. If Trump’s campaign did collaborate with Russia’s interference in the presidential election, that would be an impeachable offense, as well as a criminal one. In that case, Trump would be in no hurry to come clean. The only way to find out what really happened is to let our intelligence agencies continue their investigations without interference from the White House. Once they’ve finished their work, they should report their findings not only to the House and Senate intelligence committees—whose Republican chairmen have already been enlisted by the Trump administration to do damage control—but also to an independent commission made up of nonpartisan experts rather than elected officials.
Such a commission might well end up exonerating the president and his campaign team. We should all hope so. But if it’s discovered that Trump’s people were in on the Russian attempt to compromise the election, congressional Republicans must treat Trump the same way they would treat a Democratic president in such a case. One thing is certain: if any Trump operatives were up to no good, we will never hear about it from our president. Believe us, that’s not his style.