By Jon Sopel
It is time we sit and talk about truth and transparency.
Every now and then a few disparate things collide, and suddenly you see a pattern. And I don’t want this blog to come across as faux naïve. I’ve covered politics for long enough to know that politicians will try to shape and mould truth to best suit their purposes, to allow them to weaponise the facts that will give them greatest advantage.
And I know that politicians love transparency when it best suits them. But in the past two weeks, a line has been crossed.
Let me start with something seemingly minor. I was listening to the president and Theresa May at their news conference in the Chequers garden when Donald Trump, talking about Brexit, suddenly made the statement that he had predicted the result when he was at his golf course in Turnberry for the opening of his wonderful golf course the day before the EU referendum in June 2016.
I sat up with a jolt. I had been there with him on that trip.
We didn’t arrive until the day after the referendum. He wasn’t there on June 22nd. He was there on June 24th. I pointed this out on Twitter, saying it was a bit bizarre.
Now I can see as a bit of storytelling it works better to claim to have been the visionary who saw what was coming; I can also see that when you’re 72-years-old you might misremember dates and times. Who doesn’t do that occasionally? – Although, maybe not on something as fundamental as that.
Anyway back to my tweet saying the president was factually incorrect. Straight back shot Stephanie Grisham, who is the first lady’s director of communications, but more importantly at the time was Donald Trump’s press person for the trip to Turnberry.
She told me on Twitter the president was right to say what he had said – and she had the photos to prove it.
So we produced the tweet from the president on the 24th saying “Just arrived in Scotland…” and from her saying that she had just arrived in Scotland.
Someone else found the flight manifest, confirming that the Trump private jet had arrived on the 24th. I fully agree a storm in a teacup. This is not the sort of thing on which world peace hinges.
But I struggle to fathom Steph’s motives. Why did she go wading in to defend a lie? And why when the proof was provided that she was incorrect did she not just say “fair enough – my mistake”.
Psychology has a rather good word for this – “gaslighting”.
This is the Wikipedia definition of it: Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilise the victim and delegitimise the victim’s belief.
From Chequers we now go to Helsinki, and another extraordinary news conference this time with Vladimir Putin.
The whole thing was slightly surreal; made more so by the guy sitting next to me being yanked out by the Secret Service after it became clear to them he was planning some kind of protest during the news conference.
During the course of the Q and A, Jeff Mason from Reuters was called to ask a question. He wanted to know whether Putin had wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 presidential election and had directed any of his officials to help him do that?
Vladimir Putin didn’t hesitate: “Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the US-Russia relationship back to normal.”
It was quite a moment. But then I saw a tweet that Donald Trump put out yesterday to protest about how tough he was with Russia, which read:
“I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!”
So I referred back to what Putin had said in Helsinki a week earlier. But here’s where it gets super murky. All reference to that exchange between Mr Mason and the Russian leader has been omitted from the official White House transcript. In the official record it doesn’t exist.
Just a clerical transcription error? Well maybe – there is some confusion over the translation, but maybe it would be good to correct the record.
Now for another random event which happened yesterday. The White House has said that it will no longer provide information about when the president holds conversations with foreign leaders, as it has always done hitherto.
The accounts of the chats may have been anodyne and terse, but they were a useful tool to keep track of foreign policy priorities. And it was always useful to compare and contrast what, say, the Kremlin would have to say about the conversation compared to the White House. Now we will no longer be able to do that.
And so to the final thing. Donald Trump was speaking at a rally in Kansas City. And he came out with a memorable phrase that sounded as though it had been lifted straight from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. He said: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
Or it is. There is just a concerted – and sometimes it would seem – systematic effort to make you think otherwise.
Forget alternative facts. This is rewriting history.