News analysis

New revelations suggest a president losing control of his narrative

NEW YORK • As of last week, the American public had been told that President Donald Trump's doctor had certified he would be "the healthiest individual ever elected". That the president was happy with his legal team and would not hire a new lawyer. That he did not know about the US$130,000 ($173,678) payment to former pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels.

As of this week, it turns out that the statement about his health was not actually from the doctor but had been dictated by Mr Trump himself. That the president has split with the leaders of his legal team and hired the same new lawyer he had denied recruiting. And that Mr Trump himself financed the payment.

Whether called lies or misstatements, Mr Trump's history of falsehoods has been extensively documented, but the string of factual distortions that came to light this week could come back to haunt him.

The shifting statements also illustrated starkly why some of the president's lawyers have urged him not to submit to an interview by the special counsel, Mr Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Mr Trump's campaign cooperated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election and whether the president obstructed justice to thwart that investigation. Those lawyers have said Mr Mueller is setting a perjury trap for Mr Trump. What they do not say publicly is that they worry the president would be unable to avoid contradicting himself.

Mr Trump has for years presented selective and creative accounts of his life and businesses - "truthful hyperbole", as he put it in his first book - and at times this habit has landed him in trouble. Even after being elected president, he paid US$25 million to settle lawsuits accusing him of fraud for hoodwinking students who signed up for his now-defunct, for-profit Trump University.

As a matter of politics, the latest contradictions may not matter much, at least not yet. The public to some extent has grown accustomed to the factual deviations or written them off as unimportant. Just this week, Mr Trump surpassed 3,000 false or misleading claims since taking office, according to a running tally by The Washington Post - an average of 6.5 per day.

A poll released this week by NBC News and SurveyMonkey found that 61 per cent of Americans had concluded the president tells the truth only some of the time or less. But even among the Republicans who question Mr Trump's honesty, most still support him, according to the survey.

 
 

Under the unforgiving glare of federal prosecutors, however, misrepresentations carry far greater jeopardy. In nearly a year on the case, Mr Mueller has shown that he is more than willing to charge associates of Mr Trump with lying to investigators; independent lawyers have said it would be reckless for the President's lawyers to allow him to be interviewed.

For Mr Trump, it is about creating a narrative that suits his desired image, and dictating the terms of his own life - in media coverage, business, politics, even medical care. But he now risks losing his grip on the storyline he has long sought to control, in part because of his own treatment of associates like his doctor and the lawyer who paid the porn star.

The past few days have shown that Mr Trump's narrative is now at least in part in the hands of others - his lawyers, friends, doctor, accuser's lawyer, even his investigators. And for a man who prefers to craft his own storyline, that is not a comfortable situation.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2018, with the headline 'New revelations suggest a president losing control of his narrative'. Print Edition | Subscribe