Lying in State

Why Presidents Lie -- And Why Trump Is Worse


By Eric Alterman

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This definitive history of presidential lying reveals how our standards for truthfulness have eroded — and why Trump’s lies are especially dangerous.

If there’s one thing we know about Donald Trump, it’s that he lies. But he’s by no means the first president to do so. In Lying in State, Eric Alterman asks how we ended up with such a pathologically dishonest commander in chief, showing that, from early on, the United States has persistently expanded its power and hegemony on the basis of presidential lies. He also reveals the cumulative effect of this deception-each lie a president tells makes it more acceptable for subsequent presidents to lie-and the media’s complicity in spreading misinformation. Donald Trump, then, represents not an aberration but the culmination of an age-old trend.

Full of vivid historical examples and trenchant analysis, Lying in State is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand how we arrived in this age of alternative facts.



My understanding of the meaning of the word “lie” begins with the Augustinian argument that “a lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.”1 But because a president is more than just an individual, our definition must be considerably more expansive. A presidential lie takes place when the president or someone with the authority to speak for the president seeks to purposely mislead the country about a matter of political significance. The president can remain silent while his subordinates lie for him. He can censor the truth or impede the means to discover it. In my judgment, the only significant criterion is whether the deception itself, however operationally undertaken, is purposeful. If it was accidental or based on ignorance or a misunderstanding, it can be corrected and therefore should be.

One reason journalists often offer for eschewing the word “lie” when writing or talking about presidential lies is their inability to discern the speaker’s intent. In this book, however, I am less interested in intent than responsibility. If it was the president’s professional responsibility to know the truth about something and he did not bother to learn it, or he and his subordinates purposely avoided sharing information in order to establish “plausible deniability,” I still call it a lie.

In the pages that follow, I reject the excuses often offered for the kinds of deceptions I’ve just described, such as that the president was “disengaged,” “confused,” or “distracted”; that “God told him”; or that “he’s just an unbelievable narcissist.” I also consider censorship, when it is purposely deployed to misinform, to count as a lie. This is not to condemn censorship per se. Societies cannot protect themselves without it. The Constitution, as various Supreme Court justices have observed (albeit for competing arguments), is “not a suicide pact.”2 But the power to prevent speech is awfully easy to abuse for personal and political gain, and when this happens, it functions as a lie. Secrecy is also an a priori necessity of governance, especially in wartime. But it, too, can easily bleed into dishonesty when abused, and abuse tends to its natural path when presidents are given the power to determine what citizens should and should not know. Under certain circumstances, therefore, as we shall see, it is possible for a president or his representative to lie by silencing others, and by saying nothing at all.


“The Serpent’s Eye That Charms but to Destroy”

Ever since the first slave ship arrived in Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia in 1619, the racist assumptions underlying the ideology of white supremacy have remained, for the most part, just below the surface of American political life. Yet these beliefs have profoundly contradicted Americans’ understanding of themselves and their professed belief that “all men are created equal.” Rather than confront this contradiction, American presidents have felt it necessary to elide it with lies. George Washington was no exception.

Literally nothing mattered more to America’s first president than his honor. Historian Gordon Wood admitted that to modern eyes Washington’s concern for his reputation may appear “embarrassing,” even “obsessive and egotistical.” But it differed only in degree from that of his contemporaries. “All gentlemen tried scrupulously to guard their reputations, which is what they meant by their honor,” Wood explained. “To have honor across space and time was to have fame, and fame is what the founders were after, Washington above all.”1

By the standards of his time, Washington’s treatment of his slaves was considered unusually humane, and it contributed to the esteem he enjoyed among his peers. His relationship with his slaves was in many respects patriarchal. He thought of them as children who were incapable of looking after themselves or understanding their own self-interest. He saw to their health and welfare and even included a provision giving them their freedom upon his death. But he was tough as well, and would punish and sometimes sell those slaves deemed guilty of “indolence” or “insubordination.”2 He was capable of demonstrating a shocking callousness toward them on occasion, treating them worse than most would treat a favored pet that failed to obey them. And when it came to matters of commerce, they were property, pure and simple, no different from land or livestock. He traded them with fellow slave owners when it suited his economic interests.3

It is fitting that Washington’s only discernible lie as president arose from his role as the beneficiary of this barbaric institution. When the nation’s capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790, he faced a Pennsylvania law that freed all slaves residing in the state for six consecutive months. The president and his wife circumvented this inconvenience by shuttling their favorite slaves back and forth to their Virginia home at Mount Vernon. As Washington wrote to his plantation manager, Tobias Lear: “I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public.” He was worried not only about the law and his reputation but also about the fact that “the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist.”4

It could hardly have been otherwise. America’s “original sin” could not but stain the character of every white man and woman it touched. Washington’s lie about the location of his slaves was decidedly a minor one, given that it was of little consequence outside his immediate household. And yet, as the only identifiable lie he told as president, it changes our understanding of Washington and of the founding of the United States more generally. He was, after all, in historian Joseph Ellis’s words, “the Foundingest Father of them all,” and yet one is hard-pressed to disagree with fellow historian Eric Foner’s 2019 judgment that “when it came to taking action to end slavery, he, like most of the revolutionary generation, must be found wanting.”5

The conduct of Washington’s fellow Virginia planter and slave owner Thomas Jefferson adds a far more problematic dimension to our understanding of the nation’s founding. We now know for certain that this revered author of the Declaration of Independence, who served as governor of Virginia and president of the United States and became the founder of the University of Virginia, fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemings—and quite possibly all six of her children—during the thirty-eight years she served him.6

Jefferson lied about this relationship for almost his entire life. The first person to publicly accuse him was the raffish Scottish journalist James Thomson Callender, who reported, in the Richmond Recorder on September 1, 1802, “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY.… By this wench Sally, our president has had several children.” Callender was admirably nonpartisan in his choice of targets. Before he exposed the rumors about Jefferson, a Republican, Callender was best known for tormenting Jefferson’s political nemesis, the Federalist mastermind Alexander Hamilton, who had been George Washington’s treasury secretary and closest adviser. It was Callender who, five years earlier, had revealed the tawdry tale of Hamilton’s extramarital affair and his blackmailing by his mistress’s husband—a story that, in his day, marred Hamilton’s reputation beyond repair. Callender also attacked then president John Adams, calling him a “hideous hermaphroditical character.”7

The Federalists had jailed and fined Callender in retaliation, but they had also apparently converted him. It was after leaving prison in 1801 that he started after Jefferson. Although his conversion had come after Jefferson had pardoned him as a “martyr” to the Republican cause, Callender was quick to blackmail the new president with the demand that he pay him $200—the cost of his fine—and appoint him postmaster of Richmond in order to keep quiet. Jefferson agreed to pay only $50, which was not enough to quiet his new adversary. Rather than admit the truth of his relationship with Hemings, Jefferson blamed “the Federalists” for “open[ing] all their sluices of calumny.” Privately, he claimed that Callender knew “nothing of which I am not willing to declare to the world myself.”8 Alas, as we now know from DNA evidence, that was a lie. Conveniently, however, a drunken Callender soon drowned himself.

Historians long accepted Jefferson’s word for his innocence, following on the view expressed by his biographer James Parton, who wrote in 1874 that “if Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong.”9 This was, in fact, true, but in the sense opposite to what Parton intended. Slavery was wrong. Jefferson was wrong. And America was wrong. But in Jefferson’s Virginia, such behavior was no cause for concern. General John Hartwell Cocke, who, together with Jefferson, would found the University of Virginia, noted that in their home state “all Batchelors, or a large majority at least, [kept] a substitute for a wife” among their slaves.10 John Quincy Adams even wrote a humorous poem about the rumor. But his father, John Adams, predicted that “Callender and Sally will be remembered as long as Jefferson has Blotts in his Character,” and called the whole episode “a natural and almost unavoidable Consequence of that foul contagion (pox) in the human Character [of] Negro Slavery.”11 And here Jefferson’s predecessor in the presidency spoke not for his fellow founders, or for his countrymen, but for posterity. Jefferson lied because he owned slaves and enjoyed what was understood to be the rightful advantages of his position in his own time and place. But from posterity’s viewpoint, slavery made liars of anyone who professed to prize their honor, and the stain it left on the character of America’s revered founders has remained indelible throughout its subsequent history.

America’s founders disagreed on a great deal, both materially and philosophically, but they shared a fundamental sense that they had embarked on a great experiment upon which the future of civilization itself depended. “We have it in our power,” declared the American Revolution’s great ideologist, Thomas Paine, “to begin the world over again.”12 It was, simultaneously, a boast and a prayer, but it was also an endeavor they were prepared to try to protect at almost any cost.

The founders understood the European system of military competition between states for territory and riches to be the root cause of the continent’s deepest problems—endless war, class oppression, and mass impoverishment—and they feared that such a system could undermine their revolution. Armies and navies liked to fight wars. Wars, they knew, tended to enrich the few at the expense of the many and create a class of leaders who loved luxury more than virtue. This sequence of events had, in their eyes, led to the collapse of both Athenian democracy and the Roman republic, and they sought to avoid it all costs.

It was the founders’ most profound wish to absent themselves from the kinds of Old World quarrels and rivalries that might result in war and put them on this destructive pathway. Their natural inclination was to try to withdraw themselves entirely from the world of diplomacy. But they simultaneously understood that the success of their grand experiment rested at least in part on the ability of the nation’s citizens to participate in unfettered transatlantic trade. And engaging in trade would require a means of protecting US merchant ships from pirates and other countries’ navies, as well as keeping trading routes open in the parts of North America where France, Britain, and Spain continued to hold sway. Hence, they acknowledged the need for an army and a navy and all the associated things that could threaten to undermine a nascent republic.

Washington’s famous farewell address of 1796 should be seen in this light. In this letter to “friends and fellow citizens,” the departing president proclaimed that America should protect itself and its ships but go no further. It should avoid “permanent alliances.” (An earlier draft, prepared four years earlier, had included the warning that the new nation should “never unsheathe the sword except in self-defense.”) John Quincy Adams reiterated this warning with even greater force and eloquence in 1821, when he said that “wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.” But the nation must not “[go] abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.… [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.”13

At the same time, the volatile energies and ensuing population explosion that the American Revolution catalyzed needed somewhere to go. Fortunately, there happened to be an immense, sparsely populated continent just beyond the borders of the original thirteen colonies ready to absorb them. By far the most consequential lies told by early American presidents were those told in the service of this ceaseless expansion, as the continent was not nearly so sparsely populated as Americans had led themselves to believe. This vast expanse offered not only the world’s greatest source of untapped natural resources but also a means of avoiding Old World decadence and corruption. America did not need to compete with European nations for access to the materials it needed to grow powerful. Nor was the growing population a problem. Americans just needed to move westward. Almost no one took note of the colonial claims of foreign nations to any of this territory, much less of the tens of millions of Native Americans who were already there. In many respects, as the historian Walter Nugent convincingly argued, American history was “a continuous narrative of territorial acquisition.” Nugent broke down its components as follows: “Military solutions, overlain by rationales and high ideals, have consistently been considered effective and justified. Expansion has also been premised on the conviction that America and Americans are not tainted with evil or self-serving motives. Americans, the ideology says, are exceptions to the moral infirmities that plague the rest of humankind, because our ideals are pure, a ‘beacon to humankind,’ and, as Lincoln said, ‘the last best hope of earth.’”14

These beliefs are deeply held convictions at the core of American public life, and yet they are not even remotely consistent with reality. Therefore, US presidents have been forced to lie to the public in the pursuit of their expansionist goals, and history has tended to reward these same presidents for their lies, judging them exclusively on the basis of their effectiveness rather than on their honesty. Each “success” provided a path for the next president, who then built on both the new conquests and the lies his predecessor told to win them. And, as with so many of the consequential turns in the early history of the American presidency, the tradition begins with Thomas Jefferson.

The five years Jefferson spent representing the colonies in France, from 1784 to 1789, had left him haunted by the specter of mass poverty. In the landless peasants he saw there, he had observed a poverty that was passed from generation to generation. American yeoman farmers, he believed, stood in contrast to these peasants. America’s farmers, citizens who owned their own plots of land, were “the chosen people of God,” the source of “His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Only such farmers, and likewise tradesmen, could uphold the Enlightenment values necessary to sustain the spirit of the Revolution. Were American farmers and tradesmen ever to sink to the level of dependence he witnessed in France, he believed, the dream of liberty and virtue would sink irretrievably with them. America’s salvation thus lay westward, beyond the original confines of the new nation. The continent’s beautiful, bountiful lands would draw Americans out of the corrupt cities already developing in the east and allow future generations the opportunity to create a nation of virtuous, socially and politically equal yeoman farmers. “By enlarging the empire of liberty,” Jefferson wrote, “we multiply its auxiliaries, and provide new sources of renovation, should its principles at any time degenerate in those portions of our country which gave them birth.” In a letter to James Monroe shortly after the latter became president, Jefferson admitted to dreaming of a day when the infant nation would “cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent with a people speaking in the same language, governing in similar forms and by similar laws.”15

In pursuit of this dream, Jefferson was willing to set aside his lifelong commitment to limited government. Previously, he had been a fierce opponent of the concentration of power in the new federal government created by the Constitution, and with it, the implied powers that Hamilton and company had insisted it contained. He was no doubt driven by fears that his rival’s vision of a powerful, urbanized, commercial nation-state would result in a corrupt, moneyed aristocracy that might undermine the virtue that Jefferson so prized in its citizens.

Jefferson’s presidency will always be associated with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France, and properly so. The new lands were considered so vast at the time that no one could say exactly where the territory began or ended, or whose sovereignty counted where. Under the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the United States paid $15 million for roughly 830,000 square miles. The price was significantly more than the entire federal budget at the time, but the deal, signed in May, more than doubled the size of the country. Today, the area stretches across fifteen US states and two Canadian provinces. According to Jefferson’s former, literalist interpretation of the president’s constitutional powers, he lacked the authority to commit to this purchase on his own. He did it anyway, though, because he believed that the opportunities for expansion into the new territories would likely be the salvation of the nation’s virtue for generations to come. America’s population was already growing at a remarkable rate, and it was only getting started.16 But whether he was right about the future—or even about the virtue of yeoman farmers—is beside the point. The point is that this would hardly be the last time a president would claim for himself powers that, before assuming office, he had insisted lay beyond any president’s rightful mandate.

Indeed, Jefferson had been plotting to find a way to capture the territory for his country well before France offered to sell it. Moreover, a few months earlier, in February 1803, he had recruited men for an expedition that he disguised as a scientific endeavor when in truth it was a commercial and military one: an exploration of the trans-Mississippi West, which at the time remained in Spain’s hands. “The idea that you are going to explore the Mississippi has generally been given out,” Jefferson confided to Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) in a letter dated April 27. The reason, he continued, was that it “satisfies public curiosity and masks sufficiently the real destination”—which was, in fact, the Pacific.17 Here Jefferson was admitting to a lie, albeit a small one as he understood it, given what he believed to be at stake.

Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, a fellow Virginia planter—and Jefferson’s partner in almost all their political and philosophical endeavors—was a clearer thinker and a less impetuous politician. His role in drafting the Constitution and recording the debates that took place over it, together with the essays he penned in The Federalist Papers to argue for its ratification, speak to his extraordinary intellect and commitment to the cause of the new nation. But as a practicing politician, Madison was not in Jefferson’s league, and as president, he soon found himself overwhelmed and compelled to lie. Less practiced in the art of deception than his mercurial mentor, Madison ultimately set the nation on a path toward a nearly ruinous and unnecessary war.

Like Jefferson, Madison dedicated himself to using his office to strengthen the young nation’s commitment to liberty and virtue by means of expansion. Also like his predecessor, he did not much occupy himself with the intellectual compromises necessary to reconcile that goal with the ideas he had previously espoused about the limited powers of the presidency. In 1811, Madison asserted US jurisdiction over Spanish West Florida on the basis of an intellectually indefensible interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase, and pretended to Congress, without any evidence, that the British were about to invade the territory. (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and their fellow Republicans insisted against all evidence that Napoleon had sold Florida to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. But Florida belonged to Spain, and France never disputed this, so obviously France could not sell it to the United States.) A year later, in 1812, he sought and received congressional authorization to use force to prevent a foreign takeover of East Florida, which this time did lead to war. Ironically, Madison had previously gone to great lengths to avoid just this outcome. In public, he had taken a tough line against the British on the issue of the impressment of American sailors while privately allowing that if the crown would just tone down its rhetoric a bit, it need not change its actual policy. When the British laughed at what they considered to be ridiculous demands from a pipsqueak, nearly navy-less nation, Madison reversed himself and charged England with spilling “American blood” within US territory via “pretended blockades” and the “plundering” of US ships. The British were actually seizing fewer US ships than France was during this period, and a great many of the sailors they grabbed off them were genuine deserters from the Royal Navy. Most important, however, the British announced before the war began that they would be suspending these activities. This news did not reach the public until after hostilities had begun and Madison had gotten his war—a war that almost cost the country its independence.18

Madison’s successor and the fourth and final member of the Virginia planters presidential club was James Monroe. To be sure, he remained committed to the program of continuous expansion established by his predecessors—but, to be fair, most of his administration’s dishonesty in that pursuit proved somewhat circumstantial. Once again, the United States had its sights set on Florida, along with parts of Georgia. Following a series of minor skirmishes there in early 1818, General Andrew Jackson ordered his troops to seize these territories from Spain, in the process engaging in a veritable orgy of murderous violence against the Native Americans living there. Jackson defied Monroe’s orders by massacring not only “savages” but also those British citizens he accused of conspiring with them. Monroe was angered less by Jackson’s barbaric tactics, however, than by his insubordination, to say nothing of the diplomatic danger it entailed. Spain continued to insist that it was the rightful owner of Florida, but it had grown too weak to defend the territory militarily in the face of the American demands. America’s interpretation of where Spanish sovereignty ended and America’s began had no basis in reality, save that of the strong taking what they will and the weak suffering what they must.19

A crucial component of the nation’s commitment to unbroken westward expansion was its denial of the humanity of the Native Americans, and no president better illustrates this characteristic than Andrew Jackson, who defeated incumbent John Quincy Adams in the presidential election of 1828. The westward push was predicated on the belief that what constituted “the West” was essentially unpopulated. This claim was false, of course. Tens of millions of Native Americans lived across the continent, as they had for centuries. But the racial hierarchies to which Americans adhered invited them to ignore the humanity of people they considered mere “savages,” just as they justified enslaving African Americans. The US government undeniably took this view during Jackson’s presidency, pursuing what we would now judge to be a brutal and dehumanizing policy of “Indian removal” to facilitate the nation’s expansion. But we cannot take men and women out of their historical moments, or ignore the beliefs that characterized their time and place. Most of the lies Jackson and his supporters told themselves about Native Americans would not have been judged lies by their contemporaries.

Yet, even given the standards of the day, President Jackson did lie repeatedly about his Indian removal policy. His first State of the Union address, in 1829, promised that the Indian Removal Act he was proposing would achieve its goals by encouraging Indian populations to “voluntarily” relocate from their tribal lands; once they arrived at their new home, they would be under the protection of the US government. The government promised to “forever secure and guarantee to them… the country so exchanged,” and to secure their safety from “all interruption or disturbance.” These promises would be comical had their violation not brought such tragic consequences. Jackson surely must have known they would be broken at the first moment they ceased to be convenient. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe noted in 2007, “Jackson was personally well experienced in the techniques of bribery, intimidation, and fraud through which treaties were imposed on reluctant peoples, having been active in a series of land cessations by the Civilized Tribes since 1816.” Senator John Forsyth of Georgia had provided justification for such policies back in 1802, when he said that native peoples’ oaths were meaningless, since they were not Christians, and therefore had no awareness of “future rewards and punishments.” And with their oaths rendered meaningless, so were any treaties or other legal documents they signed or testimony they offered.20

In this period of the nation’s history, Americans understood themselves to be playing a leading role in a Divine drama called “Manifest Destiny.” The lies that US presidents told during this period inevitably reflected the influence of this belief. And none of the lies would prove more consequential than those told by the one-term president James K. Polk.

Manifest Destiny was originally popularized by the New York Morning News


  • "In this history of Presidential mendacity, Alterman...delineates centuries of lies issued from the Oval Office, culminating in those of the Trump Presidency. He makes plain how Trump's elaboration of that behavior, and also the media's acquiescence, confusion, and exhaustion have eroded the country's institutions, public life, and national spirit...Joins manifestos by Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and many others in raising the alarm against Trump's war on truth and, by extension, on democratic life."—New Yorker, Briefly Noted
  • "Nation columnist Alterman delivers an administration-by-administration analysis of presidential deception from FDR to Donald Trump in this vigorously argued account... Alterman makes a strong case for the links between presidential dishonesty and the expansion of executive powers since WWII ... and for the media's culpability in failing to hold presidents to account."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Alterman gives a whirlwind tour of purposeful deception emanating from the White House.... Alterman's historical deep-dive, arriving just weeks before the 2020 election, is important. Lying in State conclusively demonstrates that Trump has, as a matter of fact, taken lying to a dangerous new level. He has not just lied; he has endeavored to make truth irrelevant."—The Progressive
  • "Alterman not only directly implicates a complaisant press in presidential deception, but illustrates how 'both sides,' false equivalence-fetishizing journalism set the conditions for the inevitable arrival of someone like Trump to the highest elected office in the land....[A] deeply researched, historical review of presidential lying."—FAIRmediawatch
  • "A seething indictment of America's 45th president and the politicians and moneymen whom Alterman says back him as Trump brazenly feeds the world's social media with his lies, polluted ideas, ignorance and irresponsible speculations...Well-written...Lying in State is a lengthy indictment of rotten behaviour."—Winnipeg Free Press
  • "In highly engaging prose, Eric Alterman shows how the power of the presidency corrupts both those with the best of intentions, and those with the worst. No one reading this provocative work of history will ever think of our mightiest heroes of state the same way again."—Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money
  • "An astounding and methodical inventory of presidential lying from George Washington to Donald Trump. Alterman shows how the strategic lying of past presidents about specific episodes of war, corruption and injustice has given way in the Trump administration to indiscriminate lying about everything. This is a cogently written, timely and profoundly troubling book for the new age of conspiracy theory, fake news and online disinformation. Democracy is in peril -- and that's no lie."—Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8)
  • "A colorful history. Alterman seduces his readers into an intelligent conversation about all the lies -- the necessary lies, the white lies, the pathetic lies and the quite consequential lies. And by the end of the story he explains the media's culpability in the rise of Trump and why this president's lies are so very different from all the others. An absolutely compelling book for our troubled times."—Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Prometheus
  • "Eric Alterman's superb book, Lying in State, is full of direly needed insights. First, he offers an account of how Trump's constant lying to undergird his failed policies compares with the falsehoods of past presidents. Alterman rightly concludes that Trump is far worse than any other. When his supporters say that 'Everyone has done it,' Alterman can rightly label that another lie. Second, Alterman -- by virtue of his in-depth research -- enables us to deal with an all-important question: Why so many Trump followers have become addicted to what Republican Senator Jeff Flake termed the 'sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery.'"—Walter LaFeber, The Andrew Tisch and James Tisch Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

On Sale
Aug 11, 2020
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Eric Alterman

About the Author

Eric Alterman is a CUNY distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College and holds a PhD in US history from Stanford University. A contributing writer to the Nation and the American Prospect, he is the author of eleven previous titles, including the New York Times bestseller What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News. He lives in New York. 

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