By David Leonhardt, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Stuart A. Thompson
December 14, 2017
After we published a list of President Trump’s lies this summer, we heard a common response from his supporters. They said, in effect: Yes, but if you made a similar list for previous presidents, it would be just as bad.
We’ve set out to make that list. Here, you will find our attempt at a comprehensive catalogue of the falsehoods that Barack Obama told while he was president. (We also discuss George W. Bush below, although the lack of real-time fact-checking during his presidency made a comprehensive list impossible.)
We applied the same conservative standard to Obama and Trump, counting only demonstrably and substantially false statements. The result: Trump is unlike any other modern president. He seems virtually indifferent to reality, often saying whatever helps him make the case he’s trying to make.
In his first 10 months in office, he has told 103 separate untruths, many of them repeatedly. Obama told 18 over his entire eight-year tenure. That’s an average of about two a year for Obama and about 124 a year for Trump.
Separately, we have updated our earlier list of Trump's lies, which also includes repeated falsehoods. This article counts only distinct falsehoods for both Trump and Obama.
If we had used a less strict standard, Trump would look even worse by comparison. He makes misleading statements and mild exaggerations – about economic statistics, his political opponents and many other subjects – far more often than Obama. We left out any statement that could be plausibly defended even if many people would disagree with the president's interpretation. We also left out modest quantitative errors, such as Trump's frequent imprecision with numbers.
We have used the word “lies” again here, as we did in our original piece. If anything, though, the word is unfair to Obama and Bush. When they became aware that they had been saying something untrue, they stopped doing it. Obama didn’t continue to claim that all Americans would be able to keep their existing health insurance under Obamacare, for example, and Bush changed the way he spoke about Iraq’s weapons capability.
Trump is different. When he is caught lying, he will often try to discredit people telling the truth, be they judges, scientists, F.B.I. or C.I.A. officials, journalists or members of Congress. Trump is trying to make truth irrelevant. It is extremely damaging to democracy, and it’s not an accident. It’s core to his political strategy.
As for Obama: His falsehoods tended to be attempts to make his own policies look better or to overstate a problem he was trying to solve. In a few cases, they seemed to be careless exaggerations he avoided repeating.
Over all, Obama rarely told demonstrable untruths as president. And he appears to have become more careful over time. We counted six straight-up falsehoods in his first year in office. Across his entire second four-year term, we counted the same number, six, only one of which came in his final year in office.
In all, we found 18 different bald untruths from Obama during his presidency. Trump told his 18th separate untruth in his third full week in office, and his list keeps growing.
In fact, Trump tells falsehoods about Obama and his administration more often than Obama told falsehoods about all subjects. Since his inauguration, Trump has told 10 separate untruths about Obama, including false allegations of wiretapping and false descriptions of Obamacare. We counted only two falsehoods Obama told about Bush.
Postscript: George W. Bush
As we mentioned above, it was not possible to create a similar list for George W. Bush, because the various fact-checking groups – whose work we used heavily here – were not operating continuously when he became president, in 2001.
But several sources did try to evaluate some of his claims at the time. Their work suggests that Bush sometimes told falsehoods but was fundamentally different from Trump. Bush instead seems to be somewhere on the pre-Trump presidential spectrum.
In 2001, for example, Bush said significantly more stem-cell lines existed than actually did. Most infamously, Bush and his advisers justified the Iraq War by talking about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist. But as costly as these claims were, Bush evidently believed them at the time. And for the most part, once his statements became demonstrably false, he stopped making them.