The Washington Post
By Jenna Johnson and David Fahrenthold
This is Donald Trump’s election. The other candidates are just fibbing in it.
“Word is,” Trump said last month on Twitter, “that Ford Motor, because of my constant badgering at packed events, is going to cancel their deal to go to Mexico and stay in U.S.”
“Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,’ ” said former tech executive Carly Fiorina during the second GOP debate, suggesting that she had seen such a video.
“I’m not going to say it is a mistake, so forget about it,” said retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, asked about his claims that he had received a scholarship offer from West Point, when he hadn’t actually applied to the school.
As Trump has become the defining character of this Republican presidential primary contest, the race itself has seemed to take on elements of his personality — in particular, his aggressive, seemingly shameless rejection of the idea that he has ever been wrong.
The influence is especially strong in Fiorina and Carson, the two other political outsiders, who have risen in Trump’s slipstream. All three will be onstage Tuesday evening in Milwaukee for the fourth televised GOP debate.
As with Trump, some of these outsiders’ most memorable debate moments have come when they uttered statements that turned out to be exaggerated or untrue. And, like Trump, they have played to a distrustful electorate by criticizing the fact-checkers and refusing to acknowledge that any facts were wrong.
So far, it’s working.
Trump, for instance, was wrong in his claim about Ford canceling its plant in Mexico. Ford itself said the deal was on.
But that matters only if you believe them and not him.
“Meh,” wrote a Trump supporter who runs the Twitter account @WomenForTrump. “What does Ford know about it . . .”
In this election, Trump and the other outsiders may be helped by the electorate’s lack of faith in politicians. In a September Washington Post-ABC News poll, 75 percent of Republicans said “most people in politics” can’t be trusted.
But many voters give Trump a pass because he doesn’t seem like those other people in politics.
“He talks off the cuff all the time — is he going to remember everything? No,” said David Magel, 53, who lives in the Chicago suburbs and flew with his 14-year-old son in his Cessna to a Trump rally Monday in Springfield, Ill. “. . . I just want somebody who speaks like we do, says what’s on your mind — right or wrong, it is what it is. That’s why everybody can relate to him. That’s why he’s doing so well.”
Tuesday’s debates — a four-candidate undercard at 7 p.m. Eastern and then an eight-candidate main event at 9 p.m. — will air on Fox Business Network. In the last GOP debate, on CNBC, candidates were able to talk their way out of tough questions by saying it was the questioner, not the candidate, who had been wrong.
“I never said that. I never said that,” Trump said, after CNBC’s Becky Quick said the billionaire front-runner had derisively referred to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as the “personal senator” of Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg.
“My apologies, I’m sorry,” Quick said after a back-and-forth. In fact, the statement about Rubio, a rival for the GOP nomination, was real: It was on Trump’s campaign Web site and in his policy paper on immigration.
In the same debate, CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla asked Carson about his relationship with a nutritional-supplement-maker called Mannatech. The company and its co-founder in 2009 agreed to a $7 million settlement with the Texas attorney general over allegations that the firm falsely marketed its dietary supplements as remedies for serious illnesses. It did not admit wrongdoing.
“I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda,” Carson replied.
Quintanilla seemed taken aback and mentioned that Carson’s picture had been on the company’s Web site. “Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgment in any way?”
The crowd booed.
But Quintanilla’s question was not unfounded: Carson had been paid by the company to give speeches, and he gave testimonials about its products in unpaid videos. The Washington Post Fact Checker gave Carson two Pinocchios, out of a possible four, for dismissing the idea that he had a relationship with the company.
In an earlier debate, Fiorina’s statement about seeing an abortion performed on video was not challenged by CNN moderators. In fact, none of the videos she was talking about — made by undercover antiabortion activists — showed the scene she described, although in one section a similar scene is described in a voiceover.
But Fiorina was defiant, even after being confronted in interviews.
“George Stephanopoulos told me I was mistaken, that the tape doesn’t exist, that the images aren’t real,” Fiorina told a conservative audience in September. “Well, yes, they are real.”
This dynamic — candidates dodging questions about their honesty and attacking the questioners instead — was much less prominent in the only Democratic debate of the 2016 campaign so far. Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton’s top challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, effectively shut down such questions for her by rejecting an inquiry about her use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state.
In Tuesday night’s Republican debate, Carson will probably face more questions about the most dramatic details of his up-from-poverty life story. Carson has tried to turn these questions to his advantage, casting them as evidence of media bias.
Trump, when asked about his own contradictions or factual errors, often steam-rolls through the questions, talking and talking and never admitting he was wrong.
For example: “We made a terrible mistake getting involved [in Afghanistan] in the first place,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in October.
Then, later that month on CNN: “I’ve never said we made a mistake going into Afghanistan.”
But you said . . .
“I never said that. Okay? Wouldn’t matter, I never said it,” Trump said.
At his rallies, Trump primes supporters not to trust the media and cites the crowds themselves as an example: He says news outlets undercount his supporters, just to undermine him. A Trump rally typically is not complete without the audience booing the press at least once.
“They search for something he might have said 30 years ago and treat it like, ‘Oh, this is important,’ ” Magel said at Monday’s rally. “But you have Hillary and Obama lying their [expletive] off right now and no big deal.”
(Scott Clement contributed to this report. Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign. David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.)