WASHINGTON – It’s an amusing story that always gets a laugh and allows Presient Donald Trump to show he’s a good friend to Israel.
But each time Trump tells it, he changes an important detail.
The scene: a Hanukkah celebration in the White House’s crystal-chandeliered East Room on Dec. 11. Trump entertained his audience by recalling a conversation with a Jewish friend he identified as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Trump said he asked Kraft which of his presidential decisions was more significant: Moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
“He said, ‘Neither … What you did by terminating the Iran nuclear deal is bigger than both,’” Trump recalled.
Four hours later, at another Hanukkah celebration in the same room, Trump told virtually the same story with one major exception: This time, he identified the other person in the conversation as real estate developer Charles Kushner. Four days earlier, Trump had told the same tale at an Israeli-American Council summit in Hollywood, Fla. That time, he identified the Jewish friend in the conversation as casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson.
The “Jewish friend” narrative isn’t the only often-told Trump tale riddled with inconsistencies.
Trump frequently recalls meeting a tough-as-nails cop who could clean up Chicago in a week – or one or two days, in some versions.
In yet another anecdote, Trump recounted meeting a police officer whose wife thinks he’s a financial genius because his 401(k) has soared during the Trump presidency. In some versions, Trump has identified the central character as a New York policeman. Other times the identity has been less precise – a police officer (no city or state named) or a generic husband or wife.
More striking is the supposed growth rate in the character’s retirement savings. In some versions, Trump has reported that the person’s 401(k) is up by 39 percent. In others, he has claimed it jumped by 42, 44, 46, 48, 49, 50, 55, 60 and 72 percent.
While the overarching theme of Trump’s narratives remains the same, the constantly changing details raise questions: Are the stories based on real individuals or merely composites of various people he has met? Or are they fiction – presidential parables concocted to drive home a broader truth about public policy?
The White House did not directly address the fact-or-fiction question when asked to explain the inconsistencies in Trump’s anecdotes.
“There is no one better at being able to connect with their audience than President Trump,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
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Whether he’s speaking at a small roundtable or in an arena filled with thousands of people, Deere said, Trump is able to connect with everyone through his remarks. Many times, Deere said, those remarks include “personal anecdotes from his past, people he’s talked to.” Other times, he invites attendees “to share their stories with those in attendance in a way that illustrates important, truthful messages he wants the audience to absorb.”
Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former Trump aide who said she witnessed his tendency to alter the details in his frequently told tales, said she suspects Trump of stretching the truth.
“None of it is probably true – or it might have maybe an ounce of truth,” she said.
Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s best-selling how-to book “The Art of the Deal,” considers Trump’s stories works of fiction. “I think he makes up stories out of whole cloth,” Schwartz said.
Trump is far from the first politician to share personal anecdotes or tales involving a cast of colorful characters to help make a broader point about policy.
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Ronald Reagan complained of “welfare queens” to call attention to women who collect large government checks through fraud. “Joe the Plumber,” the Ohioan whose real name is Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, became a metaphor for working-class Americans and emerged as a topic of debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign.
That same year, Hillary Clinton told supporters on the campaign trail a frightening story of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire when she was first lady – an account that was called into question by multiple fact-checkers. Clinton later said she misspoke.
Just last fall, former Vice President Joe Biden recalled how a heroic Navy captain had refused to be awarded the Silver Star because he felt like a failure – a believe-it-or-not tale The Washington Post later reported appeared to be a jumble of at least three real-life events.
“Personal anecdotes are always a powerful way to help voters view an issue through the lens of their own experience and how it impacts them directly,” said Kevin Madden, a political consultant who has advised several Republican presidential candidates.
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Most Americans don’t immerse themselves in policy debates the way Washington insiders do, “so the more personal you make the debate and the more local you make it, the more invested they become in your argument because it’s more relatable,” Madden said.
But when it comes to exaggeration or changing details, “Trump just happens to defy gravity on that front the way no regular politician ever could,” Madden said.
“Where most get tripped up so easily for puffing up details or cutting corners, Trump works in such sheer volume that the public, and even the media, has become desensitized to it,” Madden said. “His base and his political allies also never desert him, explaining it away as broadly correct on the merits, even if the details are wrong.”
‘What difference does it make?’
Manigault Newman said she first noticed Trump’s habit of modifying his favorite stories when she came into his orbit as a contestant during the first season of his television reality show, The Apprentice.
Back then, Trump liked to tell about a financially strapped family he had seen on the news and how he had paid off the family’s mortgage. Manigault Newman said she later heard him recount the same story, but with one difference: Trump claimed to have paid the family’s medical bills, not its mortgage.
“I heard those stories as far back as 2003,” she said. “Then fast forward, when he launched the (presidential) campaign and he started telling these stories, they would be so different.”
Manigault Newman, who worked for Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and later followed him to the White House, said Trump’s revisions of his favorite stories eventually became such a concern that campaign aides attempted to fact-check some of them. But the absence of detail and Trump’s lack of recall made that an impossible task.
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The family whose mortgage or medical bills Trump claimed to have paid? Trump could not offer aides even basic details, such as whether the family lived in New York or somewhere else, Manigault Newman said. Trump’s attorney at the time, Michael Cohen, looked for financial records to back up the story, she said. He found nothing.
When aides asked Trump for specifics, “He literally looked at us and said what difference does it make?” said Manigault Newman, who wrote a tell-all book after she was forced out of the White House in 2017.
“We kind of threw up our hands and just decided we weren’t going to be able to get him to tell the truth,” she said.
Schwartz said he had the same problem while working on “The Art of the Deal,” the book that would help make Trump a household name.
“During the reporting of ‘The Art of the Deal,’ Trump told me multiple stories about his deals that turned out not to be true, which I discovered by interviewing other people who had been part of the deals,” Schwartz said.
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One story that made it into the book involved construction of Trump’s first casino in Atlantic City. Trump claimed he was worried the Holiday Inn Corp., a potential partner, would not invest in the project if it discovered that not much work had been done. So when the company’s board members paid a visit to the site, Trump said, he directed his construction crew to bring in bulldozers and other heavy equipment to make it appear the project was farther along than it was.
“One of the people who was closest to him in Atlantic City later told me that was completely made up,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who now says he regrets his involvement in the book and has become a vocal Trump critic, said he was suspicious whenever Trump started one of his anecdotes by claiming to recount a conversation with a friend.
“It struck me from the get-go that he was attaching these stories to human beings because he thought they would sound more persuasive,”’ Schwartz said.
The cop who can clean up Chicago
One of Trump’s favorite anecdotes that stretches back to his days on the campaign trail is the story of a Chicago police officer who told him he could solve the city’s intractable violence problem in one week.
On Aug. 22, 2016, Trump told former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that during a visit to Chicago, where a rally was planned at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he met “a couple of very top police.”
“I said, ‘How do you stop this? How do you stop this?’” Trump recalled asking the officer about the city’s violence. “’If you were put in charge – to a specific person – do you think you could stop it?’ He said, ‘Mr. Trump, I’d be able to stop it in one week.’ And I believed him 100%”
Trump discussed a similar conversation on July 28, 2017, at a police event in Long Island, N.Y., though this time Trump spoke of an officer in his motorcycle escort to the airport. The officer – a “rough cookie,” Trump said – told him the city’s crime problem could be “straightened out.”
“I said, ‘How long would it take you to straighten out this problem?'” the president added. “And he said, ‘If you gave me the authority – couple of days.’ I really mean it.”
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Trump again mentioned the story during an interview with Sean Hannity on Oct. 11, 2017, telling the Fox News host the police officer informed him he could solve the city’s violence problem “immediately.”
“I said, ‘How do you stop this?’” Trump told Hannity. “’We could stop it immediately, sir.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you could stop it immediately?’ ‘If they let us do our job, we could stop it immediately.’”
During a speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s annual conference in Chicago in October, Trump again said an officer told him he could release the city from the grip of violence in “one day.”
The Chicago Police Department has never been able to identify the individual Trump references in the alleged conversation, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told USA TODAY.
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“We attempted to locate this individual, and everybody that was associated with the event – not only with the university event, but also the security at Trump Tower – had no knowledge,” he said. “No one had spoken to anyone from the campaign or the candidate at that time.”
“That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Guglielmi said, noting that motor escorts are carried out by state police, not Chicago police.
Crying business executives, other vague tales
Some of Trump’s anecdotes are far less specific and defy an effort at fact checking.
In one, which he has told at least three times since becoming president, he talked of unnamed heads of corporations – “powerful people, big people” – who have walked into the Oval Office and become so overcome with emotion that they dissolve into tears.
“They haven’t cried since they were a baby – some of them never cried at all, even when they were a baby — and they start to cry when they walk into the Oval Office,” Trump told the crowd at an economic summit in Charlotte, N.C., on Feb. 7.
In another, Trump tells of an unnamed businessman who hates him but is working to get him re-elected.
“I can’t stand that guy,” Trump said during a House Republican retreat in Baltimore on Sept. 13, 2019. But, “I meet him recently and I see him, and he’s working with my people on helping us out with fundraisers and everything. I say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I’m trying to help you get elected.’ I said, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ And then, I looked at him and I said, ‘But actually, you do have no choice.’
“Isn’t it true? You don’t have a choice.”
Jim, the former Francophile
In an interview with Fox News on Sept. 9, 2015, Trump complained to O’Reilly that France had fallen into decline. “I was in Paris recently, and Paris doesn’t look like Paris anymore,” he said.
Trump told a similar story at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside of Washington on Feb. 27, 2017. This time, he attributed the comment to a friend he identified only as “Jim” – a “very, very substantial guy” who he said loves the City of Lights and used to visit every summer.
“I said, ‘Jim, let me ask you a question: How’s Paris doing?” Trump recalled.
The former Francophile’s response: “Paris? I don’t go there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.”
Francois Hollande, the French president at the time, was so put off by Trump’s tale that he offered to send him or “Jim” a free ticket to Disneyland Paris. The New Yorker magazine was so intrigued it set out to identify the subject of that story by contacting various Jims who have been associated with Trump through the years. Pas chance! Each Jim interviewed said he was not the “Jim” in Trump’s tale.
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French media confronted Trump about the tale when he visited Paris a few months later.
“That’s a beauty,” Trump said, mocking one reporter’s questions before insisting Paris “is going to be just fine because you have a great president,” referring to the new French leader, Emmanuel Macron, who was at his side.
“I really have a feeling that you’re going to have a very, very peaceful and beautiful Paris,” Trump concluded. “And I’m coming back.”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian
Michael Collins covers the White House. Reach him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.