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On Trump, Mueller and Pinocchio

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 27, 2018

You can almost envision an earnest President Donald Trump sitting at a conference table across from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the man whom he reportedly tried to fire last June to stop his investigation, to answer questions about violating federal law.

In most forms, anyone watching will see Trump’s nose grow longer, as he denies that there had been any connection, never mind collusion, between his campaign and Russian operatives, or whether he had done anything that could be labeled obstruction of justice.

There is that sticking point about the Pinocchio story: Did the wooden puppet actually believe what he was saying, or was he aware that he was telling a lie?

A couple of years ago, The New Yorker Magazine ran a piece about morality, about exploring the Pinocchio tale, Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio” (serialized in 1881–1883) — the original text for the watered-down Walt Disney adaptation.

The fairy tale comes up, of course, because Americans have a serial liar in the White House. Trump is so habituated in reshaping actualities into self-serving stories that nothing that is said in criticism of his administration can pass without being labeled not only untrue, but “fake news,” even if it is opinion. And in the fairy tale, there was no Republican leadership group to remain silent as Pinocchio continued to lie.

I’m no psychologist, but even lay people can understand that a true practicing narcissist can believe in the tales he or she tells to re-orient the world around himself.

Thus, Trump may enter the room with Mueller fully believing that he is being truthful about no one in his family or campaign staff having reached out to embrace help from Russians intent on trying to influence the election narrative, or having illegally sought to shut down an investigation into non-existent collusion. From his point of view, apparently, these events may simply not have taken place.

Apparently over time, this is a hallmark of Trump’s appearances and legal depositions in other courtroom challenges: He simply doesn’t acknowledge that any wrongdoing took place. He never withheld payments to contractors, for example; instead, he was negotiating for a better price for himself.

And now, he will say that he never tried to fire Mueller, that he wanted an unloyal James B. Comey Jr. out as director of the FBI even without the Russia investigation looming, that he had believed that a Russian-sought meeting in Trump Tower with his son, Donald Jr., actually was about adoptions of Russian children, that he thought it was perfectly to be expected that his attorney general would protect his presidency and himself, and that as president, he has command over all the Justice Department does anyway.

In short, he may well tell “lies” about actions that others see as obstruction of justice but that he sees as “truth.”

As Pinocchio would illustrate, Trump’s nose may end up at the end of that meeting to need the longest distances in the Oval Office. A circular office would not work.

I understand this may matter because obstruction of justice as a provable criminal charge will involve evaluation of specific “intent” to interfere in judicial proceedings, as evidenced through Trump’s various actions. More properly, that can be made most evident through a pattern of actions, including the now-confirmed reports that Trump ordered the firing of Mueller until he backed down over the objection of the White House counsel. Let’s set aside the separate, expected legal challenges of whether the President of the United States can effectively be charged criminally and whether the Congress will find an adult self to consider impeachment proceedings.

Instead, let us go back to the New Yorker, where writer Clancy Martin explores the original Pinocchio tale. “Every time he lies, his nose grows — this time, two fingers longer — and then he tells two more lies in quick succession, while the fairy laughs at him and poor Pinocchio, ‘getting quite confused,’ finds himself with such a long nose that he can’t even run from the house to hide his shame; his nose has grown to such an enormous size that it won’t fit through the door. . . In a familiar, rarely effective technique of argument, scrambling to extricate himself from the lies he has told, Pinocchio tries to put the blame back on the fairy. The fairy then ‘allowed the puppet to cry and to roar for a good half hour over his nose . . . This she did to give him a severe lesson, and to correct him of the disgraceful fault of telling lies — the most disgraceful fault that a boy can have.”

All of which sounds a lot like Trump still blaming Hillary Clinton, Democrats, a corrupt FBI, a misguided intelligence agency complex, Congress and the news media.

“The rest of the book is much less concerned with Pinocchio’s lying than it is with other kinds of naughtiness he engages in,” said the magazine writer.

So too, should we really be concerned here with the substantive issues at hand, ranging from stopping foreign interference in American elections to how we treat the most vulnerable in our society.

“Pinocchio asks the fairy how she knew that he was lying. The fairy replies: ‘Lies, my dear boy, are found out immediately, because they are of two sorts. There are lies that have short legs, and lies that have long noses. Your lie, as it happens, is one of those that have a long nose.’ This is an interesting distinction, one worth remembering. Lies that have short legs are those that carry you a little distance but cannot outrun the truth. The truthful consequences always catch up with someone who tells a lie with short legs. Lies that have long noses are those that are obvious to everyone except the person who told the lie, lies that make the liar look ridiculous. In either case, according to our often-deceitful fairy, lies are bad because they result in bad consequences for the liar. And this conclusion of the fairy is noteworthy, because the vast majority of arguments against lying are made because lies are, so this line goes, unfair or harmful to the people who believe the liar.”

This seems a lesson worth heeding and applying to the White House, which seems to have re-created the fairy as the news media.

“When at last Pinocchio is transformed into a real boy by the fairy, it is not because he’s learned the value of honesty, but as the fairy says to him in his dreams, ‘To reward you for your good heart … Boys who minister tenderly to their parents, and assist them in their misery and infirmities, are deserving of great praise and affection, even if they cannot be cited as examples of obedience and good behavior. Try and do better in the future and you will be happy.’ So, it is really for his good intentions that he is rewarded, and Pinocchio’s few lies — and many misdeeds — were, though consistently misguided, never malicious. Pinocchio himself doesn’t learn the lesson.

Neither will Trump, who also seems not to have a reliably good heart to attend to the misery and infirmities in our society.


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