WASHINGTON — There are days in Washington lately when it feels like the truth itself is on trial. Monday was one of those days.
An impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill presented radically competing versions of reality. An F.B.I. inspector general report punctured longstanding conspiracy theories even as it provided ammunition for others. And a trove of documents exposed years of government deception about the war in Afghanistan.
While truth was deemed an endangered species in the nation’s capital long before President Trump’s arrival, it has become axiomatic in the era of “alternative facts” that each person or party entertains only their own preferred variant, resisting contrary information. Rarely has that been on display as starkly as on Monday, underscoring the deep distrust that many Americans harbor toward their leaders and institutions.
“We’re in a dangerous moment,” said Peter Wehner, a former strategic adviser to President George W. Bush and a vocal critic of Mr. Trump. “The danger is people come to believe that nobody is giving them the facts and reality, and everybody can make up their own script and their own narrative.”
In such a situation, he added, “truth as a concept gets obliterated because people’s investment in certain narratives is so deep that facts simply won’t get in the way.”
Mr. Trump, whose myriad false statements and public lies have been extensively cataloged, hardly caused this phenomenon by himself, but he exemplifies it better than anyone else. He is the Rorschach test of truth, the guidepost by which people choose their story line. Most Americans tell pollsters that they do not believe what he says, but a significant minority considers him a truth-teller in a broader sense, saying out loud what others will not about a broken system he vows to fix, even if he does not hew to particular facts.
And in some ways, his what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach makes him more transparent about his motives and feelings than any president in generations. Rather than hide his more base reactions and ambitions, however raw and unseemly, he flaunts them and invites his supporters to share them.
With the help of social media, friendly news outlets and congressional Republicans willing to follow his lead, he crafts a message that finds its audience.
He took office at a time when trust was already a dwindling commodity in American life. Much of the public may not trust Mr. Trump, according to surveys, but it likewise does not trust his opponents all that much either — or the news media that he complains is out to get him. Americans have been down on banks, big business, the criminal justice system and the health care system for years, and fewer have confidence in churches or organized religion now than at any point since Gallup started asking in 1973.
“The story of the past half-century is the steady degradation of trust in the institutions and gatekeepers of American life,” said Ben Domenech, the founder of The Federalist, a conservative news site. “Everything from politics to faith to sports has been revealed as corrupted or corruptible. And every mismanaged war, failed hurricane response, botched investigation and doping scandal furthers this view.”
While a Quinnipiac Poll last spring found that Americans believed the news media more than Mr. Trump by a margin of 52 percent to 35 percent, other surveys showed a crisis among everyday people distinguishing fact from fiction in public life. Nearly two-thirds of Americans in a poll released last month by The Associated Press, the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts said they often came across one-sided information, and 47 percent said they had difficulty knowing if the information were true.
The documents on Afghanistan made public on Monday could easily deepen that sense of suspicion. Some 2,000 pages of secret notes and interview transcripts compiled as part of a lessons-learned project and released to The Washington Post after a court fight showed that the government had misled the public about the war since its early months.
As Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who was an adviser on Afghanistan to Mr. Bush and President Barack Obama, admitted in a secret interview included in the documents, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.” But neither administration admitted that to the public. John F. Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, told The Post that the documents showed “the American people have constantly been lied to.”
The F.B.I. inspector general report released on Monday typified the choose-your-own-reality nature of Washington these days. The report debunked Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories about the origins of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, finding no “political bias or improper motivation” in opening the inquiry. But the inspector general also found that the bureau made serious mistakes in seeking a surveillance warrant.
Former F.B.I. officials took the report as vindication because it dispelled the many unfounded claims Mr. Trump and his supporters advanced about the bureau even as they fretted that too many people would still believe the president’s assertions. “There is a risk we’ve become so numb to the lying that we move onto the next outrage,” the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, who was fired by Mr. Trump, said on CNN.
Likewise, the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing on Monday offered conflicting versions to suit either side’s predilections — either the story of an out-of-control president abusing his power to pressure a foreign government to help him take down his domestic rivals or a president who just happened to be concerned about corruption in faraway Ukraine and did not tie American aid to his political priorities even though some of his own advisers thought he did.
Mr. Trump’s insistence that he did nothing wrong has forced at least some Republicans to accept and promote his account even when it contrasts with available evidence. A Republican lawyer presenting the case to the committee on Monday went so far as to say that the evidence did not show that Mr. Trump asked Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a now-famous July 25 phone call even though the White House’s own reconstructed transcript quoted him asking his counterpart to “look into it.”
Mr. Trump is hardly the first dissembler in the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon were famously talented liars, and Bill Clinton was the first president ever found by a court to have testified falsely under oath. But what Mr. Trump lacks in finesse, he makes up in volume. The Post’s fact-checking unit counted more than 13,000 false or misleading statements by Mr. Trump as of October.
The trials of truth have been a consistent theme of his presidency since its first day when he overstated his inaugural crowd size and within days falsely claimed that at least three million immigrants voted illegally against him, costing him the popular vote.
The culture of dishonesty has resulted in multiple people once in his inner circle pleading guilty or being convicted of lying to the authorities, including his onetime national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; his former personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen; several campaign aides; and most recently, his longtime associate and sometime adviser Roger J. Stone Jr., who was found guilty last month in a courthouse just across from the Capitol.
Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, made clear during testimony before Congress in September that he felt perfectly free to lie on television because, in his view, the news media itself was dishonest. “I have no obligation to have a candid conversation with the media whatsoever, just like they have no obligation to cover me honestly, and they do it inaccurately all the time,” he told lawmakers.
The president and his allies have sought to turn the tables on Democrats by accusing them of being the dishonest ones. Mr. Trump’s favorite target is Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which conducted the Ukraine inquiry in response to a C.I.A. whistle-blower.
Mr. Trump, who regularly accuses critics of whatever they have accused him of, has taken to calling the congressman “Shifty Schiff” and likewise complains that the parody he gave of Mr. Trump’s July 25 call to make a point was dishonest even though Mr. Schiff made clear it was not a verbatim rendering.
Democrats dismissed the attacks on Mr. Schiff as a false-equivalence effort to distract from the president’s own conduct. But they did not have Mr. Schiff present the evidence on Monday, leaving it to a lawyer instead, avoiding the distraction.
The attacks on Mr. Schiff and other Democrats give Mr. Trump and his supporters their own counternarrative amplified on conservative television and social media. By the end of Monday, each side took what it wanted from the day’s developments and drew the conclusions that best reflected its views.
“In an atomized age,” said Mr. Domenech, “that allows individuals to retreat to their own story lines, fantasies and tales in which their tribe is always good or under attack, and the other always craven and duplicitous.”
For Mr. Trump, that is a truth he can live with.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.