Donald Trump’s unique blend of paranoia and vindictiveness has made today’s revelation by Politico about the president’s increasing obsession with administering lie detector tests to White House staff as a method of staunching the constant stream of leaks of negative information about his administration both frightening and entirely predictable.
According to “four former White House officials,” Trump has “frequently discussed whether to order polygraphs of White House staffers after major disclosures.” One of those officials said that it is a topic that the president discusses “constantly.”
“He talked about it a lot,” the former official said. “He’d be angry and ask, ‘Why can’t we stop these things?’”
“He wanted to polygraph every employee in the building to unearth who it was who spoke to the press,” another former official said, adding that Trump gets particularly incenced when he knows that a specific report that he’s labeled as “fake news” is actually factual.
As a president who has set new records for the number of all-out falsehoods that he has promulgated to the public, one would imagine that the very presence of a polygraph machine anywhere in his vicinity would induce the sort of reaction that vampires have to garlic or a crucifix or that Superman has to Kryptonite.
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Yet, the leaks about the inner turmoil in the White House — leaks that have been a hallmark of the chaotic Trump administration since the beginning of his term — seem to provide enough motivation to the president to overcome any instinctual recoiling he may have towards a device that can confirm the falsity of his every word if it can lend credence to his claims of spies and traitors in his midst.
Trump’s paranoia reportedly has its roots in the leaks of stories of political infighting in the Oval Office, as well as in the sudden appearance of call transcripts and drafts of executive orders in the press. Up until now, each time the president has suggested the drastic step of polygraphing every White House employee, some level headed aide or another has managed to talk him off the cliff, but he reportedly continues to press the issue.
Some see the aides as duplicitously agreeing with Trump about the need to have everyone submit to the lie detector tests in order to calm him down while privately denouncing the idea as ludicrous.
“It was something that was discussed and people were trying to placate the president and trying to show that they were taking it as personally and just as seriously as he was,” one of the former White House officials said. “Taking that line of, ‘Oh yeah, we have to polygraph people’ was a way to ingratiate themselves with him, but it wasn’t an idea that ever went anywhere because it was absurd.”
Asked about the reports of the president’s fixation on polygraphs to ferret out internal leakers, his Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said:
“I think the president and anyone in his administration have the right to be frustrated and even angry about leaks. Leaking information, which is often times classified, only hurts this country. I have been with the president since July 2015 and can say unequivocally that I have never heard suggesting polygraphs as a way to stop leaks.”
The leakers of the story about Trump’s obsession with polygraphs beg to differ.
According to Politico:
“Former aides cite Trump’s on-again, off-again polygraph obsession as a prime example of how he runs the White House — he talks frequently about the need to do something, they said, while not always issuing explicit instructions. ‘The way he does business a lot of times is just keep saying things over and over and over again and hopes that somebody does it, but that gives him deniability if he said, “Well I never said specifically to do it,”’the former White House official said.”
Since a 2003 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that lie detector tests were “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results,” including an unacceptably large rate of false positives, polygraphs have been discredited as inaccurate measures of truthfulness.
Given Trump’s disdain for scientific accuracy, it’s not surprising to find that he supports the use of instruments that scientists have largely abandoned as useless.
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Original reporting by Daniel Lippman at Politico.