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Ongoing Controversy Threatens To Damage Trump's Credibility


Americans look to the president for truth and accuracy on the events of the day, but this week, the Trump White House has struggled to get its story straight on a range of topics. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what this means for Donald Trump's credibility and why credibility matters.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Remember when Donald Trump made this promise?


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I can be the most presidential person ever other than possibly the great Abe Lincoln, all right? But I can be the most presidential person.

LIASSON: Trump still has a long way to go to catch up with honest Abe. Pete Wehner, a Republican critic of Trump, is a former Bush White House official.

PETE WEHNER: Donald Trump has shattered his credibility a hundred times over since he's been president. I mean the most recent example was last week when the White House gave one version of events to explain the Comey firing and Trump came forward and gave an entirely different explanation for the events.

LIASSON: Here's Vice President Pence's explanation and then President Trump's very different one.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The president took strong and decisive leadership here to put the safety and security of the American people first by accepting the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.


TRUMP: Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

WEHNER: They've made claims that we know are lies, and when that happens time and time again, you get to the point where what they say doesn't really matter.

LIASSON: OK, but don't all politicians lie? Not really, says Republican strategist Rick Tyler.

RICK TYLER: This sounds sort of counterintuitive, but most politicians try not to lie because they fear they would get caught, and they couldn't suffer the burden of embarrassment.

LIASSON: But credibility or the lack of it has never been a problem for Donald Trump. He's been using what he's called truthful hyperbole his whole life. It worked for him in business, in show business and as a candidate. But, says Tyler, being president is different.

TYLER: If the president gives his word to the American people or to legislatures or to a foreign power, everyone on every level has to know that he means what he says and he says what he means.

LIASSON: Without credibility, Tyler says it will be harder for President Trump to sell his policies to voters, and as he visits foreign leaders in Europe and the Middle East next week, it could make it harder to get them to follow his lead. Or maybe it won't matter at all. John Feehery, another Republican strategist, says when Trump travels abroad, he will be received as any president of the United States would - as the most powerful man on the planet. And back home, says Feehery, Trump still has credibility with the people who count.

JOHN FEEHERY: I think the president still has a lot of credibility with the folks who brought him to the White House, the Trump voter, and the Republican base.

LIASSON: Trump's overall approval ratings are at historic lows, but they're still strong with Republicans, voters, says Feehery, who are not fixated on what Trump said or didn't say about James Comey.

FEEHERY: Most Americans, you know - they don't want to see corruption from their political leaders. But you know, ultimately what they care most about is their own daily lives and what's happening to them. And all of this Washington stuff is just Washington stuff.

LIASSON: That may be true, but right now, Donald Trump and his credibility are caught up in a particular kind of Washington stuff, a criminal investigation by a special counsel where the president's word is going to be tested against the word of the man he fired for investigating his campaign's ties to Russia. And that's where the president's credibility gap could become a credibility crisis. Rick Tyler...

TYLER: We have a situation now where the former FBI director, Comey, and the president were in a room, the Oval Office, by themselves. And essentially it is he said versus he said. So ultimately, in a legal sense, the people are going to be asked, who do you believe? Do you believe Director Comey, or do you believe Donald Trump? And right now, I think the deck is stacked against Trump and his own words.

LIASSON: A president's credibility is like money socked away in a savings account. At some point, you're going to need some of those funds. Donald Trump has already spent a lot of his. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.