Hope Hicks is kidding herself if she thinks that her tenure in the Trump White House will be judged only for harmless, situational untruths.
Presidents are in the habit of lying—often with bloody consequences. The Bay of Pigs, the Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, Iran-Contra, “mushroom clouds,” and “weapons of mass destruction”—these are just a few of the postwar greatest hits. But, in terms of frequency and of the almost joyful abandonment of integrity as a demand of the office, Donald Trump is singular. He starts lying in the morning, tweeting while watching Fox News, and he keeps at it until his head hits the pillow at night. He lies to slander and seduce, he lies to profit, and he sometimes lies, it seems, just because. His capacity for falsehood is so heroic that we struggle to keep count of the daily instances. (After one year of the Trump Presidency, the Washington Post put the average at 5.9 falsehoods per day, a total of 2,140.) One consequence of this aspect of Trump’s character—oftentimes, it seems to be the very core of his character—is that lying defines the culture of his Administration just as it did his family business.
Hope Hicks has now announced that she is resigning as Trump’s communications director. This comes just one day after she told the House Intelligence Committee, in a nine-hour closed-door session, that she was occasionally given to telling “white lies.” In the moral universe of the Trump White House, her sin could not have been the lying; it could only be the admission.
Michael Flynn. Paul Manafort. Sean Spicer. Anthony Scaramucci. Steve Bannon. Sebastian Gorka. Omarosa Manigault-Newman. Next to these now-departed characters, Hope Hicks was a decidedly recessive cast member, almost a cipher by her own design. She was known among White House reporters to answer calls, texts, and e-mails––a courtesy that is hardly a universal in politics––though she almost never allowed herself to be quoted. When she appeared on television, it was inadvertent, as if she had mistakenly stepped into the frame. When she was written about, reporters invariably leaned on stock phrases about her appearance, her outfits, her loyalty and access to Trump, her ability to read his moods, her stint as a model, and her upbringing in Greenwich, Connecticut. As a communications director, she was, when it came to the subject of Hope Hicks, uncommunicative. The words she used to describe her feelings upon resigning were that she had “no words.”
Hicks, however, is kidding herself if she thinks that her tenure will be judged only for harmless, situational untruths. The white lie is a phrase that goes back to the sixteenth century, at least. “Shakespeare’s World,” a collaboration between the Oxford English Dictionary and the Folger Shakespeare Library, reports that, in 1567, one Ralph Adderly wrote of his brother-in-law, “I do assure you he is unsuspected of any untruth or other notable crime (except a white lie) which is taken for a Small fault in these parts.”
The President’s daily communications are a tangle of falsehoods, defamations, and tall tales, and Hicks was his facilitator, his defender, his explainer. That line of work goes far beyond the scope of “white lies.” Sissela Bok, in “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” writes that white lies are “the most common and the most trivial forms that duplicity can take.” They are lies “not meant to injure anyone.”
The Administration’s penchant for deception is injurious in many ways, not least because it devalues truth as a value in public discourse. Like Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Hicks, even in her camera- and microphone-shy way, spent years being loyal to Trump and his mendacities. She was always prepared to do his bidding, including when there was an ugliness to the bidding: She pushed back hard against the Pope when he dared to criticize the President’s hopes to wall off Mexico. She cast her lot with him and stayed with him as the injuries he inflicted multiplied. A well-reported Politico profile of Hicks portrayed her loyalty as eerily absolute: “Colleagues described Hicks as someone who communicates with Trump in a similar way to his daughter Ivanka––she can express her disagreements to the president privately, but ultimately supports his decisions unquestioningly.”
It is not entirely clear why Hicks is resigning. Maggie Haberman, of the Times, tweeted that the “white lies” moment was not the reason. It could be that Hicks is just worn out from being by Trump’s side for nearly three years. She hardly distinguished herself while trying to cover for Rob Porter, a former White House aide whose two ex-wives accused him of assault. She is said to have been involved romantically with Porter.
Perhaps we will hear from Hope Hicks in a more unguarded way in the future. The pattern has been that, once these aides lose their White House passes and get some distance from the tumult of Pennsylvania Avenue, they begin to reveal their sense of despair about the place, if not their shame. Everyone hates everyone; everyone has it out for the rest. Just today the President tweeted that his Attorney General was “disgraceful.” “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by fifty,” Reince Priebus is quoted as saying in a new chapter of “The Gatekeepers,” a book on White House chiefs of staff, by Chris Whipple.
Trump has created a poisonous culture in his Administration that is not only doing great damage to the country but is also destroying itself. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, is known by foreign leaders to be so hungry for business and open to influence that he’s been denied the security clearances that a President’s emissary would need. Now the Times has revealed that he has taken tens of millions of dollars in loans from financial interests that only recently came to do White House business with him.
The Oval Office used to be described as a chaotic “Grand Central Station,” mobbed with warring satraps hustling for the President’s fleeting attentions. One after another, they have headed for, or they have been shown, the door. Perhaps Hope Hicks will retain her sense of discretion long after she leaves the White House. In any case, it is hard to agree that her deceptions were merely occasional or, as she put it to the House members, “white lies”; the self-deception required to serve Donald Trump with such unquestioning devotion, to be his voice, knowing what she must know, has proved anything but harmless.
- David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”