Can you lie about future events? Here’s a comparison of two statements, both cast as “lies”:
OBAMA: “no matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan.” (June 15, 2009)TRUMP: “There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down.” (November 21, 2015)
In my judgement, Obama was wrong but Trump lied.
What makes the difference? The difference is that Obama was making a statement about a FUTURE event.
In June 2009, the health care plan was nowhere close to being decided. The Tea Party rose up a few months after this statement, Congress was battling over small and large changes, and everything was uncertain. So what was Obama talking about? He was talking about what he was trying to put into place — it was a statement about what the future would be IF Congress passed Obama’s plan. They didn’t. For these reasons, PolitiFact rated it “half-true” because it was a statement about the future.
Trump was making a statement about a HISTORICAL event. In November 2015, the WTC buildings had been attacked 14 years earlier. The story about “thousands cheering” had been circulated shortly after the 2001 event, had been investigated by many fact-checkers and been found to be false. PolitiFact gave it a “pants-on-fire” false rating.
Can you lie about the future? I think you can under only one condition — that you can create or obstruct the future that you’re lying about. For example: if you know you will be at the theater at 7:00PM, you would be lying if, at noon, you told a friend “I’ll be home at 7:00PM”. However, if you intend to be home at 7:00PM but get held up in traffic until 7:30PM, you would not have lied to your friend — you would have been wrong.
Likewise, if, the next day, you say “I was home at 7:00PM last night” when, in fact, you were at the theater or you were stuck in traffic — that would be a lie. It’s a statement about what happened in the past, and you knew that what you said was false.
What’s the big deal? Because, once again, 7 years later, I listened to one commentator discuss Trump’s most recent lie (something about “millions of people” being at his inauguration), and another commentator countered “Well, Obama lied — he said you could keep your doctor. Why aren’t you talking about Obama’s lies?”
Yes, it’s correct to say “We’re not talking about Obama, we’re talking about Trump.” But it’s better to say “Being wrong about the future is just being wrong. Being wrong about the past is lying.”