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Why Clinton and Trump need to lie

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Steven McCornack, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he studies communication and deception. The views expressed here are his own.

Donald Trump is not a liar. Nor is Hillary Clinton. Sure, they both lie. Yet, neither is a liar. Why?

Lying is a practical choice, not a personal characteristic. Whereas "dishonesty" has long been thought of as a trait -- people are "liars" or they are "honest" -- deception is actually an outcomeof negative attributes and behaviors. If I'm the kind of person who cheats, steals and betrays, I'm going to have to deceive to keep others from punishing me for these failings.

I've spent the majority of my adult life studying how and why people lie. My work, conducted across the last three decades, points to two broad conclusions: Lies are rare and people lie for practical reasons.

First, people don't lie that often. The late scholar Ronnie Turner was the first to observe this, in a study in the 1970s. Turner and his colleagues had people record "important conversations" and then bring their notes back to the lab. Subjects analyzed their own statements in terms of truth. Much of what people said was less than truthful, peppered with spin, light exaggeration or -- most commonly -- omission. But how frequently did people baldly lie? Not often.

Don't believe it? Ask yourself, how many lies have you told in the last day? If you're like most people, according to deception researcher Tim Levine, that number will be in the low single digits, if not zero.

On the other hand, a small proportion of the population tells a lot of lies. Some people tell dozens a day. This pattern perfectly maps onto patterns of criminality: a small percentage of the population does almost all of the cheating, stealing and killing that victimizes everyone else.


Second, people lie for practical reasons; specifically, when the information they have in their heads is too problematic to share.

I did a series of studies with Dr. Kelly Morrison, my colleague at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. We started with a situation in which you are "going to the library to get some work done." Afterward, your partner asks about your evening. Then we added complicating elements. A friend invites you to a party, and you forgo your work. The friend is someone your partner hates. You and your partner have fought previously about your partying. You flirt with your ex at the party. You and your ex hook up. In total, we had eight different versions of the same situation.

No one lied when they "went to the library and worked." Why would they? Most people also were honest in regard to simple "party attendance." But as soon as other elements crept into the mix -- you went with a friend your partner hated, you flirted with an ex -- people began lying. Why? Because lying in these situations is easier than struggling with how to truthfully frame the negative information in positive ways.

Therein lies the most important takeaway regarding who will deceive and when. People lie when they think they need to -- when they've had incriminating thoughts or behaved in destructive, ruinous ways.

Trump's bullsh*t: Why his supporters don't care that he's lying

All of which brings us back to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Why should anyone be perplexed by their propensity to lie? Each has a history of questionable behavior and corresponding duplicity. Clinton behaved recklessly in handling sensitive emails and stated that her use of a private server "was allowed" -- which Politifact noted was a lie.

Trump brings to his candidacy a breathtaking backlog of problematic thoughts and behaviors. He has been accused of groping women and ripping off contractors, and has lent his name and stamp of approval to a university accused of fraud. It's no surprise, therefore, that he lies with greater frequency than any politician on record.

Show me someone who compulsively lies, and I'll show you someone with much to hide. But Trump also takes it to the next level; lying to attain a host of goals that have nothing to do with hiding bad stuff. Appear impressive? Say thousands of people couldn't get into my rally. Amp anti-Muslim sentiment? Say hoards of Muslims cheered 9/11. Discredit President Obama? Say he founded ISIS.

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Emails Related to Clinton Case Found in Anthony Weiner Investigation

by Pete Williams, Kasie Hunt and Corky Siemaszko

New FBI Review in Clinton Case After Revelation from Weiner Case 2:23

The FBI revealed Friday it was reviewing a new batch of emails that "appear to be pertinent" to its previous investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private server — and multiple federal officials told NBC News they were found as part of an on-going probe of disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner.

The emails were found on a laptop that Weiner allegedly used to send inappropriate text messages and pictures to an underage girl, the sources told NBC News.

Investigators also discovered Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, had used the same laptop to send emails to Clinton and now they are checking those messages to see if there was any classified information on them, the sources said.

Abedin, who is Clinton's closest aide, is separated from Weiner.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with senior aide Huma Abedin aboard her campaign plane at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., on Oct. 28, 2016, before traveling to Iowa for rallies. Andrew Harnik / AP

Clinton said the FBI has not been in touch with her and called on Director James Comey to release whatever emails they found immediately. She said she has no idea what they might be but added, "I'm confident whatever they are will not change the conclusion reached in July."

The Democratic nominee was referring to the FBI investigation of her use of a private email server while secretary of state which ended with no criminal charges against her.

"Voting is already underway, so the American people deserve to get the full facts immediately," she said during a brief press conference.

Asked if it will affect the election, which most polls show her winning, Clinton said, "I think people made up their minds a long time ago."

Clinton responds to new FBI email probe 3:42

In his letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee announcing the discovery of the emails, Comey made no mention of Weiner, who resigned in disgrace in a sexting scandal.

"In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation," Comey wrote. "I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation."

A senior law enforcement official told NBC News Friday that the Comey letter was sent to the Hill "out of an abundance of caution" and to be extra-thorough.

There's no indication, the official said, that Clinton, her campaign or the State Department withheld information about the contents on Weiner's laptop.

FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 7, 2016. YURI GRIPAS / AFP - Getty Images

The politically explosive revelation came just 11 days before Election Day and a top Clinton aide told NBC News that neither the candidate nor the campaign got any advance warning that Comey's letter was coming.

"It boggles the mind why this step was taken with just 11 days to go," Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said.

Comey should "provide the American public more information than is contained in the letter he sent to eight Republican committee chairmen," Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said in a statement.

"Already, we have seen characterizations that the FBI is 'reopening' an investigation but Comey's words do not match that characterization," he said. "Director Comey's letter refers to emails that have come to light in an unrelated case, but we have no idea what those emails are and the Director himself notes they may not even be significant. It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election."

Clinton Campaign in Damage Control After New FBI Review 2:17

Tim Kaine, Clinton's vice presidential running mate, who was at an early voting site in Tallahassee on Friday, told reporters "gotta read a little more, gotta read a little more" before continuing on.

Related: Read the Letter

Donald Trump called the revelation "bigger than Watergate" and praised the FBI for having "the courage to right the horrible mistake they made," an apparent reference to the agency's decision earlier this year to not press criminal charges against Clinton.

"I need to open with a very critical breaking news announcement," Trump said at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. "The FBI has just sent a letter to Congress informing them that they have discovered new emails pertaining to the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's investigation."

"This was a grave miscarriage of justice," he said, "it is about to be corrected."

Trump Reenergized After New Clinton Email FBI Review 3:12

The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee also applauded the FBI's move.

"The FBI's decision to reopen its investigation into Secretary Clinton reinforces what the House Judiciary Committee has been saying for months: the more we learn about Secretary Clinton's use of a private email server, the clearer it becomes that she and her associates committed wrongdoing and jeopardized national security," the Judiciary Committee said in a statement.

Related: FBI Releases Notes From Interview With Hillary Clinton Over Emails

But Comey, who is also a Republican and who took a lot of heat in July for his agency's decision to not charge Clinton with a crime, did not say in the letter that he was reexamining the FBI's previous finding, which concluded that her handling of the emails was sloppy but not criminal.

What does the Clinton email investigation mean? 4:15

Documents related to the case were released just before the Labor Day weekend and included a summary of Clinton's July interview with the FBI about her private email server, as well as a detailed investigative summary of the case.

It is unusual for the FBI to tell Congress, as Comey did, that it is looking over newly discovered evidence in a criminal inquiry that was otherwise closed.

Federal practice is not to comment on ongoing investigations, or discuss details of concluded investigations. Comey previously explained his departure from that practice in his earlier congressional testimony, given the special nature of this case and congressional oversight inquiries.

Still, some congressional Democrats told NBC News Friday that they are frustrated that Comey issued the letter reopening this issue without providing much in the way of specifics.

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I think both of these candidates are poor choices and the American people will pay.


I'm more disappointed with Clinton.


She's been caught lying numerous times and her friends have recently pleaded the 5th and made deals with the FBI.


This had to do with national security and government issues.


And her private server is at the center of it.


Trump might be a liar....But not with the seriousness of her lies....


Results? The voters lose

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What I said: All throughout history, great civilizations have come & gone; we ( America ) may have simply run our course. However, if there are two evils, I firmly believe, Trump is by far the lesser.

Feh, I'm pretty sure we'll be around for hundreds of years.

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