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Donald Trump Is Being Honest With You

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Every politician has a rhetorical tic—some word or phrase that seems to slip into every speech or interview they give, and which an armchair psychologist might find revealing. President Barack Obama's “let me be clear.” Sarah Palin is a fan of “you betcha.” And John McCain, at least while running for president in 2008, kept calling everyone “my friends.” These phrases could just be the kinds of verbal habits everyone picks up over the years, or they could be carefully chosen to help cultivate a certain image—as an authoritative president, a folksy alternative to Washington politics, or an approachable maverick.

Donald Trump's own tic is especially revealing. In recent months, he has said “to be honest with you” while expressing controversial opinions on a number of issues, from political correctness to Ukraine's candidacy for NATO membership. The phrase underscores the image Trump hopes to present: that he’s honest, unlike his Washington competition, the lone straight-talker in the race who is unafraid to "tell it like it is" to the American people. Never mind that he’s stretched the truth—or lied outright—time and again over the course of his career: As Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote earlier this year, Trump believes that “honesty isn’t a good policy—it’s for chumps." (Perhaps the phrase is Trump's way of saying, "I'm not always honest, but right now I will be.")

Trump is far from the only candidate—this or any year—to show a fondness for the phrase. George W. Bush peppered his speeches with it, and John Edwards used it from time to time. The difference is that when Trump says it—as when he says "frankly"—you know he’s about to say something that will make headlines.

On whether he had hired illegal immigrants to build Trump Tower 35 years ago:

“When you have to go back 35 years to tell me about something, I think that's pretty pathetic, to be honest with you.” – July 8, 2015

On Fox News moderators asking him why he had called women “slobs,” “disgusting animals,” and “fat pigs”: 

“I don't know where they got some of these words, to be honest with you… I don't recognize those words. Not that I'm an angel, by the way. But I don't recognize those words.” – August 7, 2015

On whether he was correct in telling a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees:

“I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either.” – August 6, 2015

 On whether Mark Zuckerberg would make a better president because of his wealth:

 “Honestly, I don’t think I’d swap assets, to be honest with you. I’ve seen that stuff go up and down. I have very, very solid stuff.” – September 2, 2015 

On whether he would let Ukraine into NATO: 

“I would not care that much to be honest with you. Whether it goes in or doesn’t go in, I wouldn’t care.” – August 17, 2015

On the refugee crisis in Europe: 

“Germany has been very generous so far, which is very surprising to me, to be honest with you.” – September 5, 2015

On a third party bid for president:

“Well I’m a natural negotiator and I like leverage, to be honest with you.” – August 7, 2015

On American foreign policy in the Middle East:  

“I am the most militaristic person but you have to know when to use the military. Or have it so strong that nobody is going to mess with you, which is my ultimate goal, to be honest with you.” – September 3, 2015

On NASCAR disavowing him because of his comments about immigrants:

"Because I have so many fans at NASCAR. I love the NASCAR people. I'm really surprised with NASCAR to be honest with you.” – July 4, 2015

On whether he would travel abroad during his campaign:

“To be honest with you, this country is in such bad trouble, our infrastructure is crumbling, our bridges, our airports. We are in such trouble that I am going to spend a lot of time here… we are going to fix our country.” – August 27, 2015

On visiting America's southern neighbor:

"I think we should boycott Mexico, frankly." – July 17, 2015