Having taken up Donald Trump’s case for presidential immunity, the Supreme Court leaves many Americans fearful that even if the court decides against him, Trump won’t be tried before the 2024 election.

Assuming the court permits Trump’s case to be tried, not only must Special Counsel Jack Smith prove that Trump acted illegally, but also that he acted with criminal intent. Because we can’t read Trump’s mind, we must infer his intentions from his words and deeds.

As a psychologist, I’m especially interested in Smith’s first count, “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States,” regarding Trump’s “Big Lie” about pervasive election fraud. According to NPR, this count charges Trump with spreading “false claims about the November 2020 election while knowing they were not true.”

To be an authentic lie, a falsehood must be asserted with intent to deceive. Although Trump insists he hasn’t lied about election fraud, substantial evidence indicates otherwise.

NBC News put the matter succinctly: “Publicly, Trump insisted he was being robbed of an election he had won. Privately, he was conceding that he had lost, people close to him told the [Jan. 6 House] committee.”

Proving in Judge Tanya Chutkan’s D.C. District Court that Trump lied (if the case proceeds) entails proving Trump knew the “Big Lie” was a falsehood, which invokes questions about whether he was self-deceived and/or willfully ignorant.


Philosopher David Livingstone Smith defined self-deception as “any mental process or behavior” that functions to “conceal information from one’s conscious mind.” The questions is: How can “both the deceiver and the deceived be the same person?”

Smith locates the answer in the “cognitive unconscious,” the mechanisms that underlie mental processes such as memory, which “remain hidden from conscious awareness.” He maintains we’re all somewhat self-deceived, notably in the little lies we tell ourselves to get through the day.

But it’s the relation of self-deception to a criminal charge that’s at issue legally. And given self-deception’s unconscious elements, it can be practically impossible to determine whether anyone is truly self-deceived. Nonetheless, willful ignorance can and has been proven in the courts.

Although some see willful ignorance as a form of self-deception, philosopher Kevin Lynch argued convincingly that they’re “distinct psychological kinds.” According to psychologist Mark Alicke, willful ignorance, unlike self-deception, “occurs when individuals realize at some level of consciousness that their beliefs are probably false, or when they refuse to attend to information that would establish their falsity.”

Willful ignorance thus entails a deliberate decision to remain ignorant about something.

Law professor Alexander Sarch wrote that the Supreme Court noted “widespread agreement” on ‘”two basic requirements” of willful ignorance. First, “the defendant must subjectively believe that there is a high probability that a fact exists.” Second, “the defendant must take deliberate actions to avoid learning of that fact.”


That Trump’s advisors repeatedly told him he lost the election pertains to the first requirement of willful ignorance. The second requirement was implicated when Trump told Kristen Welker on “Meet the Press” that he “didn’t listen to his attorneys who told him he had lost the election because he didn’t respect them,” adding, “You know who I listen to? Myself.”

Sarch said the “courts routinely allow willful ignorance to substitute for knowledge.” Thus, if Trump can be shown to have asserted his “Big Lie” knowing it was a falsehood, he’s more likely to be convicted on the first count.

Yet with Trump’s successful delay tactics to date, we can’t count on the courts to reach verdicts before Nov. 2024. So when a fairly recent Reuters/Ipsos survey found that half of Republican voters said they wouldn’t “vote for Trump if he becomes a convicted felon,” I might be forgiven for cynically wondering if at least some of them felt safe from that happening.

Because we’re each, as voters, members of the only jury that can determine the outcome of the presidential election, we must each decide whether Trump’s Big Lie reflects self-deception, willful ignorance, or is an authentic lie. Attaining as much truth as possible given the available facts is necessary to minimize any ignorance – willful or otherwise – that infects our votes.

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