IF there is one statement by Donald Trump which is probably true – or at least was when he made it in the run-up to his presidential election – it was, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Not much that he has said since then stands up to scrutiny.

This week his niece Mary, a clinical psychologist who has also a substantial grievance against her uncle to grind, publishes her account of him, the main elements of which have already been trailed, that The Donald is a narcissist and a sociopath, but also a compulsive liar who tries to make others complicit in the lies.

In the book, Too Much and Never Enough, she recounts how, when she was introduced to his then future wife Melania, Trump said she had a drug problem in college but had kicked it. It wasn’t true. She had never taken drugs and he knew it, but he looked at her with a sly and conniving grin as if implying, what does the truth matter, it’s a comeback tale.

Members of the Trump family lost a legal battle to block the book and the White House has condemned it as a compilation of falsehoods. Mary Trump has openly stated that she has dedicated herself to bringing Donald down. What partly motivates her is her belief that she was duped in a settlement dispute over the estate of Trump’s father Fred, that the true value of assets was fiddled and she was bilked.

Lies, grand lies, catastrophic ones have been bludgeoned into history. As Winston Churchill put it, even in the pre-internet age, a lie can travel half way round the world before the truth has its boots on. Except that’s a lie. He didn’t say it. Nor did Mark Twain. Nor did the many others who are said to have authorship of the quote. The origin spins back more than three centuries to Jonathan Swift in 1710, but even that may not be true and there may well be someone who came up with it earlier, on a wall of a cave somewhere perhaps?

Among the popular myths which aren’t true are that Einstein failed maths as a kid – not so, he was also fluent in Latin and Greek at 11 – that Columbus set out to prove the world was round, that was already well-known, although a dogged few flat earthers still deny it today, and that US independence was declared on July 4. It wasn’t. It was declared two days earlier but it took them 48 hours to put it down on paper and then several more months before all 13 states signed it.

So did that Trojan Horse which the Greeks hid in only to steal out in the night and slaughter the hosts really exist ? How many soldiers can you secrete in even the largest hollow horse sufficient to take on an army? It was first told by Homer in the Odyssey, but even he may be fictional. And did George Washington chop down a cherry tree as a kid and admit “I cannot lie”, probably not.

The US showman and huckster Phineas Taylor Barnum is credited with coining the credo: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” As you guessed, there’s no record of him every having said it. But he made his substantial fortune from lies, embellishments, exaggeration and the gullibility of the punter.

The first person he exploited in his circle was an elderly former slave called Joice Heth he claimed was 161 years old and the former nurse of George Washington. PT lived in New York where slavery was abolished but he somehow got round it and leased Heth for $1000. After she died he performed a live autopsy, for cash obviously, where he revealed that actually she was only 84. Others to be used by him were the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, and the 25-inch tall dwarf Charles Stratton, renamed General Tom Thumb.

The art world, which is surely sustained by the greed and exaggeration Barnum lived by, was the setting for one of the most famous lies of the 20th century when Han van Meegeren, a talented and ignored artist, decided to cash in. There was much contumely among scholars and experts about whether the Dutch master Vermeer had painted a series of biblical works. Han decided to become his own Vermeer, painting a series of canvases, complete with faked cracks and ageing, which fooled the experts.

His downfall came when one of his Vermeers ended up with Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Hitler’s number two, during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War, who traded 137 other paintings for it. After the war the forgery was discovered in Göring's possession and van Meegeren was arrested as a collaborator – and act of treason which carried the death penalty – for selling a Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. Van Meegeren confessed to forgery and, in the presence of reporters and court-appointed witnesses, painted another fake one just to prove it. He was given a year’s prison sentence but died two months later.

In 2008 the formerly highly-respected investment banker Bernie Madoff owned up that his firm was “just one big lie”, something of an understatement as he had conned more than $50 billon from investors who had trusted him with their savings. The scam worked by offering whopping returns on investments by using the new money which flowed in to service the earlier promises. It was a Ponzi scheme bound to fail.

The description of the scheme stems from its creator, Charles Ponzi, who, in 1920, tricked thousands of people into buying into his postage stamp speculation, promising 50% returns in 90 days and, like his follower Madoff, using the flow of new funds to pay off the old. He went down of 86 counts of fraud.

It’s in politics that the the most damaging and often fatal lies are purveyed. In 1963 war minister John Profumo was forced to resign after lying to Parliament about an extra-marital affair with Christine Keeler, although such resignations have fallen out of fashion lately.

Much more seriously, in June 1971 the Pentagon Papers were revealed in a series of articles in the New York Times, showing that the Lyndon Johnson administration had systematically lied to the US public and Congress during the Vietnam War. The were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on the study, and, more seriously, the papers revealed that the US had also covertly bombed neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.

Ellsberg was originally charged with espionage, conspiracy and theft but charges were dropped when investigators in another linked scandal, Watergate, discovered that staff in the Nixon White House – Richard Nixon succeeded LBJ and escalated the Vietnam War – had ordered the so-called White House Plumbers to illegally discredit Ellsberg. “I am not a crook,” he proclaimed, although his pants did not catch fire.

The Plumbers were a covert White House unit, set up in the wake of the leak of the Pentagon Papers, who first broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to steal his medical file. They weren't they most efficient of burglars. In June 1972 five of them broke into the Watergate building and the office of the Democratic National Committee and were arrested.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story which was to reveal the extent of the scandal and lead to the resignation of Nixon. Witnesses testified to a Senate inquiry that the President had approved plans to cover-up his administration’s involvement in the break-in, and it emerged that there was a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office. After resistance and lengthy legal proceedings they were released, proving Nixon’s complicity, and also that he had an extremely potty mouth.

He became the only US President to resign from office in August 1974 and a month later his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.

Bill Clinton left his second term as US President in 2001 with the highest-ratings of any post-war President despite having been impeached over his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky and lying to Congress. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He was acquitted, the necessary two-thirds majority to remove him from office not reached, with Senate members voting on partisan lines, and he served out the second term.

The most far-reaching, horrific and what they even called “the big lie” led to the deaths of millions of people, including more than six million Jews. Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy promoted the lie that Jews were to blame for all of Germany’s problems, including even the loss in World War One. The theory, and it worked, was that if you repeat the big lie often enough people will believe it because the big lie is so unlikely it must be true. The most pernicious of lies led to the Final Solution.