Politics & Policy

Stop Talking, President Trump

(Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
The president is his own worst enemy — and he may well destroy his presidency if he doesn’t change.

The virulent antipathy President Trump inspires among his political foes and critics may well exceed that of any president in the history of our republic. But if there is anything to be learned from what has happened in the days since he fired FBI director James Comey, it is that there is no doubt that the name of the president’s worst enemy is Donald J. Trump.

Trump’s inability to stay on message was a serious problem throughout the 2016 campaign and has at times derailed his administration during his first 100-plus days in office. His early morning Twitter meltdowns, such as his ill-advised attack on a Gold Star family or his wild claim that President Obama had ordered the bugging of Trump Tower, set off media firestorms that dominated the news cycle and distracted the public from anything positive he might otherwise have been doing. Yet nothing he has done has been so counter-productive as the things he has said and tweeted since dispatching Comey earlier this week. In an act of almost unprecedented stupidity, Trump has singlehandedly elevated what might have been a momentary tempest into a full-blown hurricane of national outrage that has stopped the country in its tracks.

Democratic hypocrisy and media bias were the reasons the firing of a figure who had inspired bipartisan criticism was initially treated as Trump’s worst outrage yet. Comey’s antics with respect to the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal during the presidential campaign were unprecedented. He saved Clinton’s candidacy and then did her material harm before issuing a final “never mind” statement before Election Day. Though he should have resigned during the presidential transition period, calls for his ouster from both parties continued, with Hillary Clinton’s comments last week directly blaming him for electing Trump being just one in a long list.

The announcement of the decision was mishandled and reflected what we have come to take for granted as the routine chaos of the Trump White House. No clear explanation was initially offered for the timing of the firing and then the stories started to change. But whether the impetus for the decision was a memo by newly sworn in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or whether his conclusion was just the trigger for Trump doing what he had always planned to do, the firing was still eminently defensible and something the president had every right to do.

Howls of outrage from Democrats that the only reason Trump acted was to stop an investigation into charges of collusion between his campaign and the Russians didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Simply changing the man at the head of the FBI wouldn’t halt a probe that had been in the works since last summer. In fact, liberals had gone quiet in the last two months about the supposed Russian connection after a sensible shift in Trump’s foreign policy to criticism of Moscow’s actions in Syria and support for NATO had undermined the theory that he was a puppet of Moscow. Nor had any proof of any kind of collusion emerged since the story based on the initial leaks about the investigation back in January. The fact that even that account published in The New York Times conceded that there was no proof of collusion was telling — and nothing discovered since then has given substance to the allegations.

Had the administration simply ignored the critics, the story about the Comey firing would have died down. But in typical Trumpian fashion, the president decided to fix the public-relations fiasco over the issue himself. And that’s when the real trouble started. In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump changed his story about Comey, and while sniping at the FBI director, said he’d had the Russia investigation in mind when he decided to fire him. That compounded the mistake in his initial statement about the firing, which alleged that Comey had told him he was not the target of an investigation. If that wasn’t bad enough, Trump later let loose on Twitter. He warned Comey against leaking any damaging material about him after an unsubstantiated story leaked by the FBI director’s camp claimed that the president had demanded and failed to receive a pledge of loyalty from Comey.

Trump’s words poured gasoline on an already inflamed chorus of political and media critics. Instead of hypocritical rumblings about Trump’s alleged motives for the firing, the Left now had something real on which to pin their hyperbolic charges. Suddenly the story went from an inside-the-Beltway obsession with the bad optics of Comey’s exit to charges that Trump was obstructing justice. The Watergate analogies were ratched up to charges that Trump was channeling Richard Nixon’s desperate last months in office.

For liberals and Democrats, Trump’s statements connected the dots between Comey and what they are sure are crimes that the president has committed. It was one thing to assert, as the Left has done all year, that Trump must be hiding something about collusion with the Putin regime. But the president’s threats and shifting stories seem to add substance to a circumstantial case of both obstruction and even treason being built by his critics.

Even as Trump continues to keep digging deeper the hole in which he has placed himself, it’s important to remember one large and rather important problem with the Nixon/Watergate analogies, as well as with the accusations of impeachable offenses: There is, as of yet, not a shred of proof to substantiate any of it.

The New York Times inadvertently provided a clear argument against the Watergate/treason line of reasoning today in the editorial it published  titled “The Trump-Russia Nexus.” Its goal was to provide a list of all the evidence for the charge that that Trump is covering up some sort of collusion with the Russians. But the problem with the argument is that there was nothing in the editorial that substantiated their accusations. It spoke of Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, and alleged Trump business connections with Russia. But there was hardly any smoke in the list, let alone fire. It was just a compendium of innuendos that told us nothing about collusion. By comparison, the admittedly circumstantial proof of corruption by Bill and Hillary Clinton offered by Peter Schweitzer in his book Clinton Cash is an open-and-shut case. Indeed, Schweitzer’s account of the Clinton State Department’s okay of a Clinton Foundation donor’s selling a uranium mine to Russia was far worse than anything the Times could offer about the Trump camp.

The point here is that you don’t have to be a supporter of the president or of his conduct toward Comey to understand that there is still not a shred of proof to back up the talk of Trump’s guilt with regard to Russia.

Do Trump’s utterances and actions have any explanation other than guilt about Russia? Not if you are determined to work backwards from an assumption about his culpability to seize upon anything that might back up the charge.

But if there is anything that we should have learned about Donald Trump in the last two years that he has been a national political figure it is that what generally passes from his lips is not the truth or based on anything that is even related to the truth. Even his most bitter foes know by now that what he says or tweets is usually dictated by a desire to denigrate foes and, more important, elevate his own importance. Basing any argument, let alone a criminal case that would justify impeachment, on a Trump tweet is as silly as blind faith in his honesty.

None of this is an argument for his fitness for the presidency. To the contrary, this episode is a reminder of why so many principled conservatives opposed his candidacy. But neither is it a justification for a rush to impeachment based on nothing more than Trumpian hot air and braggadocio.

Democrats who are thrilled by Trump’s missteps need to remember that if they put all their eggs in the treason basket they are more likely than not to wind up with egg on their faces if investigations — whether carried out by the FBI, Congress, or whatever special commission or prosecutor is brought into life by the current furor — fail to prove a case against the president. But Republicans are also at risk of being sunk by a president whose big mouth is primarily responsible for inflating a minor story into a major scandal that won’t go away.

Imploring Trump to act in a judicious manner is the equivalent of asking him to flap his arms and fly to the moon. But those who understand that the interests of the nation or of conservatism will not be advanced by a bogus push to brand Trump a traitor do need to tell him that he must learn to shut up. If he doesn’t, he will ultimately destroy his presidency and the party he leads.

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