The news that Donald Trump had fired James Comey produced a collective spluttering across both old and new media this week. Pundits were perhaps not lost for words but they were for a while lost for coherent responses, with “Watergate” the verbal rock to which many clung. As is usual with the media, the path of least resistance is the path they chose, and there then followed a day of expert testimony from historians who talked about the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” when President Nixon fired the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox. We’d been here before, agreed those in know. This will not end well for the president.
If Watergate is a parallel that the White House would be wise to avoid, President Trump and his team seem blind (or simply indifferent) to the historical parallels. In the hours after the FBI director’s firing, they invited Nixon’s Secretary of State into the White House, but quite why Henry Kissinger of all people appeared at this moment has not be adequately explained – the meeting was not apparently on the president’s official schedule. In many respects it highlighted what we’re discovering about this president: that he really doesn’t care for what’s expected of him. Kissinger’s appearance at that exact moment should, in any rational universe, be counted as “bad politics”, but in these strange days those things we previously considered “good politics” have been shown to be no more than conventions.
It’s perhaps why the word “optics” has become fashionable when describing Trump’s presidency. The “optics are bad”, we’re routinely told, as if we’re now living in a reality when the optics actually matter. From the start of his campaign, Trump has been casual regarding optics. He looked ridiculous riding his golden Trump Tower escalator but he seemed to know better than the pundits who chuckled at his tacky entrance into politics even as he grabbed the day’s headlines. He failed to look presidential as he turned the Republican debates into a vehicle for insults and name-calling. Pundits were quick to argue that it wouldn’t prove successful with the American public even as challengers withered under Trump’s scorn.
“The President will now have to give up his mobile phone,” said pundits before the inauguration but, of course, he didn’t and the wild and “unpresidential” tweets continue.
At the heart of this moment of history is the psychology of a man who seems to have an almost preternatural understanding in the power of his own disruptive personality. Trump has succeeded because he refused to be confined by the precedent of the contest and, thus far, he remains untouched by the conventions of the presidency. His political opponents have failed to realise that Trump is still playing by his own rules and that makes him hard to hurt in ways that are politically conventional. The First Lady still doesn’t live in the White House, Camp David is in mothballs, and he’s using Air Force One to travel to post-election election rallies. Meanwhile, America’s relationships with old allies are strained as they watch America forge a new relationship with Russia and cosy up to strongman figures like the president of the Philippines. America is no longer the symbol (flawed or otherwise) of freedom, liberty, and humane values; not whilst its president has gone out of his way to praise some of the world’s most violent tyrants including Kim Jong Un who is now, apparently, a “smart cookie”.
Americans have a habit of believing that the US Constitution will protect them from everything that the future can throw at them. The Constitution had protected them for hundreds of years, they might say, in that way that we all have of believing that a century is a large or meaningful measure of time. Yet what Donald Trump is thus far proving is that the Constitution gives presidents an enormous degree of latitude in what they do and how they do it. The Constitution says nothing about “pussy grabbing” or hanging up on the Australian prime minister. It also says nothing about firing the director of the FBI whilst that director is overseeing an investigation into a presidential campaign’s links with Russia. It doesn’t even explain what good presidential “optics” would look like or to what degree a president should seek to discover and promote the “truth”.
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To fire the head of the FBI at this time should, indeed, be “bad politics” and even more terrible optics, yet as James Comey himself admitted in his letter to FBI colleagues, “a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all”. If we really did believe that Trump was going to be held by conventional wisdom then it perhaps shows that we still do not understand this president, who understands the media better than the media understands itself.
Take, for example, his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt from Thursday night. It was bravura performance from a man who knows the tricks of his peculiar trade. Speaking of Comey, Trump said of Comey:
“He’s a showboat, he’s grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”
The “you know that, I know that” trick is one that Trump often uses. Holt did not take the opportunity to challenge it and effectively yielded the point. This is the stock technique of this White House: establish the truth as you wish to define it, and then admit no other. This is where Nixon and Trump are different and why it’s perhaps naive to believe that history will repeat itself. Nixon had many faults – as he also had a few virtues – but his crimes were conventional crimes and he was brought down by a conventional political system.
Trump defies the conventional and the conventional political system is struggling to handle Trump. He and his staff know that the moral authority of government is a mere fantasy. “I think you’re looking at the wrong set of facts here” said Kellyanne Conway to Anderson Cooper on Thursday in what has become a standard trope of this administration. When deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was challenged as to how she could claim that many in the FBI were happy to see Comey go, despite the assurance of the deputy director Andrew McCabe that Comey had the support of staff, she simply refused to get drawn into the debate. Sanders plays the full zealot particularly well. Based on recent performances, it wouldn’t be surprising to see her replace Sean Spicer, who, to his credit, often seems to recognise some of the nonsense he’s forced to defend.
If they refuse to play the game, Trump and his team seem to believe that can’t be caught breaking the rules – and what is most frightening is that they might well be right. As we’ve already seen, the only way this administration will be forced to accept reality is when they run up against the courts, where hard limits of what is truthful are set. That, perhaps, is the only clue as to how this will go. The denials and false narratives will last until the very end. This president will go down claiming that black is white, good is bad, and that he’s being unfairly treated by the swine in the media. It’s hard to believe it will end with a short walk to a helicopter and a defiant victory salute to the crowd. Nothing about Trump suggests he’s anything like Nixon, who did at least have a tenuous grip upon right and wrong. We now have a president who might not even know if he’s telling lies. His delusions go that deep and his paranoia is that pronounced.
David Waywell is a writer and cartoonist whose new book, The Secret Life of Monks, is now available.