Thrown into the fray as outrage rose over the president’s sudden firing of the director of Federal Bureau of Investigation, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway has seemed stunned by the notion that something doesn’t smell right. “It’s not a cover-up,” she insisted, and “it has nothing to do with Russia.”
Russia came to Conway’s mind because FBI Director James Comey had been leading one of three current investigations into Moscow’s interference with the 2016 election with the possible collusion of Trump campaign figures. Concern about a “cover-up” arises naturally whenever a public official like, say, the president of the United States, suddenly fires the person in charge of investigating his own team.
Common sense dictates that Trump’s motives should be questioned, but Conway insists we set logic aside and accept what the administration tells us. People “are looking at the wrong set of facts,” she says. What matters is not the president’s many words of praise for Comey in the past but the “lack-of-confidence” excuse he offers now for the firing.
If all this recalls for you the Watergate moment when White House spokesman Ron Ziegler declared a previous statement “inoperative,” then your sense of the absurd is historically acute. A pioneer of what came to be called the “nondenial denial,” Ziegler responded to the crimes of Watergate by binding journalists in rhetorical knots that set a new low for the public relations profession. When the scandal heated up, he complained of “shabby journalism’’ and “character assassination.” Today the president does much of the media manipulation work himself, accusing the press of disseminating “fake news” and regularly describing reporters as “dishonest.”
The trouble with Trump, which poses great difficulties in turn for him and his defenders, is that he came to office after a campaign redolent of lies and distortion and has only made things worse. The campaign record established by the reputable Politifact website found that just 16 percent of Trump’s audited statements were better than “half true.” Upon taking office Trump immediately issued false claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration and argued, falsely, that millions of people cast fraudulent votes in the election he won.
Trump has further damaged his own credibility by failing to fulfill many of his campaign promises. The Paris climate treaty and Iran nuclear deal stand; the wall he promised on the Mexican border does not. The team he put together at the White House has been riven with turmoil, and the sum total of his legislative accomplishments is a health care bill that barely passed the House of Representatives and faces stiff opposition in the Senate.
The president’s record thus far has earned him an approval rating of about 40 percent, which is a record low for a modern president in his first months of service. However this is a man who has long lived with bad poll numbers and has profited even when most people say they don’t like him. In 1999, a poll found that only about one in 20 New Yorkers considered him a better pick for president than George W. Bush. Trump nevertheless thrived as a businessman and eventually got his own TV show. The program, “The Apprentice,’’ was hardly a ratings hit, but Trump earned millions per year appealing to a small fraction of the TV audience.
The lesson Trump took away from “The Apprentice’’ and a lifetime of thumbing his nose at conventions like truth-telling and humility was that he doesn’t need to win over the majority of the people who watch television, buy real estate, or cast their votes in an election. He has succeeded in all these realms and others by cultivating a fiercely loyal minority and writing off everyone else.
Trump’s purpose in life has been to win in every contest, and he has often done so by going to extremes that others reject. This tendency was on full display during the presidential campaign, when he bellowed insults, basked in chants of “lock her up,” and broke his promise to release his tax returns. Although his gutter methods worsened political divisions and made it impossible for him to win over most voters, he understood that, if he lost, it wouldn’t matter, and if he won, well, he would be President.
Victory taught Trump that ruthlessness works. He didn’t acquire the good will that would allow the press and public to accept his explanation for Comey’s dismissal, but he never tried to earn it in the first place. Seen in this light, Nixon’s main flaw was his need for credibility, which limited his aggression. Unfortunately, Trump and those who speak for him don’t suffer from this limitation.
Michael D’Antonio is author of “The Truth About Trump.’’