(CNN)As the Mad Hatter of the White House tweeted his response to Congress’s questions on Thursday about the existence of audiotapes related to James B. Comey’s firing as FBI director, he stayed true to character. “I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” President Trump announced. But he also added that “with all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea…”
Trapped in a controversy of his own creation after tormenting Comey, the Congress, the press and the American public with the implication that he might have bugged the White House, Donald Trump fell back on one of his regular tricks, offering a unclear clarification and acting more like a bad magician than President of the United States.
In the immediate term, all this craziness may well divert the nation from revelations of the Senate’s heretofore secret health care legislation and the fact that it would do grievous harm to Donald Trump’s own promise to leave the Medicaid system intact.
In the long term, the actions of President Trump and his team will inspire an even more dogged pursuit of the truth by Congress and the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller — who, it must be remembered, would have never been named if Donald Trump had left James Comey alone in the first place.
By speaking of “tapes,” the President cavalierly evoked the Watergate scandal and the worst political crisis in the history of the presidency in order to hint that he, like Nixon, was capable of secretly recording his visitors.
Richard Nixon fought the release of his tapes because he knew that the system had caught him planning and ordering the post-Watergate cover-up that drove him from office. Donald Trump, on the other hand, made the false claim that he possessed tapes because he understood the power of merely making the suggestion that recordings exist.
In this game, the President implied that he possessed valuable evidence to support his own position and discredit and intimidate James Comey, the man who knew more than anyone about the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. He hoped, in this gambit, to benefit from two factors: the idea that people would assume that no President would take the risk of bluffing on such a matter and his belief that he could get away with anything. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” was how Trump put it during the 2016 campaign.
The problem for Trump, when it came to Comey, was that the former FBI director couldn’t be bluffed. “Lordy I hope there are tapes,” Comey said when he testified before a Senate committee, because he believed that accurate recordings of his conversations with Trump would support his contention that the President had pressured him on the Russia matters.
President Trump would have known that his bullying bluff would fail if he understood how principled people like Comey work. During decades of service, Comey had built a reputation for integrity and made it clear to almost everyone in Washington that he was not a man to mess with. In 2004, it was Comey who successfully defied President Bush when he tried to get hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign an order reauthorizing a domestic spying program. When Scott Pelley of CBS News asked him in 2014 if his loyalty belonged to the President, Comey said no. “I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he said.
Never one for deep reflection, Donald Trump missed the signs of Comey’s true character and deemed him a “showboat.” He’s made this kind of mistake of misjudging people before. In the early 1990s, he underestimated the strength of his first wife, Ivana, as she fought him, leak for leak, in the war of the tabloids that accompanied their divorce. Later he underestimated author Tim O’Brien and his publisher when he sued over O’Brien’s book. The defendants prevailed and the record created by the case made Donald Trump look irrational, as he claimed that his net worth depended, in part, on his level of self-esteem.
These are just two examples — in many cases, Donald Trump’s miscalculations are followed by intense efforts by underlings and hirelings to somehow shape reality to conform to the big man’s impulsive remarks and actions. Those who stick with him through these exercises do so because they lack the gumption to say no. Their efforts, unfortunately, only bolster his belief that people generally act out of self-interest and not on the basis of any higher moral values.
So when Donald Trump made the mistake of musing about “tapes,” and left the door hanging open with his tweets, he once again put both his legal team and his White House staff in the awful position of trying to explain his actions and contain their damage. It’s no wonder that Sarah Huckabee Sanders fell back on a Trumpian trope when pressed by reporters to address the President’s relationship to facts, saying, “Look, the President won the election.” While generally true, this statement has nothing to do with the problem of a President who refuses to offer straight answers to a host of questions, including whether he believes in the science that shows the world’s climate is changing due to human activity or that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election.
Huckabee Sanders and the press office intensified the Wonderland atmospherics at the White House when they refused to let her appearance be shown on video and then described an announcement of this refusal as “NONREPORTABLE.” In other words, journalists were barred from distributing images of Huckabee Sanders, then told, in Red Queen style, that they better not say why.
In the story of Wonderland, Alice eventually left behind the Mad Hatter and all of the other unruly and unsavory characters who lived there and shared with the world what she had seen. In Washington, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller now occupies the Alice role. And like her, he will likely emerge from his investigation with quite a tale to tell.
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