Last Thursday the president’s recently-named Attorney General recused himself from current and future investigations of the 2016 presidential campaign. Such investigations are presently focusing on the influence of Russia on last year’s election and the numerous ties between the foreign power and several of the president’s associates (including the president himself). The A.G.’s decision came after it became widely known that during his confirmation hearing he’d lied under oath about his own meetings with Russian representatives during the campaign.
We know that angered the president, as he let us all know via Twitter. Saw a funny tweet yesterday from the columnist Doug Sanders summarizing the absurdity of such a situation as speculative fiction: “Sci-fi where the president has lost his mind and everyone knows because his private thoughts keep appearing on little slabs in their pockets.”
“The Democrats are overplaying their hand,” the president furiously wrote, choosing a poker analogy in order to express frustration about his A.G. having succumbed to the pressure to recuse himself. The president wished to suggest the Democrats are betting too heavily with too weak of a holding, since (in his view) the connections and communications between Russia and his associates (and himself) are inconsequential.
“The real story,” he added, “is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total ‘witch hunt!’”
He hastily jabbed some more pettiness into his smartphone after that, then traveled to his supervillain-like lair in Florida, his estate in Mar-al-Lago. From there the embittered president launched an incredible accusation Saturday morning that his predecessor, Barack “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
He first called this action “McCarthyism,” which is at best an imprecise use of a term normally used to refer to someone making unfair allegations against another. Indeed, the president himself seemed to be the one making the unfair allegation, making his phrase “This is McCarthyism!” punctuating his tweet seem unintentionally self-referential.
Many soon picked up on the fact that the claim was derived from a far-right talk show host’s hypothesis that had been turned into a faux-report over on Breitbart, the website formerly run by the president’s assistant Steve Bannon widely known to have published several unsupported conspiracy theories and falsehoods in the past.
The president continued his accusation over a few more tweets, finishing thusly: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
The “Nixon/Watergate” reference is again another hazy allusion to history being made by the president, in this case triggered by the mention of phone taps. Again, it’s hard not to think that while he intends to suggest a comparison that accuses another, he is instead drawing attention to parallels with himself.
To name one, the investigation into the 2016 election includes questions about the president and his associates (among them his original national security adviser Michael Flynn who has already resigned over the allegations) having suggested to the Russians that United States sanctions against them would be lessened or removed once the new administration took over, severely undermining the Obama administration’s authority and ability to act in the nation’s interests (never mind violating federal law).
Such meddling resembles what Nixon was alleged to have done prior to the 1968 election when interfering with the sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson’s attempts to reach peace in Vietnam. (For more on the latter, see “‘I’m Reading Their Hand”: LBJ, Nixon, and the Week Before the 1968 Election.”)
In fact, the idea of one president accusing his predecessor of having formerly illegally tapped his phones is yet another example of the current commander-in-chief emulating Nixon. So, too, did Nixon on multiple occasions bring up privately that he believed he had been bugged by Lyndon B. Johnson during the last couple of weeks prior to the 1968 election.
For example, on October 17, 1972, Nixon told John Connally (the former Texas governor who served for a time as Nixon’s Secretary of Treasury before leading the “Democrats for Nixon” in the run-up to the ’72 election) that J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director until his death in May 1972, had informed him LBJ had Nixon’s plane bugged because “he had his Vietnam plans... and he had to have information as to what we were going to say about Vietnam.”
“Johnson knew every conversation,” Nixon told Connally. “And you know where it was bugged? In my compartment!”
Later, after Nixon had been reelected and once Watergate began seriously heating up, Nixon would again bring up LBJ’s alleged bugging of his plane, wondering aloud to others how they might make it public so as to make the bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters seem less remarkable -- or at least not without precedent.
But Nixon never did that. Meanwhile the current president -- going off a speciously-sourced story that the present FBI Director is denying could be true (and a spokesman for Obama and others in the know are suggesting to have been wholly impossible) -- got out his phone and pulled the trigger without hesitation. And without even informing his staff he was doing so. And without seemingly any care for the effect such an accusation might have on the country he was elected to lead, or its standing in the world going forward.
I wonder sometimes what this presidency would be like without the tweets. Would it seem as obviously unhinged? Perhaps. After all, that first press conference in mid-February was an absolute horrorshow -- way, way more distressing than any performance by any president ever, including Nixon at his most petulant and paranoid.
Then again, it seems possible that if he were not to tweet he would at least seem less demented, wouldn’t it? Or is it too late? I mean with every single tweet he hurts himself, and often hurts lots of us, too. It seems like he has to figure that out at some point, right?
Or not. Brace yourself. He’s about to fire again.