Trump’s new reality
We need to take a step back to understand why. For Filipinos, media and our political class and perhaps a big subsection of the public, too, are hypersensitive to anything that reminds us of Ferdinand Marcos and how he instituted a dictatorship.
For Americans, their hypersensitivity involves Richard Nixon and the manner in which he tried to cover up the Watergate burglary during his reelection campaign in 1972. At one point, angry at Archibald Cox sending him a subpoena to obtain Nixon’s White House tapes of conversations with visitors and staff, Nixon decided to fire Cox, who’d been appointed as a special independent prosecutor to investigate him. Nixon ordered the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox. Richardson not only refused, but resigned in protest. So Nixon then went to the next in line, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, and ordered him to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also said no and quit. Finally, Robert Bork, the Solicitor-General of the United States who became acting Attorney General (that’s what they call their Secretary of Justice), complied. But the damage had been done and has come to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
The question that galvanized the American nation at the time was, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” It eventually reached the point where Congress decided it had to impeach Nixon, who resigned when he was told he would be convicted by the Senate.
In the case of James Comey, the issues boil down to these. There are allegations of improper dealings between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. The FBI opened an investigation in the midst of the 2016 campaign. Once elected president, Trump talked to FBI Director Comey not once, or twice, but four times, allegedly asking each time if he could rely on the personal loyalty of Comey, who also allegedly replied that Trump could rely on Comey to tell the truth.
That’s the first issue –the impropriety of an American official, the President no less, inquiring into an investigation about himself and his team.
The next issue was, when did Trump decide to fire Comey, and why did the story keep changing? When Trump finally announced he’d fired Comey, he did it during a cable channel interview and didn’t even bother to tell the FBI director, who got the news as he was in a gathering to address FBI staff in California. Then the White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, told the media the firing was due to Comey’s handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton. Over the next couple of days, the White House said it was the Department of Justice, and not the Trump, that insisted Comey had to go. They pointed to a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General Rod H. Rosenstein as the reason (the Attorney General, former senator Jeff Sessions, had previously inhibited himself from the investigation).
That’s what Vice-President Pence told the media, too. As did the Deputy Press Secretary –only for Trump to insist that no, their DOJ didn’t decide, he did –and in fact he’d made up his mind to kick out Comey months ago. The White House scampered to backtrack, even as Trump took to tweeting angrier and angrier tweets about the whole thing, including tweeting a threat that Comey had better be careful about what he says, because who knows, there might be recordings of his conversations with Trump.
As you’d expect, this was all too much a case of déjà vu for the media to take in its stride. Not only had the White House and the Vice President and the DOJ been left with egg on their faces, but the behavior of Trump’s been too Nixonian to ignore.
But here’s the difference. Back in the early 1970s, the US Congress –both House and Senate—were in the hands of the Democrats even though the White House was in Republican hands. Today, Congress is firmly under Republican control, and since US congressmen have two-year terms, they’re all gearing up for next year’s mid-term elections. Trump may be one of the most unpopular US Presidents in living memory, but he has a firm hand and high popularity among the Republican base of voters. And since Republicans have expertly set up House districts to be safe districts where it is almost impossible for Republicans to lose, at the back of their minds is the risk of criticizing an emotional president who just might campaign against them if they act disloyal.
It’s early days, yet. But among American pundits, aside from the political realities I’ve just outlined, there’s another reality. The FBI is one of the most trusted institutions in American public life, today, with a recent poll putting approval at 80%. Comey himself was deeply popular among FBI staff. His successor told Congress they stand by Comey as an institution. One American columnist observed in the PBS NewsHour, that the FBI is therefore highly motivated to investigate Trump and his people even more thoroughly than before.
There’s an old saying that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Trump is trying to prove that no, you can govern reality-TV-style. To be sure, the media, possibly the bureaucracy, and in private, probably most of the political class, are alarmed. Polling suggests the majority of Americans don’t approve of what Trump did –but it remains to be seen if this will have an effect on his political base, who serves as Trump’s insurance against any Republic daring to speak out against the president.