Calvin Coolidge was known as Silent Cal – “I have found out in the course of a long public life that the things I did not say never hurt me.”
He didn’t say much, nor did Herbert Hoover after him. That was probably for the best. Franklin Roosevelt told us that “we have nothing to fear but fear, itself” – and that was enough. Truman was a bit blunt – “The Buck Stops Here” – but Dwight Eisenhower said only what needed to be said, in the blandest possible way – and then it was Jack Kennedy telling us we should ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country – quick inspirational hits – and then there was Lyndon Johnson being simultaneously crude and folksy. Then it was Richard Nixon insisting that he wasn’t a crook – the only thing anyone remembers now. Gerald Ford was pleasant – a caretaker president – but Jimmy Carter really shouldn’t have talked of America’s “malaise” and was gone after one term. The first George Bush then told everyone to read his lips – but there were new taxes and he was gone after one term too. He should have listened to Calvin Coolidge, and Bill Clinton just talked and talked and talked. He wore the country down, and then the second George Bush talked in those Bushisms – “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
What? Barack Obama was a relief. No one had to explain what Obama really meant to say. His speeches soared. But nothing else did. He was almost always careful not to say too much. He knew he should have never said anything about some “red line” in Syria. He also knew that a black man’s casual comments would be misconstrued. He had to sound comfortably white. He did manage that. If he quipped, he quipped privately, and he rarely tweeted. In fact, his few tweets were rather boring. Obama and Coolidge had vastly different politics, but they both understood random comments – even quips or bad jokes – could ruin everything.
That’s not Donald Trump, and five months into Trump’s presidency, Garrison Keillor saw this:
Now here is a president who communicates in little specks and splats of twitters, leaving his minions to try to say clearly what, if anything, he thinks. The country will weary of this, the dead eyes, the heavy scowl, the jutting chin. The man’s base will discover eventually that he is a carnival hoax, the Cardiff Giant, the Wild Man of Borneo who eats live chickens. You can’t fool 40 percent of the people 90 percent of the time.
The man’s base did not discover that Trump is a carnival hoax, but Keillor had also noted this:
The man is only trying to please the folks who voted for him. They want him to walk into church and moon the clergy. They’ve always wanted to do it themselves but didn’t dare offend their devout neighbors. So they went along, saying the appropriate things about Community and Cooperation and Tolerance and the Value of Education, which made them miserable because they didn’t believe in any of that stuff. They believed in Family Loyalty and outsiders can go to hell. Be a winner. Race to the buffet table and pick all the beef out of the stew and let the others have the celery and onions.
It’s a selfish worldview but so what? They never had a champion until this guy came along and spoke for them loud and clear, and they eked out a narrow win in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and now they’re making the most of it. That’s how it works.
That does seem to be how it works, but Trump, because he’s neither Silent Cal nor No-Drama Obama, and doesn’t want to be either of those guys, still has to “control the message” – as they say in advertising and public relations. It now seems he’s been doing that all along:
When Dr. Harold Bornstein described in hyperbolic prose then-candidate Donald Trump’s health in 2015, the language he used was eerily similar to the style preferred by his patient.
It turns out the patient himself wrote it, according to Bornstein.
“He dictated that whole letter. I didn’t write that letter,” Bornstein told CNN on Tuesday. “I just made it up as I went along.”
And he came up with this:
“His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” he crowed in the letter, which was released by Trump’s campaign in December 2015. “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
The missive didn’t offer much medical evidence for those claims beyond citing a blood pressure of 110/65, described by Bornstein as “astonishingly excellent.” It claimed Trump had lost 15 pounds over the preceding year. And it described his cardiovascular health as “excellent.”
And then Trump, who was always talking about himself, and not about the issues and the country that much at all, campaigned saying that he would be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency. His doctor had said so, and no doctor would lie – and Hillary Clinton was a tired and sick old wreck of a woman without the stamina to do the job. Just look at her, but his doctor had lied:
Now, as Bornstein re-enters the spotlight claiming Trump’s ex-bodyguard Keith Schiller robbed his office when Schiller retrieved Trump’s medical records, the story behind the letter is becoming clearer.
“That’s black humor, that letter. That’s my sense of humor,” he said. “It’s like the movie ‘Fargo’: It takes the truth and moves it in a different direction.”
He said Trump read out the language as Bornstein and his wife were driving across Central Park.
None of this makes a bit of difference of course, unless Trump suddenly dies of a Big-Mac-induced heart attack, and some of this may be sour grapes too. Harold Bornstein never made it to the White House. Trump’s personal physician there was the dashing young Ronny Johnson – who declared, after Trump’s first annual presidential physical, that Trump could live to two hundred with just a slight change in his eating habits. Physicians around the country looked at the same lab results and saw an obese old man with heart problems, but Trump had done it again. He might have dictated the wording of Johnson’s report – and then Trump nominated Johnson to be the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, running the second largest government organization – with no hospital administration experience and no management experience at all. Bornstein must have been seething. That could have been him, and when Johnson flamed out, because in addition to being comically unqualified he seems to have been a jerk too, Bornstein must have decided it was time to twist the knife. It was all bullshit. Trump dictated that original letter. The whole thing is a carnival hoax.
As for the other part of this odd tale, Josh Marshall notes this:
It now seems pretty clear, at least according to Dr. Harold Bornstein’s account, that Keith Schiller, Alan Garten and an unidentified “large man” committed what could fairly be construed as robbery. That’s Bornstein’s claim. He says they barged into his office, pushed aside a patient and without permission confiscated the original copies of President Trump’s medical records. The patient has the right to copies of those records and has a claim to the information. But the records themselves, the originals, belong to the care provider, in this case Dr. Bornstein. In fact, under state law Bornstein has an affirmative responsibility to retain those records for at least six years.
Now it seems clear that Trump went too far with Dr. Bornstein and there’s no going back.
There may be a reason for that:
An MSNBC panel on Tuesday made fun of President Donald Trump for medication he’s reportedly taken and speculated about his sexual performance. Chris Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s “All In,” joined with the panelists to accuse Trump of “mafia-like tactics” for “robbing” his former physician by taking his medical records. Dr. Harold Bornstein told the New York Times last year that Trump took hair-loss medication, and on Tuesday he accused Trump of “raiding” his office afterward for his medical records, but the White House denies the charge, saying Trump lawfully obtained the documents.
That can all be worked out – it was a mafia move or it wasn’t – but there’s that other matter:
Gwenda Blair, who wrote a biography of the Trump family, chimed in to accuse Trump of having something to hide not just about his health, but his taxes.
“Made me think about those tax returns,” Blair said. “You can’t see the tax returns. He doesn’t want people to see stuff that’s his stuff.”
Then she speculated about Trump’s health problems.
“Propecia is associated, you know, is used for hair loss – he doesn’t want to talk about that,” Blair said. “It’s also associated – it has a lot of bad side effects including sexual dysfunction. I think he really doesn’t want to talk about that.”
She might be right. Trump had slyly boasted about the impressive size of his massive penis at one of those primary debates – “no worry there” – a message of manliness and ultimate male dominance delivered on national television, with a visual image for everyone in America to consider, whether they wanted to or not.
Trump might have been worried about losing control of that rather crude but quite direct message, thus the raid on the doctor’s office, but now it’s too late:
After Hayes and the other panelists laughed, the host declared his intention to “stand up” for principle regarding private medical information.
“I want to stand up for the principle that doctors should not give interviews about the medications they prescribe for their patients in any circumstance whatsoever,” Hayes said.
Trump’s little soldier may not have been able to stand at attention at all for years. Microsoft isn’t just a software company. That’s the new message. Trump never should have said a word about such things, or dictated that Bornstein letter, or, maybe, chosen Ronny Johnson’s words for him. Will Rogers put it simply long ago – “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
That’s the problem that has come back to haunt Trump, as the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Robert Costa report here:
In a tense meeting in early March with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, President Trump’s lawyers insisted he had no obligation to talk with federal investigators probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
But Mueller responded that he had another option if Trump declined: He could issue a subpoena for the president to appear before a grand jury, according to four people familiar with the encounter.
Trump missed every good chance to shut up. He has ranted about how there’s been NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION in endless all-cap tweets for months and months. He has shouted the same thing at his red-meat-for-the-base rallies, and now Mueller wants him to explain what he was talking about, and is asking politely:
Mueller’s team agreed to provide the president’s lawyers with more specific information about the subjects that prosecutors wished to discuss with the president. With those details in hand, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow compiled a list of 49 questions that the team believed the president would be asked, according to three of the four people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly. The New York Times first reported the existence of the list.
The questions focus on events during the Trump campaign, transition and presidency that have long been known to be under scrutiny, including the president’s reasons for firing then-FBI Director James B. Comey and the pressure he put on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.
Now Trump’s newly reconfigured legal team is pondering how to address the special counsel’s queries, all while assessing the potential evidence of obstruction that Mueller might present and contending with a client who has grown increasingly opposed to sitting down with the special counsel. Without a resolution on the interview, the standoff could turn into a historic confrontation before the Supreme Court over a presidential subpoena.
This has to be resolved, because Trump is still at it:
The president has repeatedly decried the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
“Oh, I see… you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
It may be time to talk about that, and talk about that in depth:
Paul Rosenzweig, who worked as a senior counsel on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation during the Clinton administration, predicted that the president would face a long interview if the special counsel hewed to the list Sekulow compiled.
“This isn’t a list of 49 questions. It’s 49 topics,” Rosenzweig said. “Each of these topics results in dozens of questions. To be honest, that list is a two-day interview. You don’t get through it in an hour or two.”
Of course Trump has a problem with that:
For his part, Trump fumed when he saw the breadth of the questions that emerged out of the talks with Mueller’s team, according to two White House officials.
The president and several advisers now plan to point to the list as evidence that Mueller has strayed beyond his mandate and is overreaching, they said.
“He wants to hammer that,” according to a person who spoke to Trump on Monday.
That may not work, but Trump is worked up:
Trump remains strongly opposed to granting Mueller an interview – resistance fueled largely by the raids last month on the office and residences of his personal attorney Michael Cohen.
Trump’s anger over the Cohen raids spilled into nearly every conversation in the days that followed and continues to be a sore point for the president. One confidant said Trump seems to “talk about it 20 times a day.” Other associates said they often stay silent, in person or on the phone, as he vents about the Cohen matter, knowing there is little they can say.
Trump is not Calvin Coolidge. The things he did not say never hurt him. The things he did say hurt him, so he may have to explain all his loose talk:
Judges have generally held that the president is not above the law and can be subjected to normal legal processes – but the issue of a presidential subpoena for testimony has not been tested in court. Kenneth Starr subpoenaed President Bill Clinton for grand jury testimony in 1998 but withdrew it after Clinton agreed to testify voluntarily. He was interviewed at the White House, appearing before the grand jury via video.
Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said judges generally like to accommodate a president because he has to be free to “manage the affairs of the world and deal with nuclear war without having to worry about whether he has to show up for an interview the next day.”
But, he added, courts are loath to say the president can’t be investigated.
“The opposite argument is that no man is above the law, and if it’s a lawful investigation, then he must respond,” Rosenzweig said.
If so, Trump will have to explain all the loose talk, and the New York Times’ Charlie Savage lays out the difficulties with that:
President Trump has insisted he is eager to make the case to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, that he has done nothing wrong. But the questions that Mr. Mueller wants to ask show why the president’s lawyers have countered that an interview would be a minefield for Mr. Trump.
It is not just that the president has a history of telling demonstrable falsehoods, while the special counsel has already won four guilty pleas for the crime of lying to investigators. The questions would pose additional challenges for Mr. Trump, legal experts said.
Many of Mr. Mueller’s questions, obtained and published by the New York Times, are so broad that Mr. Trump would need a detailed command of a range of issues. And, complicating efforts to try to adequately prepare him for such an encounter, the president’s lawyers do not know everything that the special counsel has learned.
Trump cannot shout and say that this and that never happened. Mueller may be sitting on proof that it did. Mueller can slap that proof down on the table and point to it, and he may want to know what Trump knows of the obvious events:
Most of the dozens of questions are about now well-known events, like the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between top Trump campaign officials and Russians promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton. While a few touch on Mr. Trump’s business dealings – in particular, campaign-era talks about a proposed real-estate project in Moscow – they do not signal that Mr. Mueller is examining Trump Organization finances more broadly or contain other major surprises.
In many instances, Mr. Mueller wants Mr. Trump to explain his knowledge of, reactions to or communications about private events where there were other witnesses, such as his campaign’s internal discussions of Russia-related matters and his conversations as president with and about James B. Comey, whom he fired as FBI director.
And this is no time for bullshit:
One major threat to Mr. Trump posed by such open-ended questions is that, as his Twitter diatribe showed, he has a history of saying things that are not true – especially when he rambles off the cuff. It is a felony to lie to law enforcement officials or to conceal a material fact during a proceeding like a formal interview…
Moreover, the list of questions is most likely a starting point for follow-ups as investigators try to iron out ambiguities. Paul Rosenzweig, another former Whitewater prosecutor and a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a conservative and libertarian research organization, said they could be seeking such details as: What was the source of your knowledge? When did you find out? Who told you and what exactly did they say?
Those simple questions are trouble for Trump:
The list of questions indicates that the investigation remains a significant threat to Mr. Trump even if he were to be honest about everything in any interview. The questions zero in on Mr. Trump’s possible liability and little else, noted Samuel W. Buell, a Duke University criminal law professor and a former federal prosecutor who helped lead the Enron investigation.
“‘What did you know and think?’ and ‘When did you know it and think it?’ are not questions you ask someone to determine whether they have information about someone else’s commission of a crime,” Mr. Buell said. “They are questions you ask to determine whether the person you are questioning had the guilty mind required to break the law.”
This is dangerous, with nowhere to hide:
Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School criminal law professor who has frequently defended Mr. Trump on television and is informally consulting with him, told CNN on Monday that he thought Mr. Trump could invoke executive privilege to refuse to answer questions about his thinking when he decided to exercise constitutional powers.
But the problem for Mr. Trump is that those questions, Mr. Dershowitz said, were the “easy” ones. By contrast, Mr. Trump could not invoke the privilege about events that took place before he became president, like his business dealings.
Nothing is easy now:
Several legal experts said it was unusual for prosecutors to give Mr. Trump a preview of the questions, speculating that Mr. Mueller was bending over backward to defang any accusations of overreach. Mr. Buell said the move might also be aimed at uncovering any disputes over executive privilege now so they do not disrupt an interview.
But he predicted that despite all the “posturing,” Mr. Trump would allow his lawyers to talk him out of sitting down with Mr. Mueller.
“The game,” he said, “is to appear to be interested and cooperating without doing so.”
The things that Calvin Coolidge did not say, whatever they might have been, never did hurt him, but it’s too late for Donald Trump. His lawyers are telling him that it’s now time to shut up. That time, however, was long ago.