Pettiness as Policy

Kate Andersen Brower’s new book is Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump – and of course he’s not part of the club. Donald Trump doesn’t want to be part of that club, and Brower saw that again with the George Bush video:

“We are not partisan combatants,” Bush said in his message honoring the tens of thousands of Americans who have died in the pandemic. “We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”

Trump replied with a caustic Tweet Sunday morning: “He [George W. Bush] was nowhere to be found speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!” (He was referring to the impeachment investigation).

I am far from surprised by Trump’s reaction to Bush’s call for unity because when I interviewed him about his predecessors Trump was clear just how poorly he regarded all of them.

About a year before the outbreak of the coronavirus, I interviewed President Trump in the Oval Office to discuss the men who had sat there before him. When I asked him if he could empathize more with them now that he had been in office for two years he replied without hesitation “No.”

As I walked out of the Oval Office once our interview was over, he shouted, “Say hi to President Bush for me!” in a voice laden with sarcasm.

He wants nothing from them. He needs nothing from them. Brower finds that dangerous:

There are only five men alive today (counting President Trump) who know the loneliness and isolation of the presidency. But the current politics of rancor makes the work of the former presidents more difficult, because everything is now seen through a political lens; even things that used to be relatively innocuous have taken on new meaning.

Immigration reform is part of the work of the Bush Institute, a nonpartisan policy center at the George W. Bush Presidential Center that holds naturalization ceremonies for new US citizens. “Because of the nature of President Trump, when we talk about the same things that we’ve been talking about ever since President Bush left office, they are automatically viewed as criticism of the current president,” an aide to the former president told me, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“President Bush said something about a free press and suddenly it’s a challenge to Donald Trump. No, he’s been saying this forever.”

All the former presidents now alive would like to help. Trump sees them as the enemy. Someone might see him “accepting help” and call him a weak fool. Strong leaders don’t need help from anyone. That’s why they’re lenders:

Trump’s response to a former president’s call for empathy is a reminder of just how little he has in common with his predecessors and how poorly he will fit in the Presidents Club. Trump is the outlier and he is proud of it. “I don’t think I’ll fit in very well,” he told me in our interview with a sly smile. The scorched-earth path he’s chosen has made it impossible to maintain any friendships, or even civility, with his predecessors. “I’m a different kind of a president,” he declared. During this crisis Trump has not called the former presidents together, like George W. Bush did when he asked his father and Bill Clinton to travel the world and seek help after the tsunami in Asia, and to raise money after Hurricane Katrina, or as Obama did when he asked George W. Bush and Clinton to raise awareness and funds after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Trump will have nothing to do with that sort of thing, perhaps because he sees himself as a total realist about people:

When I asked Trump whether he would go to Obama’s presidential library opening, as is customary, the question sounded silly as soon as the words came out of my mouth. “I don’t know. He probably wouldn’t invite me,” he said. “Why should he?”

His reasoning seems to be simple and clear and perhaps based on his own personal experience. This is a world where no one trusts anyone, nor should they. Everyone would slit anyone’s throat to get ahead. And there is no other alternative “nice” world. That’s a fairy tale for children. This is the world we have and that’s just the way it is.

If so, then it’s no surprise that Trump wants Biden and Obama, and maybe Hillary Clinton, in jail on Election Day in November, perhaps awaiting execution. He’d win. But even Bill Barr won’t go there, so Trump has hinted that he may override his attorney general on this. This is a curious situation. And wasn’t Hillary supposed to be in jail already? That was a campaign promise. What happened?

All of that may seem absurd, but that is what is actually happening:

President Trump said Monday that he was “surprised” by Attorney General William Barr’s statement that he doesn’t anticipate a criminal investigation into former President Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I think if it was me, they would do it. I think for them, maybe they’re not going to,” Trump told reporters Monday afternoon when asked about the attorney general’s comments. “I’m surprised because Obama knew everything that was happening.”

“I think it’s just a continuation of a double standard. I am surprised by it,” the president continued.

He may have to have a talk with his attorney general:

Barr earlier Monday said he didn’t expect U.S. attorney John Durham’s probe into the FBI’s decision-making in the Russia investigation to lead to criminal investigations of either Obama or Biden.

“Based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man,” Barr told reporters. “Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others.”

He also denounced “increasing attempts to use the criminal justice system as a political weapon.”

Ignore the irony. Trump did:

Trump later Monday said he wasn’t necessarily disappointed by Barr’s comments but reiterated that he believed the former president’s and vice president’s actions in connection to the Russia investigation were “illegal.”

“I don’t say disappointed or not but I have no doubt that they were involved in this hoax, one of the worst things ever befall to this country in terms of political scandal. I have absolutely no doubt that Obama and Biden were both involved, and as to whether or not it is criminal, I think it would be very serious,” the president said.

“It was a takedown of a president, regardless of me, it happened to be me, and in my opinion it was an illegal takedown,” Trump said. “I’m going to let the attorney general make all of those decisions. I am going to stay out of it because it is the appropriate thing to do. I wouldn’t have to stay out of it as you know, but I’ve decided to stay out of it.”

But he could change his mind:

Trump, who has long alleged the Russia investigation was a “witch hunt” perpetrated by politically motivated FBI agents against his campaign, has stepped up claims in recent weeks that Obama was personally involved in an effort to sabotage the incoming administration during the 2016 transition.

The president has accused Obama of being privy to “the biggest political crime in American history” and demanded last week that Congress call the former leader to testify.

Speaking to reporters last week, the president declined to name the specific crime he believes Obama committed but insisted it was “very obvious to everybody.”

It is? There was new evidence:

On the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, outgoing national security adviser Susan Rice sent herself an email that has since drawn intense scrutiny from Republicans.

Now the full text of the email has been declassified, and POLITICO reviewed it. It says that then-FBI Director James Comey worried about sharing classified information with the Trump team because of incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn’s frequent conversations with the Russian ambassador but that Comey had no knowledge of Flynn sharing classified information with the envoy.

And that is the smoking gun, or not:

Republicans have seized on the document as potential evidence that the outgoing president had ordered the FBI to spy on the new administration, as Trump has alleged. And they have raised questions about the “unusual” nature of Rice memorializing the conversation in an email to herself – suggesting that in warning Comey to proceed “by the book,” Obama was implying that top law enforcement officials had done the opposite.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Rice said it shows the Obama administration handled the Flynn situation appropriately.

Follow the argument here: Obama meant the opposite of what he said! No, he meant what he said! No, he didn’t! Yes, he did!

This will go on for a few weeks, and it’s not much of a scandal. The Obama administration was worried about Flynn. That’s it? Karen Tumulty reminds her readers that accusations used to be a lot more interesting than that:

As far back as the campaign of 1800 – the first contested presidential race in U.S. history – pamphlets circulated that accused John Adams of possessing “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” which was a suggestion that he had the sex organs of both a man and a woman.

In 1828, a newspaper reported that Andrew Jackson’s mother was “a common prostitute” brought to this country by British soldiers, who married a mulatto man with whom she had several children, one of whom grew up to become the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Elizabeth and Andrew Jackson Sr. actually married in Ireland and came to this country to escape religious persecution.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, aides put together a 332-page report titled “The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” in which they detailed the complex network of right-wing groups, media outlets and funders who put all kinds of crazy stories into the public bloodstream. They included claims that Bill and Hillary Clinton had been involved in drug-running and murder back in Arkansas. (Those of you too young to remember any of this might try Googling “Mena airstrip.”)

In 2004, a right-wing group styling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth made up lies about Democratic nominee John F. Kerry’s service in Vietnam and turned the word “swiftboat” – the kind of aluminum craft that Kerry skippered during the war – into a shorthand for a particularly lethal kind of smear.

Now it’s the idea that Obama actually meant the opposite of what he actually said, which demonstrates consciousness of guilt, or something. But it’s still a call for Obama to go to jail for the rest of his life, if he’s lucky. This often works wonders, and Tumulty is worried:

If the nature of these vile tactics is not new, their potency has reached a point never seen before. Part of that is the power of social media. But the real force behind it is a president with a knack for branding and no capacity for shame. Even before he officially became a candidate, Donald Trump built a following by trafficking in racist, baseless lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace.

No longer does a conspiracy theory require an actual conspiracy behind it before it can take flight. It needs only a few taps on Trump’s smartphone…

But sometimes it’s the small stuff, as NBC News’ Carol Lee notes here:

It’s been a White House tradition for decades: A first-term president hosts a ceremony in the East Room for the unveiling of the official portrait of his immediate predecessor that will hang in the halls of the White House for posterity.

Republican presidents have done it for Democratic presidents, and vice versa – even when one of them ascended to the White House by defeating or sharply criticizing the other.

“We may have our differences politically,” President Barack Obama said when he hosted former President George W. Bush for his portrait unveiling in 2012, “but the presidency transcends those differences.”

Yet this modern ritual won’t be taking place between Obama and President Donald Trump.

Obama is a criminal who belongs in jail. Trump is a jerk. And that’s that:

Trump is unconcerned about shunning yet another presidential custom, and he has attacked Obama to an extent no other president has done to a predecessor. Most recently he’s made unfounded accusations that Obama committed an unspecified crime.

Obama, for his part, has no interest in participating in the post-presidency rite of passage so long as Trump is in office, the people familiar with the matter said.

But this is new:

“You’ve got a president who’s talking about putting the previous one in legal jeopardy, to put it nicely. We have not seen a situation like that in history,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “It takes antipathy of a new president for a predecessor to a new level.”

And this used to be so simple:

The process for the White House portraits begins near the end of a president’s term or soon after, and it takes a few years to complete.

After the president and the first lady select an artist, the privately funded White House Historical Association negotiates a contract that includes a confidentiality agreement so the artist’s identity and details of the portrait are kept secret. Stewart McLaurin, the association’s president, said in February 2017 that the organization was in discussions with the Obamas about their portraits.

The Obamas subsequently selected an artist, and a contract was finalized in early 2017, according to people familiar with the matter. But the process stalled there, they said.

Typically, the next step would be to schedule sittings for the former president and the first lady, followed by a back-and-forth with the artist about what they like and don’t like. And once the portraits are approved by the former first couple, they are delivered to the White House curator, who schedules an unveiling.

The unveiling brings together the former president’s staff, family and close friends to mingle with current White House officials. Former first lady Laura Bush arranged a lunch for the Clintons and guests after their portrait unveiling.

“It’s a statement of generosity on the part of the current president and first lady,” former White House curator Betty Monkman said in an interview with the White House Historical Association in 2017. “And it’s a very warm, lovely moment.”

Trump seems to think that very warm, lovely moments are for losers. Real men insult anyone who gets too popular, and Eric Lutz reminds everyone of how this started:

As the most relentless champion of birtherism, Donald Trump spent years attempting to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency – but to little avail. Sure, his racist campaign resulted in Obama releasing his birth certificate, which then-reality star Trump repeatedly bragged about. But it proved, at the time at least, to be a pyrrhic victory for Trump, the chapter concluding with his own public humiliation at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011.

“Obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” Obama said in a five-minute send-up of Trump. “Just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.”

Trump was visibly embarrassed by the roast, deepening his grudge for Obama and perhaps even inspiring his 2016 bid to replace him.

Is that a petty reason to run for president? Of course it is. But Trump has long appeared to be fueled by grievance. During the last election cycle, his personal umbrage at Obama aligned with white America’s sense of resentment toward the nation’s first black president.

That may be why he won, but his victory has been bitter:

Other than further enriching himself and his friends and family, erasing Obama has been just about the only tangible accomplishment, as it were, of his presidency. Trump’s wall? Unbuilt. His attempts to replace the Affordable Care Act? He couldn’t even do it when his party controlled both chambers of Congress, thanks to a dearth of any substantive ideas. But he has been able to undo a number of Obama accomplishments, from landmark moves Trump cast as failures (withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal) to smaller programs he has targeted for no apparent reason than spite (Michelle Obama’s school nutrition standards).

Now, Trump appears poised to deliver another petty strike at Obama’s legacy…

There will be no unveiling of the official portrait of his immediate predecessor. Bill Barr won’t cooperate and have both Obama and Biden locked up for forever or at least through the November election, but Trump can do this one petty but oh so satisfying thing. He can have Obama’s new official portrait put in storage in the basement. And he will never invite Obama over for a visit, or Obama’s wife. They’re dead to him.

But why would they even visit? Martin Longman argues against that:

After Obama obliquely criticized Trump during his commencements speeches on Saturday, Trump called him “grossly incompetent” on Sunday, so it’s not a surprise that the two families don’t want to get together. I suppose it’s nice when two competing political powerhouses can put their competition aside and break bread, but it does tend to minimize the importance of the issues that separate them. For the Obamas, showing up in the Trump White House would be a way of normalizing the president’s behavior, and that sends a signal they don’t want to send.

The message they want to send is the opposite. No one should try to play nice with this administration or behave as if things are okay. That will give others the courage to do the same.

While Trump poisons his supporters with horrible medical advice, the Obamas will lead the rest of us on the moral plane.

Trump would sneer at that. Let him. Let the election be about pettiness. Does pettiness ever solve any problems? That might be the issue now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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