The president apparently woke up in a bad mood Friday morning and took it out on his Twitter account. “The Fake Media is working overtime today!” he tweeted. He also pushed his stale argument that the investigation into questions of collusion between Russian meddlers and his presidential campaign is nothing more than a Democratic fabrication to explain away how that party lost the election. Then he suggested canceling daily press briefings because his spokespeople can’t get the White House facts straight (never mind that the facts seem to change with every breath the president takes).
Buried in the morning rant was a dangerously worded warning to James Comey, the recently fired director of the FBI: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
What exactly was the threat? That Trump did indeed record those conversations and he might release audio to rebut whatever comments Comey might make? That seems to be the clearest reading of a typically muddy Trump tweet. And if so, that means evidence should be available to shed light on how the president of the United States used a private meeting with his FBI director to seek inside information on the status of an investigation into the actions of some of Trump’s campaign aides.
In his press briefing Friday morning (yes, he’s still holding them), just hours after Trump’s tweets, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to say whether the president had indeed recorded conversations with Comey (Democratic members of the House Judiciary Oversight Committee immediately requested copies of the tapes if they exist). And Spicer denied that Trump had asked Comey for his loyalty in a dinner meeting, as the New York Times reported. The story added that Comey declined but pledged that he would act honestly. Given how many lies, distortions and errors have come out of the White House press office since the inauguration, Spicer’s denial of the New York Times version doesn’t bear much weight.
This is dangerous ground when the nation’s presumption whenever the president or his spokespeople say something has to be disbelief. Nothing can be taken at face value, from White House estimates of the size of the inauguration crowd, to Spicer denying that Trump’s effort to block entry of refugees and travelers from a number of predominantly Muslim countries is a “ban” (the word Trump has used), to the events that led to Comey’s dismissal.
Most alarming, though is that Trump himself doesn’t understand that the president of the United States is powerful, but not omnipotent, something he seems to crave as part of an irrepressible authoritarian instinct. He doesn’t want to be president, he wants to be emperor. He has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, shrugging off the anti-crime crusader’s admissions that he has murdered. He congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a referendum that shifted power from the parliament to his own office. His adoration of Russian President Vladimir Putin borders on the embarrassing.
Leaks from the White House disclose a president who lashes out at aides when news coverage churns beyond his control. He has threatened to change libel laws to make it easier to sue over articles he doesn’t like (and is seemingly oblivious to the fact that libel laws are state-level and beyond his reach). Never mind the Supreme Court’s history of defending the media’s 1st Amendment right to publish what it wants about public figures as long as the material is factual or that errors were not published with malice or reckless disregard for the truth. Though Trump also has disparaged the courts — again, after he didn’t get his way.
Confronted with political opposition in Congress, Trump’s response was to question the rules under which Congress operates and, defying the separation of powers, suggested he, as president, would try to change Senate rules.
“There are archaic rules, and maybe at some point, we're going to have to take those rules on, because for the good of the nation, things are going to have to be different,” Trump told Fox News. “You can't go through a process like this. It's not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions.”
So just because the president couldn’t get Congress to bend to his will, he wants to change how Congress — which he doesn’t control — operates. So much for the self-vaunted deal closer.
No one knows how this mess will settle out. Did Trump campaign aides collude with Russia in the run-up to the election? Has Trump gone further than breaking with tradition and meddled in a federal investigation with his questioning of Comey? Will the House or Senate committees ostensibly mounting investigations actually get anywhere? Will the FBI? Will the nation get the special prosecutor it so desperately needs to cut through the smoke, denials and obfuscations to get at least a semblance of a clear picture of whether Trump aides worked with Russia, and whether Comey’s dismissal was an attempt to interfere with the investigation?
We can have the audacity of hope (a phrase Trump did not coin), I suppose, but as Benjamin Franklin warned: “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”