Op-Ed: Trump’s weaponized whataboutism
President Trump thinks lots of people should be investigated for wrongdoing. Just not him.
Hillary Clinton above all. More than a year after she lost the presidential election, she’s still Trump’s favorite target — a rhetorical security blanket he returns to, over and over.
“Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary and the Dems,” the president tweeted last month.
But Clinton has plenty of company, beginning with her husband, Bill Clinton, her former campaign manager, John Podesta, former President Obama and almost everyone else in the Democratic Party.
Maybe Trump should stop raging at his enemies and think about his most successful predecessors — the ones he’d like to be compared to. What about them?
In Congress, Trump has called for investigations of Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California — mostly, it seems, for having the effrontery to criticize him.
He has demanded inquests into FBI leakers, CIA leakers and the office of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who recently fired an FBI official for sending text messages disparaging Trump. (“Big stuff. Deep state,” the president tweeted.)
He’s said someone should look more closely at the media: “Fake News Networks,” CNN, ABC, NBC — and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, for the death of an intern in his congressional office 16 years ago. (The medical examiner said she died of natural causes.)
He wants to know the real reason so many people turn out for protests against his administration’s policies. “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday,” he tweeted last spring.
And he’s issued a warning to the 16 women who have publicly accused him of sexual misconduct. “All of these liars will be sued after the election is over,” Trump promised last October. (He has not sued any of them.)
This is Trump’s special version of “whataboutism,” the juvenile debating trick of deflecting accusations by charging that your opponents are doing the same thing, only worse.
Trump has taken the tried-and-true device to extremes of both quantity and quality. By quality, I mean chutzpah: Not only are his opponents guilty of endless crimes, the president tweeted, “I should be given [an] apology!”
He is the king of whataboutism. Some of his tweets even use the telltale phrase.
“What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia?” he demanded in July.
The pattern is familiar to Tony Schwartz, who wrote Trump’s 1987 autobiography, “Art of the Deal.”
“Trump’s first move in the face of criticism has always been to assume the role of victim,” Schwartz wrote in the Washington Post this week. “He feels justified in lashing back at his perceived accusers…. In Trump’s mind, he is only doing what’s required to win.”
This tendency would all be more dangerous if the president, with powerful investigative agencies at his command, could act on his impulses. So far, he hasn’t had much luck — at least as far as we know.
Granted, some of the inquests Trump wants are in progress. The Justice Department inspector general, for example, is looking into the FBI’s 2016 investigation of the Clinton campaign. But lawyers say the probe has been proceeding at a normal pace; it’s expected to wrap up some time next year.
And, early in Trump’s tenure, he launched an independent commission to determine whether millions of fraudulent votes were cast in 2016. But that panel, led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has held exactly two meetings, run into resistance from state officials and issued no findings.
Trump’s appointees, including Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and White House chief of staff John Kelly, appear to be acting as institutional brakes. When Republicans in Congress asked Sessions to consider appointing a special counsel to investigate the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia, the attorney general bucked their proposal.
Inaction has made Trump unhappy. He was hoping he could order up investigations any time he liked.
“You know the saddest thing, because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” he told a Washington radio station last month. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”
Most earlier presidents learned to live with those strictures. Maybe Trump should stop raging at his enemies and think about his most successful predecessors — the ones he’d like to be compared to. What about them?
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