BY SUSAN ESTRICH
In pre-Trump politics, the most important thing a president could do in a crisis was to take responsibility and lead. If something went wrong, you didn’t spend a moment pointing fingers. Let the commission do that. And if you couldn’t take responsibility because it was clearly not yours, you’d promise to bring this country together and lead us forward.
In pre-Trump politics, the most important thing a president could have said about a special prosecutor’s investigation was that he was deeply troubled by what he was hearing, that he was determined to get to the bottom of it, that anyone who violated the law should be prosecuted – that sort of thing.
I’ve written crisis talking points for big-shot politicians since 1980. I know these lines by heart. My best example of how it works is always former Attorney General Janet Reno, who immediately took responsibility for an unmitigated disaster in Waco, TX, that left more than 70 people dead, many from FBI bullets. The next day, instead of tanking, Reno’s favorability rating was higher than anyone else in the Cabinet. And that was true across party lines.
In the Trump era, someone in Reno’s position might blame the FBI, might blame local law enforcement, might even say they did the right thing – that those people should have left before the raid. And of course, the reports that unarmed women and children were killed would be dismissed as fake news.
That’s certainly what the man at the top would do.
Of course, the president does this kind of thing so often that it hardly seems newsworthy. But this past week seemed especially bad, with Trump again accusing those who may indeed pose a serious threat to team Trump of engaging in a “witch hunt” – a witch hunt to determine the facts of Russian influence in the 2016 election, which every American intelligence agency has confirmed.
Why is he angry at Robert Mueller and not Vladimir Putin? This is not about whether Trump would have won anyway. He is already president. This is about our enemy interfering with the most basic building block of an election. And he is playing games with Mueller. Why not be straight?
Meanwhile, just down the road, in the federal courthouse, his campaign manager was facing his first of two criminal trials. Long before he ever went to Ukraine, Manafort was one of the most successful young practitioners of Republican hardball politics. The firm was Black [as in Charlie], Manafort [as in Paul] and Stone [as in Roger]. The fourth member of the group, and the most famous for a while, was Lee Atwater, who ran George Bush’s first, and uncharacteristically dirty, campaign. Later, when he was dying of brain cancer, Atwater called me to apologize.
Trust me, Donald Trump knew this and more about Manafort when he put him in charge of the campaign.
Most presidents would be appalled by a former campaign chair facing not one but two criminal trials. They would be deeply saddened. Dream on. The president is sending out messages about pardons for people who hold tight and don’t cooperate, which is the worst abuse of the pardon clause I have ever seen.
And Manafort: Manafort is blaming everything, everything, on his deputy, a guy who apparently lasted with Manafort because he did whatever he asked.
But the most dangerous targets of the blame game in Trumpland today are the media, the free press, the people who provide us the information a vital democracy needs. That’s a separate column.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer