The president of the United States woke up cranky Thursday.
When the White House learned Wednesday evening that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had appointed a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and any possible collusion with Donald Trump’s campaign, the president’s response was “measured,” a senior official told ABC News.
By Thursday morning, that mood had clearly changed. Trump first complained that there was never a special counsel to look at “all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration.” He then made a claim that expands upon his statement Wednesday that “no politician in history … [had] been treated worse or more unfairly” than himself.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
This is an extraordinary complaint.
There are three qualifiers to it that allow us to narrow down the competition: witch hunts of American politicians. Meaning that we must exclude the actual Salem witch trials, which resulted in the executions of 20 people for being affiliated with witchcraft. It means we must exclude the non-politician Americans who were targeted during the Japanese internments of World War II and the Red Scare of the 1950s. And we have to exclude those politicians who were relentlessly hounded in other countries, like some politicians in Russia or Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We’ll even exclude political actors who never sought elected office, people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was targeted relentlessly by the FBI.
So under that narrow definition, how does Trump fare?
Not that great.
It depends on what you mean by a “witch hunt,” of course, a term sufficiently nebulous as to allow Trump wiggle room to claim victory in this weird contest. He’s identified a number of other witch hunts in the past that give us some sense of how he’s using the term.
- Questions about Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment in the 2012 campaign were a witch hunt.
- New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigations into New York politicians was a witch hunt.
- Investigations into Trump University? A witch hunt.
- On at least four other occasions on Twitter, Trump has referred to the investigation into Russian meddling as a witch hunt — though generally in the abstract, and not specifically focused on himself.
When Trump called that investigation a “witch hunt” in March, Merriam-Webster — whose marketing team has brilliantly leveraged Trump’s use of language for some time now — offered America its definition: “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views.” Trump’s definition seems to be somewhat looser than that.
So what politicians might similarly have been subjected to Trump-style witch hunts?
The immediate and obvious example is President Bill Clinton. As his time in office was wrapping up, Government Accountability Office estimates figured that some $90 million had been spent on independent investigations over the course of his presidency, culminating in the impeachment trial in the Senate that left him in office. That’s the equivalent of $132 million today. Clinton and his administration were investigated for a broad range of things: the Clinton’s Whitewater real estate deal, terminating employees in the White House Travel Office, the death of Vincent Foster and an investigation into FBI files on political opponents. Oh, and that whole thing with Clinton’s infidelity.
The reader can be the judge of how those allegations compare to the charges at the heart of the investigation in which Trump is involved — an investigation, mind you, that focuses on his campaign, and not him specifically. Any number of other politicians with lower profiles or further back in history have been subjected to unfair and relentless criticism, including as a function of race. Dozens of black public officials were murdered during the Reconstruction period in the South.
It’s worth noting, too, that the appointment of a special counsel was almost certainly a result of Trump making his own position worse. Had he not fired FBI Director James B. Comey last week, it seems unlikely that a special counsel would have been appointed. Had his team shied away from controversial figures like Paul Manafort and not elevated Michael Flynn to the position of national security adviser even knowing that he was under investigation by the Department of Justice (as the New York Times reported Wednesday), the investigation into Russia would have remained at a distance.
A question central to Trump’s comment: If something is actually amiss, is it still a witch hunt? We don’t say that Nixon was the focus of a witch hunt, though if we apply the Clinton standard, perhaps it was. There is an implication built into the term that there’s no merit to the accusations being leveled, which, of course, is why Trump uses it. In his previous uses of the term, though, that association is softened. For example, Trump himself settled a fraud lawsuit against Trump University despite claiming that he would easily win in court.
But if Clinton’s investigations weren’t a witch hunt and Trump’s are, that Clinton was found to have perjured himself appears to be the difference.
Setting rather high stakes for Trump’s defense of his complaint about how unfairly he’s being treated.