I admit that I have no idea now why I thought that was possible.
I mean, that there was already so much that was public about his behavior that had been glossed over or reframed should have served as evidence that Trump and his allies were prepared to subsume anything new into their well-honed sanitization process, not that there would emerge something new that broke out of that orbit. The assumption that we’d learn something new that threw barriers in Trump’s way was simply a new version of the line of thinking that had been introduced (and eviscerated) repeatedly since June 2015: At last, Trump had gone too far.
The revelations in recent days that the Department of Justice sought and obtained digital records from Democratic members of Congress and former White House counsel Donald McGahn have spurred understandable alarm. Attorney General Merrick Garland released a statement pledging to review and bolster the department’s policy specifically as it relates to inquiries involving members of the legislative branch. There have been a number of comparisons between this activity and the actions of the Nixon administration during Watergate.
But details are murky. It seems likely that the Justice Department was not targeting those individuals but, instead, people in contact with the lawmakers and McGahn. One request made to Apple, for example, was for names and call records related to more than 100 email addresses and phone numbers. The company’s response included information about the legislators, suggesting they were part of a web of contacts surrounding the actual focus of the investigation. (As journalist Marcy Wheeler notes, that focus appears to have been on a congressional staffer.) The McGahn information appears to have been the result of a similarly indirect request.
The implication, then, is not immediately that this is an example of Trump and his team trying to unearth damaging information about his opponents but, instead, that it’s an example of an unusually heavy hand being taken in a relatively routine process to identify the source of a leak. (Again, this may change.) Comparisons to Watergate or, more broadly, to the sort of aggressive overreach that would shock the conscience of even the most hardened observer seem at this point to be premature.
Nuance is Trump’s ally. Not in the sense that Trump is particularly adept at introducing it but in the sense that he’s adept at exploiting it. We can pretty easily predict a Trumpian response to this issue: The fake news media got it wrong again (because the headlines or stories didn’t match eventual revelations)! Even if a document emerged showing Trump’s signature underneath an order to, say, investigate the personal lives of his enemies, there would be some rationalization or redirection offered that neutered the issue for his base, like that the paper wasn’t the right color or his signature looked like a forgery. (Remember, Trump briefly floated the idea that the voice on the “Access Hollywood” tape wasn’t his.)
For less clear-cut issues, that effort is far easier.
In my mind, the most revelatory part of Bob Woodward’s first book about the Trump administration, “Fear,” was advice Trump gave a friend who was facing allegations of sexual harassment.
“You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back,” Woodward reports Trump saying. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. … You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
This is precisely how Trump approached questions about his presidency. Over and over, we saw how his refusal to even entertain the possibility that he’d done what he was accused of — even in the face of obvious evidence — allowed his supporters to reject negative reports. Then, of course, he’d pick together some rationalization to believe that the opposite was true.
Again: Nuance is Trump’s ally. On Saturday, he claimed that “they” — the bad guys, whoever they might be — were “now admitting I was right about everything they lied about before the election.”
Like that “hydroxychloroquine works,” because one study hyped heavily by Fox News suggested a benefit from the drug that Trump had tried to promote as a coronavirus silver bullet last year. The FDA pulled its emergency use authorization last summer after studies showed a risk associated with use of the drug. It’s nuanced, but that’s not how Trump positions it.
Trump also asserted that “they” were now saying that “the Virus came from a Chinese lab,” which is not true. There has been a surge in criticism of members of the media for having dismissed the idea that the coronavirus leaked from a lab, but it remains unknown where the virus originated. (As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, it’s also opportunistic for Trump to suddenly embrace this as a central tenet of his approach to the pandemic.)
I can go on, like pointing to my assessment of the report that Trump claims exonerates him of having Lafayette Square cleared on June 1 of last year. But you get the point: Everything that exists with any blurriness at the edges gives Trump space to cherry-pick some argument about how he was right. The media is held to a standard demanding perfection but Trump is happy to present as true theories cobbled together with twigs and chewing gum.
Nothing has emerged for which this tactic isn’t effective at broadly convincing his base. If you accept that Trump is honest and the media isn’t, that makes it very easy for Trump to cast new allegations as suspect or biased. That’s how it has worked since Republicans first gave him the benefit of the doubt in 2015 and 2016. The guy was impeached twice, on robust charges! And it didn’t dent public opinion at all.
What could emerge that he couldn’t wave away? What could be revealed that can’t be retrofit into a criticism of his opponents? Nothing has. It seems safe to say that nothing will be.