Trump is acting like an innocent man, and it's hurting him

When I asked in a piece last week why President Trump had not yet fired then-FBI director James Comey, I did not expect Trump to do it 48 hours later (and no, I don't think my column played a role).  We still don't know why Trump kept Comey on, but the administration has provided abundant, if shifting, reasons for letting him go – so much so that it ought to stop before the mainstream media and the Democrats twist that reasoning into a perception that Trump acted illegally. 

There are a lot of deep ironies in this saga, most notably how both the Democrats and Trump have variously touted Comey as a hero and condemned him as a villain.  That Comey got himself into such a situation, so that in fact nobody in Washington trusted him and he became the epitome of a legal and political loose cannon, is the fundamental reason he had to go.  That's just in addition to all the improper procedural and legal judgments he made, which alone would have given Trump grounds to fire the guy in January.

Trump should have and could have done that, quietly and discreetly, as Charles Krauthammer points out, with a gold watch and an insincere fare-thee-well sendoff, on the simple grounds that the new boss is not the same as the old boss and wants his own guy in the FBI.  That would still have launched attacks from the media and Democrats on much the same grounds they are screaming about today – that Trump is trying to cover up Russian meddling in the election – but likely it would not have been this bad. 

Probably Trump's advisers told him to keep Comey on just to avoid this kind of theatre, and Trump refrained as long as he could, until Comey's sanctimony and arrogance made it unbearable.  And now that the drama is upon him, Trump, who is something of a drama king and who has an almost equally dramatic foil in Comey, is full into it.  Trump's already had some early crises in his presidency, but nothing quite like this.  A mano a mano tussle, with the media against him, is the kind of thing Trump has difficulty letting go of, and since his enemies well know this, they are stoking the flames as much as possible.

But the other great irony here is that for all the nefarious accusations being made against Trump, alleging shades of Watergate and tin-pot dictatorships, he is actually acting like an innocent man.  One thing most sophisticated politicians know to do is keep their mouths shut.  Issue a pro forma denial and move on, without providing further ammo to the other side.  Examples abound: "I am not a crook"; "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"; "I never sent or received any email that was marked classified."  Or just keeping your mouth shut completely, as Obama did when it was revealed that his literary agent had promoted his book Dreams of My Father as being written by a guy born in Kenya, information that they only would have gotten from Obama, which was a lie in the first instance, but oh, never mind.  The point is Obama let the literary agency take the fall and said nothing. 

What all four of the above examples (Nixon, Clinton, Clinton, Obama) have in common is that they were or are lawyers, who know that the first rule of criminal defense is keeping your mouth shut.  Experienced criminals know this, too.  Innocent people who are neither career criminals nor lawyers tend to jabber away when accused of something that they did not do, or believe that they did not do in some instances, if they are not very bright.  Trump's a very bright guy.  He's jabbering away not because he's stupid – although some observers might say it is a stupid thing to do – but because he knows he's not done anything wrong vis-à-vis the Russians and is angry that he's being investigated for it and often accused otherwise. 

Sure, Trump has been around lawyers his whole adult life, and he is a litigious fellow, but that was in the civil realm, where being garrulous is not such a big deal and might even help sway negotiations your way.  The criminal side is entirely different, as perhaps Trump is now finding out. 

The Washington Post is now breathlessly reporting – it's been breathless a lot lately – that Trump's statements along with the revelation that he may have taped some conversations with Comey may open him to charges of obstruction of justice, which the Post ominously note was "a central charge in the impeachment proceedings against two presidents in the past 43 years."  This is mostly hyperbole, but the fact is that Trump is definitely not helping himself in a purely legal sense by protesting his innocence, even though he almost certainly is innocent of the charge that he or his aides colluded with the Russians to throw the election his way. 

Whether he is helping or hurting himself politically is harder to say.  Conventional wisdom says yes, shut up already.  But Trump has proven conventional wisdom wrong repeatedly when it comes to his own political instincts.  Will ordinary Americans see Trump's protests in interviews, statements, and tweets as Clintonesque obfuscation or the righteous shouts of an innocent man falsely accused?  Stay tuned – the drama isn't over yet. 

When I asked in a piece last week why President Trump had not yet fired then-FBI director James Comey, I did not expect Trump to do it 48 hours later (and no, I don't think my column played a role).  We still don't know why Trump kept Comey on, but the administration has provided abundant, if shifting, reasons for letting him go – so much so that it ought to stop before the mainstream media and the Democrats twist that reasoning into a perception that Trump acted illegally. 

There are a lot of deep ironies in this saga, most notably how both the Democrats and Trump have variously touted Comey as a hero and condemned him as a villain.  That Comey got himself into such a situation, so that in fact nobody in Washington trusted him and he became the epitome of a legal and political loose cannon, is the fundamental reason he had to go.  That's just in addition to all the improper procedural and legal judgments he made, which alone would have given Trump grounds to fire the guy in January.

Trump should have and could have done that, quietly and discreetly, as Charles Krauthammer points out, with a gold watch and an insincere fare-thee-well sendoff, on the simple grounds that the new boss is not the same as the old boss and wants his own guy in the FBI.  That would still have launched attacks from the media and Democrats on much the same grounds they are screaming about today – that Trump is trying to cover up Russian meddling in the election – but likely it would not have been this bad. 

Probably Trump's advisers told him to keep Comey on just to avoid this kind of theatre, and Trump refrained as long as he could, until Comey's sanctimony and arrogance made it unbearable.  And now that the drama is upon him, Trump, who is something of a drama king and who has an almost equally dramatic foil in Comey, is full into it.  Trump's already had some early crises in his presidency, but nothing quite like this.  A mano a mano tussle, with the media against him, is the kind of thing Trump has difficulty letting go of, and since his enemies well know this, they are stoking the flames as much as possible.

But the other great irony here is that for all the nefarious accusations being made against Trump, alleging shades of Watergate and tin-pot dictatorships, he is actually acting like an innocent man.  One thing most sophisticated politicians know to do is keep their mouths shut.  Issue a pro forma denial and move on, without providing further ammo to the other side.  Examples abound: "I am not a crook"; "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"; "I never sent or received any email that was marked classified."  Or just keeping your mouth shut completely, as Obama did when it was revealed that his literary agent had promoted his book Dreams of My Father as being written by a guy born in Kenya, information that they only would have gotten from Obama, which was a lie in the first instance, but oh, never mind.  The point is Obama let the literary agency take the fall and said nothing. 

What all four of the above examples (Nixon, Clinton, Clinton, Obama) have in common is that they were or are lawyers, who know that the first rule of criminal defense is keeping your mouth shut.  Experienced criminals know this, too.  Innocent people who are neither career criminals nor lawyers tend to jabber away when accused of something that they did not do, or believe that they did not do in some instances, if they are not very bright.  Trump's a very bright guy.  He's jabbering away not because he's stupid – although some observers might say it is a stupid thing to do – but because he knows he's not done anything wrong vis-à-vis the Russians and is angry that he's being investigated for it and often accused otherwise. 

Sure, Trump has been around lawyers his whole adult life, and he is a litigious fellow, but that was in the civil realm, where being garrulous is not such a big deal and might even help sway negotiations your way.  The criminal side is entirely different, as perhaps Trump is now finding out. 

The Washington Post is now breathlessly reporting – it's been breathless a lot lately – that Trump's statements along with the revelation that he may have taped some conversations with Comey may open him to charges of obstruction of justice, which the Post ominously note was "a central charge in the impeachment proceedings against two presidents in the past 43 years."  This is mostly hyperbole, but the fact is that Trump is definitely not helping himself in a purely legal sense by protesting his innocence, even though he almost certainly is innocent of the charge that he or his aides colluded with the Russians to throw the election his way. 

Whether he is helping or hurting himself politically is harder to say.  Conventional wisdom says yes, shut up already.  But Trump has proven conventional wisdom wrong repeatedly when it comes to his own political instincts.  Will ordinary Americans see Trump's protests in interviews, statements, and tweets as Clintonesque obfuscation or the righteous shouts of an innocent man falsely accused?  Stay tuned – the drama isn't over yet.