Julian Zelizer: Comey shows Trump can't be trusted, even in private meeting with FBI chief
Other presidents lied, but Trump's problem differs in scale and scope, he says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Almost as soon as former FBI Director James Comey started his session with the Senate intelligence committee Thursday, he characterized the President and his White House as liars. Comey was not subtle. He said that the Trump team “told lies” when explaining why the President fired him.
He explained to senators that he kept careful notes about each encounter with the President because of his wariness about Trump. “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting. It led me to believe I’ve got to write it down. … I knew there might come a day when I would need a record of what would happen, not just to defend myself but to defend the FBI.”
This was stunning to hear from a private citizen who was recently a high-ranking official in the executive branch. Comey was not saying that the President is someone who tends to be elusive or who uses words in tricky ways, but more fundamentally that he is a person who can’t be trusted even in a private meeting with the head of the FBI.
It was such an extraordinary portrayal of the President that White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had to tell reporters right away that “I can definitively say the President is not a liar, and I think it’s frankly insulting that question would be asked.”
Trump is not the first commander in chief to be called out for the veracity of his statements.
Louisiana’s Huey Long called FDR a liar as early as 1933. Liberal Democrats were blasting President Lyndon Johnson after the Tet Offensive in 1968 for not being honest about the situation in Vietnam.
During the congressional investigation into Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, officials such as John Dean were blunt with legislators about why the President could not be trusted in his denials that anything improper had taken place. The “smoking gun” tapes offered vivid proof to the nation that Nixon could not be trusted at his word.
President Ronald Reagan falsely denied to Americans that the United States had traded weapons to Iran for hostages and was blamed for members of his administration lying to Congress about their providing support to the Nicaraguan Contras despite a congressional ban on doing so.
Congressional Republicans in the 1990s spoke frequently about President “Slick Willie” Bill Clinton and his trouble with the truth, as was evident when he wagged his finger at the nation and said he never had sex with “that woman” Monica Lewinsky.
Some Democrats accused President George W. Bush of lying about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. Sen. Harry Reid called Bush a “liar” with regard to a decision about storing nuclear waste in Nevada. On the floor of the House, South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson yelled out, “You Lie!” as President Barack Obama discussed elements of his health care bill during a televised speech to Congress.
Yet the problem with Trump seems qualitatively different in scale and scope. The fact that Comey was so willing to use the term “lie” in his description of the President points to a fundamental character problem in the Oval Office.
Before the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump fueled the birther movement, which was based on a lie about Obama’s birthplace. During the campaign, candidate Trump made or repeated a long list of statements about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats that had no basis in truth.
Since his inauguration, we have seen how the President is willing to say things publicly that are blatantly false – from crowd sizes to allegations of voter fraud – while Republicans have thrown their hands up in frustration as they watch Trump contradict himself or his Cabinet. Comey made clear it Thursday that even in the most private setting, there are officials working for the President who felt the same level of distrust about their leader.
While all presidents lie, Trump seems to have made this a dangerous art form. He is someone who appears to be willing to lie without restraint, about almost anything, and with reckless abandon. He has fueled a political atmosphere filled with false information and misstatements that destabilize our public discourse. Indeed, Trump triggered an entire debate in the media about whether reporters should use the word “lie” to describe a president’s statements.
Because of his problematic character, our commander in chief does not have much credibility in this investigation and when it comes to governance. Outside of his base of support, there are many politicians, foreign leaders, journalists and voters who don’t believe what the President has to say.
While lying is not an impeachable offense, it is a huge problem when it comes to governance, and it weakens his ability to persuade the public that the accusations being launched against him are not true. The public record of lying is too robust to take Trump at face value.
He can still count on the Republican Congress to protect a Republican President. He and his advisers know that many members of Congress, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, will be extremely cautious before triggering any kind of impeachment proceeding.
But Trump does find himself in Nixon territory, and a large part of his problem is the utter lack of credibility that result from his own statements. On Thursday, Comey confirmed this impression in a way that few other Americans could.
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Some of Trump’s supporters are trying to defend his loose style, including the way that he spoke to Comey as “Trump being Trump.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dismissed the remarks as “normal New York” talk – just like the statements on the “Access Hollywood” tapes were dismissed by supporters as merely “locker room talk” – while he and others have defended Trump as an outsider trying to learn the ways of Washington.
Comey offered a much more hard-hitting assessment. He just said that the President lies and, based on his written testimony, that he is someone who is willing to intimidate, to threaten and to be extraordinarily aggressive with people he does not like.
While some Republicans are trying to spin his behavior as acceptable, it is not. Even if there was no intention to obstruct justice and there was no collusion with the Russians during the election, there is ample evidence of extremely problematic behavior that can slip into the abuse of power and dangerous policy decisions.