Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On May 1, 2003, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, President George W. Bush stood before a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” But he had declared victory prematurely and subsequently lost the political battle over the war in Iraq. From that day on, every time Americans troops suffered a setback, critics would remark something along the lines of, ‘Is this really what victory really looks like?’
In the rush to solidify a political gain, the Bush administration violated the first rule of political communications – under promise and over deliver. In fact, it violated the second rule, too – be humble in all victories.
Compare that moment with the day President Bill Clinton was acquitted on impeachment charges in the US Senate. Did he hold a victory rally, praise his supporters and criticize those who had opposed him? No, he took the opposite approach. He was somber, fully taking responsibility for his role in the painful national controversy that was ended that day.
He used the moment to reach out to the Republican Party, calling for a new commitment to working together across party lines to get things done for the people. In fact, not only was there no celebrating, I, who was his press secretary at the time, declared days before that the White House would be a gloat-free zone. And it was.
Why the somewhat random history lesson? Because, in the aftermath of Attorney General William Barr’s summary letter of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, President Donald Trump is making the same mistakes as President Bush. And hard as it may be for them to stomach, the Trump administration could learn a thing or two from history – particularly from Bill Clinton.
And his enemies, according to his press secretary Sarah Sanders, are not just run-of-the-mill losers who are wrong – they are traitors who should be prosecuted for a crime – treason – that can be punishable by death. Sanders even went as far as tweeting a New York Post presidential enemies list, presented as a March Madness bracket.
Couple that with a Trump 2020 campaign memo suggesting to television news producers the pundits they should no longer put on the air, and it’s clear that the White House saw this as more about settling scores than declaring victory.
So, what’s the problem? Like with the Iraq War, it’s premature to claim a “win.” The Mueller report has not been released for anyone, other than perhaps Barr himself, to make an independent judgment. Declaring victory also significantly increases the pressure to release the report, although it’s hard to imagine the pressure any higher than it already is.
The second problem is an opportunity squandered. And a new CNN poll, released Wednesday, indicates that despite the conclusion of the Mueller investigation, the opinion of most Americans has not changed. In other words, the reaction from the White House has not been particularly persuasive – Trump’s conservative base is still with him, the Democrats are defiant and the middle remains offended by the high-handed nature of everything he does. Swing voters, I imagine, are saying he may not have colluded with the Russians, but he’s still acting far from presidential.
So, what should he have done? First and foremost, he should have identified the true enemy in this crisis (hint: it’s not the media) – the Russians. The President needed to state clearly that American democracy was attacked and that there is nothing more important than protecting our political viability. No ambiguity, no hedging and no articulating what Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks or referencing the 400-pound guy in his mother’s basement.
This was also an opportunity to bring people together. To do that, he should have started with taking responsibility for his actions, which contributed to this political crisis. First, he easily could have admitted to making mistakes in hiring certain people – particularly after several of the top aides on his campaign were convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes, including Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos and others.
Next, he could have expressed regret for the tone of his comments, particularly against the special counsel, whom he attacked repeatedly for months. Finally, he could have made a call for a new commitment to comity in our country by shouldering some of the blame for the current climate and calling on the Democrats to do the same.
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Had he done any of this, he would have inoculated himself from further revelations, put the Democrats in a bind and appealed to swing voters, who he will need to win the next election.
Instead, Trump is now vulnerable to whatever else comes out in the report and other investigations. Every new detail or wrongdoing will be judged, just as setbacks in Iraq were after the “Mission Accomplished” boondoggle. The Trump team may think they have cemented a win with their aggressive approach, but history tells us that it ain’t over until it’s over. And he may never get the high ground again.