Donald Trump is the most transparent president in US history – with a few exceptions

His bullying tactics will have a chilling effect on the FBI investigation into Russia, but won’t stop it

David Usborne
New York
Friday 12 May 2017 18:38 BST
Comments
Trump gave an interview that contradicted everything his staff and even Vice President Pence had been saying
Trump gave an interview that contradicted everything his staff and even Vice President Pence had been saying (AP)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Donald Trump is curdling my brain. He says we shouldn’t necessarily expect everything his spokespeople tell us to be true, whether at the podium in the West Wing or in the darkness among bushes outside the White House. That, you recall, is where Sean Spicer met with reporters after the sacking of James Comey last week, begging TV crews to kill their lights.

You’re probably scratching your head too. But that is what he said, in the course of his latest early-morning social media rant: “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” he wrote on Twitter yesterday.

Well, OK. Why bother have them come out at all then? Which was precisely his next thought.

“Maybe,” he added a few moments later, “the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

I suppose this was to be expected. It’s a trick that autocrats share: intimidate and muzzle the press. You’ve seen it in Turkey, where police just detained Oguz Guven, the online editor of Cumhuriyet, which has led criticism of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump is not arresting editors, of course. But his attacks on them never cease. Here is another tweet just from Friday morning: “The Fake Media is working overtime today!”

Fake news. The enemy of the people. The notion of terminating the press briefings wasn’t just Trump musing, it was a clear threat. Keep this up, and I will shut you out. As for releasing those tax returns, forgeddaboutit!

Oh, and this is good. Did you catch how livid the US news agencies were when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Trump in the Oval Office last week? They weren’t allowed in to take pictures. Only a guy from Tass was, the Russian state agency.

Here’s what’s so confusing, though (just to add to the list). This may, in fact, be the most transparent White House ever – and the most transparent President.

I use the word ‘transparent’ in a broad sense. First, this is a ratings-obsessed president, so shutting out the press is not going to happen. Or if it does, it won’t last for very long. He would suffocate without the attention. He gives interviews like some presidents take intelligence briefings: almost daily.

Just consider last week. He boots Comey out of the FBI and the whole town goes crazy, not least because no one at the White House can get the story straight about how and why it happened. And what does Trump do? He gives an interview to NBC News and contradicts everything his staff and even Vice President Pence have been saying about it. Who among his advisors thought that his going on TV at that juncture was a good idea?

So maybe he's right about his own people talking tripe. That includes Spicer, who clearly told us his boss was merely following a recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein when he fired Comey. “It was all him,” he said. “No one from the White House.” We were also led to believe that the justification given from Rosenstein was Comey’s alleged bungling of the Hillary Clinton email probe. Trump piddled on that too, saying he had already been preparing to sack the director before receiving any note from Rosenstein, and that it was the ongoing FBI probe of alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia that had got his goat, not the email thing at all.

“In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story; it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,’” he explained to NBC’s Lester Holt.

On Friday, he even attempted a bit of openness on his taxes, releasing a letter from his lawyers about income received from Russia over the past ten years. There hadn't been any, it said – “with a few exceptions”. Sadly for Trump, it was those first four words that set the social media world alight – they quickly earned their own hashtag. It probably would have been better if he'd continued to stay entirely mum on the subject.

Then there is the transparency of Trump the human being. Let’s just set aside for the moment the possibility – a terrifying one, indeed, but as yet unproven – that there is a cover-up here, that the Kremlin does have something on Trump and that it’s the reason a Russian was the only journalist present to record his meeting with Lavrov last week. (Lavrov to Trump: my rules or we spill the beans).

Trump behaves as he does because he is thin-skinned, yes, but also because he believes in intimidation. We can see that a mile away. And it’s not just the press he’s after.

Look at that other tweet issued from within the deep folds of his White House bedsheets on Friday morning – who knows where he is at these times, on a running machine? It was apparently prompted by reporting on a dinner between him and Comey many weeks back. His recollection of it differs somewhat from Comey’s.

So Trump types out an unsubtle warning to Comey not to speak to the press about it. You’re familiar with it by now, but here it is again: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Goodness, he’s a brute. But is he smart? Andy McCabe, the man left behind to run the FBI until Trump finds a replacement everyone can agree on (keep an eye on former New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte) reassured the Senate that the firing of his erstwhile boss won’t impede the Russia probe. That’s sweet, but let’s be real here.

The threat of retaliation from Trump, the President of the United States, will have a chilling effect on the agents left behind to pursue this case and on whomever takes the tiller for the agency going forward. And he knows it.

Still, I have to believe the bullying will only take Trump so far. It hasn’t worked very well with his media critics, or the leakers who continue to feed them the information that exposes all the assorted White House lies. I wouldn’t want to be in the room with him when he watches Melissa McCarthy do her latest Spicey-at-the-podium routine for NBC’s Saturday Night Live this weekend. (It’s motorised and she will be taking it through the streets of midtown Manhattan).

And while his anger might be frightening, it also leads him into repeated peril. Doing the NBC interview? Bad idea. Even more bizarrely, he seems to have some kind of Watergate death wish. Aside from seeing Lavrov the day after he fired Comey, he also invited Henry Kissinger to the White House – as in Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser. And then on Friday he raises the notion that he taped his January dinner with Comey. Really? Secret tapes?

As I say, the man is so baffling, and yet so obvious too – if that makes any sense at all.

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