August 12th, 2020


What Does Trump Do Next? Try Looking Back At Obama And Clinton

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published August 17, 2017

What Does Trump Do Next? Try Looking Back At Obama And Clinton

Wednesday, August 16, marked two years and two months to the day that Donald Trump descended the escalator in the eponymous Trump Tower and began arguably the most improbable presidential campaign in American history.

On the eve of that anniversary, Trump was back at the scene of the announcement.

If was as if time had stood still.

The President's treatment of reporters is still as cringe-worthy a blend of contempt and condescension as it was in the summer of 2015, if not worse.

The media, in turn, still find Trump improbable - not to mention impudent, immoral and (if they had a vote in the matter) impeachable.

What had Trump at loggerheads with reporters yesterday was the President taking a third bite out of the same apple in trying to explain his views on white supremacists. That includes Saturday's short and lacking statement, Monday's more forceful, TelePrompTer-fed remarks and Tuesday's unscripted Manhattan press conference.

I have two thoughts:

First, where is this taking Trump?

Last summer, two American presidents delivered remarks at a memorial service in Dallas, Texas, for five policemen who'd been gunned down by a sniper driven by racial animus.

George W. Bush stuck to the business at hand. His remarks were brief and to the point: honor the fallen for their service; pray for their families.

Barack Obama, five months and one week shy of presidential retirement, went in a different direction. He also paid tribute to the officers, before shifting into a longer treatise on the state of race in America.

Some praised Obama for his usual eloquence. But others criticized the President for engaging in moral equivalency - in Dallas, stacking up white cops patrolling the streets against Black Lives Matter activists marching in the streets.

Such is the trap Trump walked into on Tuesday, I believe.

Worshiping Adolph Hitler and despising non-whites is a sickness. The desire to destroy property and bully and physically harm others' who dare to speak differently likewise is a malady. Trump should have left it at that, rather than putting the two on the scales.

Perhaps, sometimes soon, Trump will convene a presidential panel to look into the face of hate in America. Other than that, he needs to return to the stated purpose of Tuesday's press event: his presidential agenda.

The other thought: this may be an opportunity for Trump to grow - and rescue his presidency.

On April 18, 1995, Bill Clinton made an astonishing confession of political weakness when he told reporters: "I am relevant".

Clinton said this to dispel the notion that Newt Gingrich, recently installed as the House Speaker after Clinton's midterm beat-down, was the new sheriff in town.

Or maybe Clinton was motivated by media antipathy (only one major television network covered the President's remarks).

The following day, a domestic terrorist's truck bomb took down a federal building in Oklahoma City. Less than a week after the public humiliation of trying to convince the world that his presidency still had a pulse, Clinton had a chance to showcase his considerable talents.

Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman would later observe in his book POTUS Speaks: "It was the nation's first exposure to Clinton as mourner in chief . . . In fact, it was the first time Clinton had been a reassuring figure rather than an unsettling one."

So here's the question: is now the time for Trump to give a thoughtful, calm, measured speech about the culture of hate - hate permeated by extremists on the right and the left - that's disturbingly evident in American society, be it the fight in Charlottesville or wilding on the Cal-Berkeley campus?

Is Trump willing to give such a speech? Or is he more inclined to stick to the shallower jousting with reporters that's been his political trademark these past two years?

And were Trump to give such a speech, would he get a fair shake by the press?

George H.W. Bush once lamented to aides that he couldn't catch a break with reporters. If he were to head down to the Potomac River and walk on water, the President supposed, the headline the next day would be: "Bush Can't Swim".

Trump got a taste of this on Monday when, after giving the tougher set of remarks, both reporters and editorialists took him to task for being two days too late.

One could argue that Obama said what he said last summer with legacy in mind: his time in office winding down, he wanted to be remembered as a President who could look at race from more than one perspective.

For Bill Clinton, the Oklahoma City speech became the starting point for a comeback - the President and his political advisors using the incident as a way to connect congressional Republicans to right-wing extremism.

Maybe Trump doesn't see the aftermath of Charlottesville as a means for stature raising and legacy building, as did Obama. Perhaps Trump's not being advised to think in more crass political terms, as was Clinton.

Let's just hope Trump's thinking about what to do next - other than waiting for the next bile swap with the press.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.