Trump Takes Page From Bill Clinton Crisis Playbook

Trump Takes Page From Bill Clinton Crisis Playbook
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President Trump fancies himself an innovator, but his political playbook to try to dig out of scandal quicksand owes a lot to the 42nd president. 

On Thursday, Trump aped defense techniques used during Bill Clinton’s impeachment saga (with the added twists of a Republican complaining in 2017 about a vast left-wing conspiracy via social media that didn’t exist in the late 1990s).

In three formats -- Twitter, a roundtable session with TV anchors, and an afternoon joint news conference -- the president repeated his belief that the special counsel appointed by the deputy attorney general on Wednesday, plus ongoing FBI and congressional investigations examining Russia’s influence in last year’s election, collectively amount to “a witch hunt.”

The president, along with a fledgling West Wing “rapid response” communications team and surrogates armed with talking points, argued that his foes and the news media are collaborating to block his stalled policy agenda. He said his opponents are trying to settle scores from the campaign by casting his geopolitical view of Russia as scandalous.

Trump repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, blamed political enemies for his troubles, vowed to defend himself on behalf of the American people, and said he would not be diverted from his commitment to better Americans’ lives.

“Whether it's Russia or anybody else, my total priority, believe me, is the United States of America,” he told reporters in the East Room after meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.

It was vintage Clinton, channeled anew by the 45th president.

“There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign,” Trump said more than once, speaking of the Russia-focused probes. “Zero.”

Did he urge or direct former FBI Director James Comey, whom he dismissed, to shut down the bureau’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whom he also fired?

“No.”

Has he done anything to warrant criminal investigations or articles of impeachment? 

“I think it's totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so,” the president responded, dodging the question.

After a day of relative silence on Twitter, Trump returned to his favorite communications channel to appeal to his base using hyperbole and exclamation points:

Grudgingly, Trump used the word “respect” on Thursday to describe the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former 12-year director of the FBI, who accepted a request from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to dig deeper into potential criminal activities tied to Russia, as well as any ties between Trump’s campaign advisers and Moscow.

To every question, the president returned to themes that helped acquit Clinton during the Senate’s impeachment trial decades ago. That scandal, which played out on the front pages for months, but against a backdrop of an American populace satisfied with a vibrant U.S. economy, inspired the Clinton White House to design a “war room” stocked with experienced attorneys and communicators who defended Clinton through every news cycle. They attempted to wall off investigations, subpoenas and depositions from Clinton’s simultaneous counter-programming that he was focused entirely on the job he was elected to do.

Clinton privately seethed that he was a victim, but publicly said he took the high road. 

“These things are distracting, and we live in a time where they are more prominent than they have been at most times in our country's history, although not at all times,” he said during a 1998 news conference. “I deal with them the very best I can. But I do not think the right thing for me to do is to respond in kind. The right thing for me to do is to let others defend me as best they can and to go on and worry about the American people.”

Public confidence that Bill Clinton had Americans’ interests at heart and that his policies bolstered a go-go economy buoyed him during charges of perjury about illicit sex with a young intern. He departed the White House after two terms touting 23 million new U.S. jobs and a federal budget surplus. And two-thirds of Americans said they approved of the job he did as president, even as partisan political warfare in Washington worsened.

Trump doesn’t have the tangible economic deliverables to showcase after just 119 days in office, but he instinctively turned to his campaign boasts as a shield, without conceding to voters that members of his party fear the conservative legislative agenda has stalled this year.

“We need health care,” Trump told reporters. “We need to cut taxes. We're going to cut taxes. If I get what I want, it'll be the biggest tax cut in the history of our nation. … It's going to bring back companies. It's going to bring back jobs.”

Trump told network TV anchors who sat down with him Thursday at the White House that his primary objection to the new special counsel is a fear that Mueller’s work will prove divisive. He called the Russia probes a “very, very negative thing,” and said he hoped the investigations would end “quickly.”

That is unlikely, if history is a guide.

To make a point that the Trump-Pence re-election campaign remains viable and that Trump is battling powerful forces in the nation’s capital, his campaign team emailed a statement describing a burst of small-dollar, online donations ($314,000) received on Wednesday.

“Despite weeks of unrelenting and unprecedented political attacks against a sitting president, the American people are standing with President Trump as he fights against the mainstream media, Democrats in Congress, and the political establishment to drain the swamp in Washington,” the campaign said.

On Friday, before departing on a 10-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, the president may decide to name a nominee to replace Comey at the FBI. 

On Thursday, Trump told journalists he was close to an announcement. He confirmed that his leading choice was former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000 and an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 2004. Lieberman, 75, who is close friends with GOP Sen. John McCain, subsequently switched his party affiliation to independent. 

Trump interviewed the Connecticut centrist for the 10-year appointment on Wednesday night, along with three other potential candidates.

Lieberman has no experience working inside the FBI. Since leaving the Senate in 2013, he has been a practicing attorney. Last year, he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president following the Democratic National Convention.

“I’m an independent Democrat, I never changed parties, and I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said in August. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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