Ever since the election, I have been one of those Donald Trump skeptics, desperately clinging to the fantasy of the Harry Truman Effect. Somehow I hoped that, once again, the fates that watch over our democracy would take a man of seemingly ordinary clay — like Truman or Jerry Ford — and mold him into a larger, more presidential, figure.
There were moments at the beginning of Trump’s first press conference in nearly six months when, if you really squinted, you might see tentative signs of such a miraculous transformation.
Trump praised most news organizations for being “incredibly professional” in not printing scurrilous, unverified charges about his conduct in Russia. Trump repeated his campaign pledge to go after the pharmaceutical industry on drug prices in defiance of Republican orthodoxy. And he sounded sincere as he promised once again to “be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
But as soon as the topic turned to Russian hacking and Vladimir Putin, the president-elect demonstrated yet again that he was a Trump — and not a Ford.
After grudgingly admitting the obvious (“I think it was Russia”), Trump turned his fire on the real culprit — the Democratic National Committee’s lax computer security. You almost expected Trump in the next breath to blame Watergate on the second-rate locks at the DNC.
Trump couldn’t resist the urge to keep wallowing in the theft of the DNC’s computer files: “Hillary Clinton got questions to the debate and didn’t report it? That’s a horrible thing.” Then, in an orgy of self-pity, the president-elect went on to wail, “Can you imagine that if Donald Trump got the questions to the debate — it would have been the biggest story in the history of stories.”
In Trump’s moral calculus, Clinton being sent two obvious primary debate questions was a more grievous offense than deliberate Russian intervention in the presidential election. And if Trump cared about history, he might have remembered that in 1980, the Ronald Reagan campaign was given Jimmy Carter’s entire debate briefing book.
During the press conference, the president-elect veered between Trump the Martyr and the Gloater in Chief.
He actually likened the leaking of the unverified dossier about himself to “something that Nazi Germany would have done.” (Memo to the PEOTUS: It may not be in your long-term interest to encourage the use of Nazi analogies in an American context). And he couldn’t resist returning to his favorite topic — the media’s supposed failure to report that “nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had.”
Winston Churchill in late 1939 called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Seventy-seven years later, the biggest puzzle surrounding the president-elect remains his strange affection for this post-Communist autocracy.
Trump insisted Wednesday, “I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia.” That sounds definitive, except for the small problem that Trump provided no evidence beyond his assertion, which is a little less than a gilt-edge bond.
Not only did Trump once again refuse to release his tax returns (which might theoretically indicate that he had loans from individual Russian oligarchs), but he also balked at any separation between his family and his real estate empire. Rather than turning over the management to a team of independent outsiders, he left it to his two sons, Eric and Donald Jr., to protect the nation against any attempts (foreign or domestic) to bribe the First Family.
Blinders on Russia?
But, if it isn’t money or a scurrilous dossier, then what binds Trump to Putin? Their shared admiration for democracy? Trump keeps insisting — despite evidence to the contrary during the bloodbath in Syria — that “Russia can help us fight ISIS.” But if that were the only standard, then Trump might as well forge an alliance with Shia-dominated Iran, which opposes ISIS on religious grounds.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has jammed together most of the major Trump confirmation hearings so that no single coherent story line dominates the news coverage. Which unfortunately means that Marco Rubio’s adroit Wednesday morning questioning of would-be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may get lost in the media maw.
Tillerson — who knows Putin well from energy deals as the CEO of Exxon Mobil — refused to call the actions of Russian troops in bombing schools and hospitals in Aleppo war crimes. Instead, Tillerson said in mealy-mouthed fashion, “I would have to have much more information before reaching a conclusion.” Asked by Rubio whether Putin and his cronies ordered the murder of Russian dissidents, Tillerson said (no surprise), “I do not have enough information to make that claim.”
Little more than a week before the inauguration, we do have enough information to find the Trump and Tillerson tilt toward Moscow to be as troubling as it is enigmatic. And it is just another sign that it is foolish patriotism to expect a swaggering 70-year-old-man named Trump to ever change — even as he’s being handed the keys to the Oval Office.
The day after he was sworn in, following FDR’s death in 1945, Harry Truman told a group of reporters, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. … I felt like the moon, the stars and the planets had all fallen on me.”
Unlike Truman, Trump lacks the humility to understand the enormity of the responsibilities that are about to fall on his shoulders. May the fates protect the nation from a president who sees the highest office in the land as a branding opportunity.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.