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June 23, 2018

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Trump taping speculation spurs memories of Nixon

It is probably safe to say that one of the most overused axioms is George Santayana’s caution that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The quote is so often raised — and butchered — because it is mostly true.

If you are of a certain age, when President Donald Trump, in a ham-handed attempt to threaten James Comey, cryptically raised the possibility he may have taped the former FBI director, it is entirely likely you: A. shuddered and/or B. thought to yourself, “Oh boy, here we go again.”

Do you also suspect the ghost of Richard Nixon thought to himself, “Believe me, no good is likely to come of this.”

Given that Nixon’s White House largely imploded under the weight of disclosures that the president installed a furtive taping apparatus in the Oval Office and then incriminated himself in covering up the Watergate scandal, why would Trump possibly engage in the same behavior and then boast about it? One point for hubris. Two more points for stupidity.

Of course that would depend on the president, who apparently has the attention span of a begonia, possessing a grasp of history. And since this is a president who seems barely interested in reading a book unless it is about him and has plenty of pictures, it is entirely possible Trump thinks Carlos Santayana is a really, really huuuuge guitar player. “Oye Como Va,” it was the greatest.

Was Trump bluffing when he endeavored to cow Comey?

Or does the president insist everyone sit close to the portrait of Andrew Jackson, where the microphone is hidden in the seventh president’s flowing mane, all the better to capture alt-right political strategist Steve Bannon waxing nostalgic over the charms of Berchtesgaden this time of year?

In any event, the suggestion Trump might have been nefariously recording conversations in the White House immediately recalled the Nixon-era eavesdropping by a narcissistic, paranoid president who saw enemies of the state lurking deep in even his martini glass.

Is this history repeating itself, a Groundhog Day on the Potomac?

Either the president of the United States didn’t think (no surprise) or didn’t care that darkly hinting at a White House recording system would likely force the House and Senate intelligence committees investigating possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign to formally request transcripts of any secret tapes.

And since Comey was given the bum’s rush from his FBI job for pursuing the Russkie connection, it’s entirely possible some badges are going to start noodling around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. looking for “Donald Trump’s Greatest Hits.”

While Trump might claim he was merely joshing when he spoke rather crassly of recording Comey, since this is a president with all the credibility of a World Wrestling Entertainment referee, who is going to believe him?

More pointedly, who is going to defend him?

This is a president who in his very short time in office has repeatedly hung his supporters out to dry. From the Republican congressional leadership to his vice president to his beleaguered communications staff, Trump has repeatedly contradicted and embarrassed the very people he needs to rely upon to make excuses for him.

He demands “loyalty” but delivers duplicity. Hardly a fair exchange.

But since Trump probably thinks that Zoe Santayana was simply fabulous in “Avatar,” it is lost on him that he is the architect of his own approval ratings somewhere between “Heaven’s Gate” and the carcass of Chris Christie’s political future.

And now this.

Either Trump was telling the truth when he speculated about having the goods on Comey, because he had captured the ex-FBI director on a recording saying whatever.

Or a president lied about a taping system for reasons known only to himself and Jo Jo, his special imaginary friend.

Wherever the truth may lie, neither scenario is particularly helpful.

The existence of a secret recording operation certainly would have a chilling effect on people speaking with Trump to offer candid advice, not that he cares all that much about hearing it anyway.

And if Trump was fibbing, the fabulist tale only further erodes his integrity. Suppose former national security adviser Michael Flynn discussed the alleged Trump campaign footsie-wootsie with the Russians in the Oval Office before he was fired? And it is on tape?

Might we see a giant bonfire on the White House grounds? And somewhere, Dick Nixon will be smiling.

Daniel Ruth is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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