Paul Pillar

Rod Rosenstein and Iraqi WMD

One difference between these two cases is that the fallacy associated with the blame-shifting has endured in one case but already been shot down in the other.  One still hears, especially but not only from the war promoters in the Bush administration, that the United States went to war because of faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.  But the notion that James Comey was fired because of something Rod Rosenstein said didn’t last a week. It probably would not have lasted even if Trump himself had not soon contradicted that rationale.  The political milieu, in the partisan sense, has much to do, of course, with which beliefs endure and which do not.  In the case of the invasion of Iraq, Democrats who supported going to war have been just as happy as their Republican colleagues to shift blame for their own mistake to an unpopular bureaucracy.  Supporters of Trump’s move regarding the FBI director tried to generate a similar dynamic by reminding people of how unhappy many Democrats have been about Comey’s handling of the Clinton email matter, but this attempt to win Democratic support did not stick.

Probably the main reason for the difference is that the themes in the Bush administration’s war-selling campaign were relentlessly sustained for more than a year.  The impact of this sheer repetition was reflected in how even where a theme was not supported by the intelligence community’s judgments, as was the case regarding terrorist connections, the administration won many believers, including ones led to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11.  The Trump White House, by contrast, has shown that it has difficulty sustaining a theme for a week, never mind a year.

These comparisons raise a larger question of how Trump’s presidency is in a league by itself regarding lack of credibility.  Less than four months into this administration, much of the media and other observers already have learned not to trust anything this president and his surrogates say.  This explains much of why version 1.0 of the White House’s explanation for why Comey was fired was immediately met with widespread incredulity.

But it’s not as if all the outrageous things this president does are wholly without precedent.  It is individual statements and actions, not any one person, that can be extreme and beyond the pale.  The Bush administration did an extreme thing by starting a major offensive war under false pretenses and then not owning up to the responsibility and instead shifting blame for the calamitous result.  But in most other respects that administration was more of an ordinary presidency and not Trump-like.  So it was better able than Trump to hoodwink people when it did do an extreme thing.

The cascade of falsehoods and other excesses that characterize Trump’s presidency still has the major cost of being a self-lowering bar as far as standards of conduct are concerned, with the country’s sense of propriety being dulled and with many things that would cause outrage or scandal in another presidency instead eliciting a ho-hum “that’s Trump being Trump” reaction.  But at least in some instances, the incredulity and suspicion that Trump has understandably generated enable the country to smell a rat more quickly than it otherwise would. 

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