At midnight Thursday, the president of the United States was awake, agitated, and preparing to impart a message to the 54 million people who follow him on Twitter—but not that the country was under attack, necessitating a presidential response at that late hour, or that its government had only just finished devising a promising new approach to its crumbling infrastructure or to the ongoing carnage of its opioid epidemic. Earnest efforts to govern the United States ended in January 2017.
Donald Trump instead used the massive megaphone of the American presidency to declare, in all caps, “NO COLLUSION—RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” A man awaking from a coma would need to be told that Trump is trying to discredit the federal prosecutors who are probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, asserting that he did not collude with that plot, and asking his supporters to regard him as a victim.
For most readers, though, Trump’s all-caps shorthand was intelligible without that explanation. Americans know that a day before, Trump’s former attorney had implicated him in a felonious violation of federal election law, that his former campaign manager was convicted of eight felonies on the same day, and that he nevertheless persists in his “witch hunt” obsession.
Once, Richard Nixon said, “I’m not a crook.” Trump has used the phrase witch hunt in 124 tweets in office. By the end of his tenure, he may well remake the figure of speech for future schoolchildren, who will associate it with the lies of the 45th president rather than Salem.
The absurdity of his defense is often glaring.
Paul Manafort was duly convicted of eight felonies by a jury of his peers, enough that he could be spend the rest of his life behind bars. On 10 other counts, that jury hung due to a lone holdout who prevented conviction on all counts, according to a Fox News interview with a juror. “Finding Mr. Manafort guilty was hard for me. I wanted him to be innocent, I really wanted him to be innocent, but he wasn’t,” said Paula Duncan, a Donald Trump supporter. “That’s the part of a juror, you have to have due diligence and deliberate and look at the evidence and come up with an informed and intelligent decision, which I did.”
Trump’s glaringly absurd spin of that result: “A large number of counts, ten, could not even be decided in the Paul Manafort case. Witch Hunt!”
Nixon’s infamous “crook” comment was uttered on TV amid accusations of kickbacks and unpaid income taxes. “I want to say this,” he began. “I made my mistakes. But in all of my years of public life, I have never profited—never profited from public service. I’ve earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice … because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”
Of course, whether Nixon had profited from public service turned out to be beside the point. He was crooked in other ways worthy of impeachment. And in Trump’s words there is a parallel.
“NO COLLUSION—RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” he sputters as he is implicated in an election-law felony that has nothing to do with colluding with Russia.
“NO COLLUSION—RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” says a man who still refuses to release his tax returns even as his associates are found guilty of unlawfully failing to pay taxes on large swaths of their income.
“NO COLLUSION—RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” says a business owner whose holdings seemingly violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
“NO COLLUSION—RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” says a real-estate developer who “helped build a hotel in Azerbaijan that appears to be a corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.”
And there’s so much more to probe. Obstruction of justice. Abuse of the pardon power. Unconstitutional discrimination against a religious minority. Urging federal law enforcement to target domestic political rivals. Calls to abridge rather than defend the freedom of speech and the press. Unlawful acts of war carried out without congressional authorization.
The truth about Trump’s role in Russian election interference is as yet unclear. But whether or not there was “collusion” may wind up mattering less than whether Trump is guilty of any other “high crimes or misdemeanors.” Late-night tweets won’t distract anyone seeking the answer.