Trump Time Capsule #4: Vince Foster, or Birtherism Redux

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Vince Foster (Reuters)

As a reminder, for time-capsule purposes this is an ongoing chronicle of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president could, should, or would say or do.

Daily Trump #4: May 23, 2016, the Vince Foster case. Six months into Bill Clinton’s first term, his lifelong friend and deputy White House counsel, Vince Foster, died of a gunshot wound along the George Washington Parkway outside Washington. All available real-world evidence is that Foster, who was suffering from clinical depression, had killed himself. That was what a special counsel officially determined, in a report issued a year later.

Then and thereafter, conspiracy-theorist madmen have maintained that there must be more to the case. Maybe Foster, who had been working with Hillary Clinton at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, was having an affair with her?  Maybe in some general way he Knew Too Much? Let me emphasize that in nearly 23 years no official or investigative body has found any evidence to this effect, at all. Very much like the controversy over Barack Obama’s place of birth, it’s a “controversy” in which all the facts are on one side.

But not for Donald Trump. According to the WaPo:

When asked in an interview last week about the Foster case, Trump dealt with it as he has with many edgy topics — raising doubts about the official version of events even as he says he does not plan to talk about it on the campaign trail.

He called theories of possible foul play “very serious” and the circumstances of Foster’s death “very fishy.”

“He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump said, speaking of Foster’s relationship with the Clintons at the time. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”

He added, “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”

That is: I don’t bring it up because that wouldn’t be “fair” — so let me bring it up. And, yes, the Post interviewer asked the question, but then Trump responded in the way he did.

***

What’s wrong with this? It is a near-exact parallel to Trump’s relentless and bogus insistence early in Obama’s term that Obama was not a native-born citizen. Note the overlap between the way Trump talks about Vince Foster now with what he was saying on the “birther” front four years ago:

“A lot of people are questioning his birth certificate,” Trump said. “They’re questioning the authenticity of his birth certificate.

“I’ve been known as being a very smart guy for a long time. I don’t consider myself birther or not birther but there are some major questions here and the press doesn’t want to cover it,” he said.

Side question: Is there anyone you know who actually is very smart, who goes around saying “I’ve been known as being a very smart guy for a long time”? In my experience there is no surer marker of not, in fact, being smart than this kind of barroom brag. (Evidence: I’ve interviewed a significant number of people who have won the Nobel prize or various “genius” awards, been chess champions or precocious elite-college professors, started tech companies in their 20s, etc. None of them talks this way.) Similarly there is no one I know who is really good looking, who goes around saying “I’ve been known as being very good looking for a long time.” Hypothesis: We know that Trump is ill-informed on public issues. The evidence mounts that, while he is clever and cunning in performance skills, he is sort of dim intellectually.

The broader point is that Trump’s discussion of Vince Foster and Obama’s birth certificate is part of a pattern that is familiar in his own speech and thought — but virtually unknown among real presidents or real contenders for the job.

***

Rumors and conspiracy theories are a perennial part of U.S. political culture. The play MacBird!, in the mid-1960s, was based on the premise that Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination of JFK. You can easily find online the theories connecting both Presidents Bush, father and son, with Saudi figures tied up in the 9/11 attacks. In any era you choose, you will find the counterparts.

What you won’t find is major-party nominees dignifying fringe theories in their national campaigns:

— Richard Nixon was renowned for fighting dirty and tough, but he never said “Well, people are asking a lot of questions about MacBird,” or that LBJ’s becoming president was “very fishy.”

— Bob Dole was doing his best to unseat Bill Clinton in 1996, but he didn’t include Vince Foster in his list of Clinton’s failings.

— John McCain tried to stop Barack Obama from being elected in 2008, and Mitt Romney did his best to keep Obama from being re-elected four years later. But both of them went out of their way to reject birther and “alien” fantasies, Romney specifically distancing himself from Trump’s birth-certificate crusade in 2012.

All major-party candidates in modern times have avoided legitimizing conspiracy theories, until Donald Trump.

What Trump is saying about Foster is utter bullshit, on a par with his lunatic suggestion last month ago that Ted Cruz’s father might have been an ally of Lee Harvey Oswald. A person who could think or say things like these, and in fact repeatedly does say them, is not a person you want judging the complicated issues that come before a real-world president. This person is about to become a major-party nominee.

***

Update Congrats to Jake Tapper and CNN for their anti-false-equivalence, “pro-truth” takedown of Trump’s bullshit on this topic.