It is hardly unknown for a newly-elected leader to denigrate the performance of the previous incumbent. Think Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the hapless Herbert Hoover after the 1932 election, or Winston Churchill after he replaced Neville Chamberlain in 1940. But these were critical national moments—the Great Depression in America, the Nazi threat in Britain—and to underline the scale and significance of the change was deeply appropriate.
More germane to the current situation was Barack Obama's treatment of George W. Bush after the 2008 election. Bush's unpopularity, and the hope-and-change theme of Obama's campaign, dictated that he not let his predecessor off lightly. (Nor did his not modest self-estimation of what his presidency represented.)
But Obama's continued drumbeat of anti-Bush comments was downplayed by a sympathetic media, and in its own way, it reflected the national disapproval of how the Bush presidency had turned out.
Trump's onslaught differs in several important respects. For one thing, it is keyed more to the political needs of the present moment—to deflect attention from Russia's role in the election—than to the definition of Trump's presidency. It came out of the blue, related only tangentially to the Trump party line of being the populist victor in the face of an unprecedented barrage of hostility by the media, the Democratic opposition, and the privileged classes.
There is another distinctive characteristic of Trump's accusation: its lack of context, evidentiary or otherwise. In this sense it is not unlike the repeated claims of Hillary die-hards that Russian (or FBI) intervention explains her 2016 loss.
Trump's disconnected and thus far unsubstantiated wiretapping charge is most likely, I think, to wind up in the full-to-overflowing dustbin of his off-the-cuff tweets. But it may well be that helter-skelter skipping from one topic to another is the essence of the Trump style of governing (if one can dignify it with that word).
So I would expect, Julian, that over time this episode will sink into the Trumpian limbo of half-baked accusations with early sell-by dates. What do you think?
Julian Zelizer: It is healthy to remember that the essence of most presidential administrations, at least early on, is to define themselves against their predecessors. It is difficult to think of a president who didn’t spend a decent amount of time criticizing the person who came before him, particularly if that person was from a different party. Mickey, you are certainly correct in reminding us that Herbert Hoover offered a foil to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and Jimmy Carter became a model of how not to do just about everything for Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon basically blamed Lyndon B. Johnson for everything that had gone wrong for the U.S.—from Vietnam to urban unrest. Although he ended up keeping many of his policies intact, Barack Obama campaigned as the antithesis of George W. Bush and governed with ongoing signals about how he wanted to do things differently. It is true that there was no shortage of tough words about Bush’s record to come from Obama and his administration.