In an interview Tuesday morning, NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked former FBI Director James Comey about some of the most discussed portions of his new book. No, not the ones where he calls President Trump a chronic liar untethered from reality, or where he discusses briefing Trump on the Steele dossier: The ones where he notes the president’s over-long tie, or his hand size, or the bags under his eyes.
Comey insisted he wasn’t mocking Trump. “I’m not making fun of the president. I’m trying to be an author, which I’ve never been before in my life,” he said. “I’m trying to show the reader this is how I was experiencing the world, and bring them into those rooms with me. And so I really do think the folks who are picking up on that, it’s just a sign to me they haven’t read the book.”
Not everyone is convinced. The New York Times ran an entire story Tuesday about critiques of Comey’s choices in the book. “To the extent that the former director appears petty and anything less than high-minded, it diminishes the impact of his critique,” former John Boehner aide Michael Steel told the paper. “In a time when almost every public debate is defined by people lining up with their respective tribes, he’s managed to alienate both.”
This is not the only critique leveled against Comey. As my colleague Adam Serwer has written, Comey’s own accounts do not necessarily put him in a good light. Others have focused on Comey’s tendency toward sanctimony—which makes the apparent pettiness all the stranger.
But Comey is not the only person who has seen himself tempted toward petty commentaries in the time of Trump. Distinguished, staid officials, exemplars of sobriety and seriousness, pillars of the intelligence and law-enforcement communities: They’ve all heard the petty sniping of the Trump, whom they detest, and found it difficult to resist responding in kind.
In March, Ashley Merryman wrote in The Washington Post about how the president’s demeanor could influence the nation. “Behaviors such as aggression, anger, blaming, bullying, dishonesty, greed, narcissism, negativity, profanity and incivility are all social contagions,” she wrote. “A social contagion describes how others’ actions infect mood and behavior, just as you might catch someone’s flu. With prolonged exposure, you’re at greater risk, but even a brief event—reading one tweet or watching a video clip—can affect behavior.”
If there really is a social contagion, the president’s critics are patient zero.
Take Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics—universally described, when he suddenly and unexpectedly became a public figure, as a reluctant and shy bureaucrat. Now working at the Campaign Legal Center, Shaub has become a quasi-celebrity, and also a prodigious Twitter merchant of snark …
Fascinating tweet in which Sarah Sanders reveals that Mike Pence was simultaneously in Peru and Washington. If this new capability doesn’t scare our enemies, nothing will. #QuantumEntanglementMike https://t.co/YdeILzG28M— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) April 15, 2018
… and sick burns:
Uh oh, this tweet didn’t age well. (Man, talk about irony.)— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) April 9, 2018
Shaub is not the only lawyer to discover a talent for zingers. Here’s former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, combining news of a raid on Michael Cohen with a fatal fire at Trump Tower:
Why, is she a tenant in your building? https://t.co/PZo17biGFu— Neal Katyal (@neal_katyal) April 10, 2018
Or Preet Bharara, who was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York until Trump broke a pledge to keep him and instead fired him:
He would've run in there unarmed? Show of hands: how many of you would feel safe relying on the physical bravery of Donald Trump as a volunteer guarding your kids' school?— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) February 27, 2018
It’s not totally clear what former George W. Bush White House ethics chief Richard Painter is doing here, but sure:
Just got an email from a woman named Lara Trump with the caption “Can we text?” I am sure that if I start texting her she will start asking for money. What should I tell her?— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) March 2, 2018
It’s not just jokes. Esteemed legal scholar Laurence Tribe is so driven to distraction by Trump that he has fallen for wild conspiracy theories. Former CIA Director James Brennan has opted for florid, grandiose insults:
Your kakistocracy is collapsing after its lamentable journey. As the greatest Nation history has known, we have the opportunity to emerge from this nightmare stronger & more committed to ensuring a better life for all Americans, including those you have so tragically deceived. https://t.co/eC6LATH2Gd— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) April 13, 2018
One could also lump in the tendency among some Democrats to swear more profusely since the election, which Alex Roarty identified last year.
The weird, short Oprah boomlet earlier this year underscored the dilemma for Trump’s opponents. Is the lesson of his rise that one should resolutely stick to the high road, avoiding all semblance of Trump? Or is the trick to co-opt Trump’s tactics, while opposing his goals?
Savagely ad-hominem jokes, conspiracy theories, over-the-top anger, potty mouths: Whether consciously or not, the people mentioned here have adopted Trumpian tactics and language. There are actually two separate, related dynamics at play. One is the tendency to get into the mud with Trump and wrestle him there. The second is the feeling that one must meet fire with fire when the nation faces an existential threat. Rhetorical extremism in the defense of Lady Liberty is no vice, more or less.
The problem with either of these theories is that there’s not much evidence they work. Perhaps the original attempt to turn the Trump playbook around on Trump was Marco Rubio, who infamously decided to mock his then-rival for the GOP nomination in late February 2016.
“He’s always calling me Little Marco. And I’ll admit, he’s taller than me—he’s like 6’2”. Which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who’s 5’2”,” Rubio said. “And you know what they say about men with small hands … You can’t trust ‘em!”
Rubio did get results—days later, Trump bragged about the size of his penis on stage at a Republican presidential debate—but not the results he wanted. Two weeks after the first comments, he dropped out of the race, and in May he told CNN he had apologized to Trump.
“I actually told Donald—one of the debates, I forget which one—I apologized to him for that,” Rubio said. “I said, ‘You know, I’m sorry that I said that. It’s not who I am and I shouldn’t have done it.’”
This is the power Trump has: He manages to turn even those who are not him into him, at least a little bit.
What Brennan and Comey, in some of his more serious moments, are doing is different. It’s an attempt to rouse a populace they believe is insufficiently alarmed. The problem is that bombastic rhetoric is a Trump staple, too. In 2017, Michael Morrell, who was acting CIA director before Brennan, expressed some reservations about his own decision to speak out against Trump during the election, and how that might have poisoned relations between Trump and the intelligence community.
This is a real pickle: If, like Comey, you believe that Trump is an existential threat to American values, you can’t hold back; but if you speak out forcefully you risk appearing strident or alarmist or over-the-top, prone to the same histrionics as Trump himself. (“Attorney-client privilege is dead!” “Much of the media is a Scam!”)
No one has solved this quandary yet. Trump not only degrades the level of discourse through his own words, but induces others to sink to his level. Once there, however, they don’t often win. Being seen as engaging in petty bickering does harm to James Comey, with his reputation as a sober public servant. Paradoxically, even though Donald Trump is president of the United States, he has established his persona such that even nastier, more absurd insults from his mouth do nothing to hurt his own reputation. They are not presidential, but they might be “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.”
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