Analysis

Donald Trump Is Not Gaslighting Just America Anymore - He Is Now Gaslighting Himself as Well

At the end of a crazy week, even by the standards of the Trump presidency, we can safely say: Trump is not Nixon. That’s not necessarily a positive

President Donald Trump gestures while speaking to military mothers during their visit to the White House in Washington, Friday, May 12, 2017, for a Mother's Day celebration in the East Room.
Susan Walsh/AP

Earlier this week, after he’d suddenly fired FBI director James Comey, the media became rife with comparisons between Trump and Richard Nixon. Trump’s firing of Comey — who was in charge of the investigation into the Trump’s alleged ties to Russia — reminded journalists, pundits and comedians of Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was investigating Watergate. It didn’t help that on the very day he fired Comey, Trump met with Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State. 

The comparisons became so common, that the term “Nixonian” briefly trended on Twitter. And after Trump then alluded to recordings of private White House conversations, a-la Nixon, the comparisons pretty much write themselves.

But as Politifact and the Nixon Library kindly reminded all of us this week, there are numerous differences between the firing of Comey and Cox, and between Donald Trump and Nixon. 

One important difference that wasn’t mentioned, however, is that unlike Nixon, Trump seems just as confused as the rest of us. Whereas Nixon was one of the great gaslighters of American politics, constantly disregarding the truth, bending it to his will or concealing it behind a heap of lies, Trump has already surpassed Nixon in this regard. He isn’t gaslighting just America anymore. Oh no. Trump now seems fully committed to gaslighting himself as well. 

The gaslighter, it appears, has become gaslit.

No further evidence is needed than the events of the last 24 hours: namely, Trump’s even-more-bizarre-than-usual, potentially incriminating interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, and then the incredible Twitter meltdown that followed it, in which the president of the United States threatened to make secretly-recorded tapes of his conversations with Comey public if the former FBI director “starts leaking to the press!” 

As the Washington Post noted, Trump’s interview with Holt was so legally problematic that “no one with a year of law school under his belt” could have recommended it.

In it, Trump blatantly contradicted his own version of the events that led to the unprecedented firing of the FBI director, essentially saying on camera that practically everything his administration has been saying during the last three days is completely bogus: Trump had apparently decided to fire Comey — a “showboat” and “grandstander” — before he received any recommendation from the Department of Justice to that effect. “My decision,” the president said, emphasizing the first word. 

This statement came after days of Trump officials — including Vice President Pence — insisting that Comey’s firing had nothing to do with the FBI’s Russia investigation, and with the fact that days before he was fired Comey reportedly asked for more resources and personnel to complete the investigation into the Trump’s campaign alleged Russian ties. Trump, the official line went, merely accepted the “concerns” and “strong” recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire Comey over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Since Tuesday, this story has been repeated over and over again. Sean Spicer even said that the initial demand to fire Comey came from the DOJ, and “no one from the White House” was involved. Rosenstein was reportedly so dismayed he threatened to quit.

And then Trump went on TV and said, point-blank, that he was going to fire Comey anyway, “regardless of recommendation,” essentially rendering all of the above null and void. And in contradiction with the official narrative, Trump said he very much had Russia on his mind when he decided to fire Comey: “when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”

During a private dinner in which the FBI director asked to stay on, Trump added, he had asked Comey — the person in charge of the investigation into his campaign — if he was under investigation. (Presumably, this was also the dinner in which he demanded that Comey pledge loyalty to him). As Trump himself said, he’d asked Comey this question two more times, potentially opening himself up to further accusations that he interfered with the ongoing investigation. 

This interview was no Frost-Nixon-style confrontation, no intellectual tte-à-tte in which two people dance circles around each other until one’s defenses are sufficiently weakened so as to elicit an admission of sorts. Holt, ever elegant, didn’t compel or twist Trump into undermining his own reasoning — the president did it all by himself, volunteering to bury his story under a mountain of contradictions so tall that you can probably see Russia from its top.

Needless to say, even by the standards of the Trump presidency, the past week has been objectively crazy. But with Trump undermining his own narrative on camera and admitting he fired Comey with the Russia investigation in mind, we have gone beyond the realm of Nixon into uncharted territory. Say about you will about Tricky Dick, he at least made an attempt to cover up his dirty deeds. Trump airs them out in broad daylight, on network television, and then goes to Twitter and either doubles down or goes back on everything he said — or often both at the same time. 

How can one explain a president that’s willing to openly contradict everything he and his administration had told us so far about an act as drastic as firing the head of the FBI, in the middle of a highly-sensitive investigation into his own campaign, no less? And how can one explain a president whose willing to potentially implicate himself — again, on television — and throw everyone that works for him under the proverbial bus, seemingly just to make sure everyone in America know that he’s a tough boss? 

At this point, those of us who still believe Trump is deliberately creating chaos to further some secret agenda have to reconsider the notion that there is any kind of system behind any of this. Trump seems as much a subject of his erraticness as the rest of us, which isn’t very reassuring. With Nixon, at least, you had the sense that he knew the truth, even if he wasn’t telling it. With Trump, who can honestly still say that that’s the case?