Taking the position of the victim does nothing to help a president.
The Donald Trump administration has faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny over the past few weeks. Over the past two years, the Republican-led Congress has basically run interference for the executive branch, ending investigations early and failing to follow up with recalcitrant witnesses. This situation has changed. Last week, Representative Adam Schiff announced a multi-part investigation that will look at Trump’s finances and connections to foreign governments. Trump’s interim Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has already been brought to a congressional hearing under a potential threat of subpoena. The Special Counsel’s investigation has also intensified with the recent arrest and indictment of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.
In response to this pressure, Trump has deployed a new strategy: playing the victim. He has used the term “presidential harassment” to refer to the investigations proposed by his opponents in Congress and has argued that this treatment is unprecedented, tweeting:
The Dems and their committees are going “nuts.” The Republicans never did this to President Obama, there would be no time left to run government. I hear other committee heads will do the same thing. Even stealing people who work at White House! A continuation of Witch Hunt!.
His approach brings to mind Roger Stone’s strategy to defend himself over the past year. As a recent Atlantic article explains, Stone has made a considerable amount of money from his perceived status as a victim of the Russia investigation:
The Daily Caller — where Stone writes as the “men’s fashion correspondent” — soon uploaded a video of Stone providing winking advice on “how to dress for your arraignment.”… He is selling T-shirts that read roger stone did nothing wrong! along with “Roger Stones” (pieces of rock with his signature on them), and aggressively soliciting donations for his legal-defense fund…. These are good times to be Roger Stone.
Why is the president following Roger Stone’s lead? What does Donald Trump have to gain from playing the victim? Can Democrats take advantage of this approach?
The Donald Trump administration was based in a bombastic approach. Trump’s election, and his very identity as a political animal, was rooted in achievements and results. Trump’s narrative was that he could get things done, like building Trump Tower, or saving the Plaza Hotel, or creating the Apprentice TV franchise. These achievements would translate into the promises of the Trump platform: building a wall, revamping the American health care system, and defeating the threat of Islamic terrorism once and for all.
Every event connected to the Trump administration, and every aspect of Trump’s presidency, can be viewed through that lens. Even potential Russian collusion can be explained away by this tendency. To his supporters, Trump was simply playing politics and trying as hard as possible to win the election with the tools at his disposal. As Trump argued a year after the Trump Tower meeting became known to the public, “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics.”
None of these achievements is related to a position of victimhood. In fact, they are opposed in every way, shape, and form to the idea of playing the victim. Victims do not have the awesome power and responsibility of the presidency. They cannot conduct foreign policy, pass decisive executive orders, or command the news cycle whenever they want with a press conference. Playing the victim did not help more successful, experienced politicians, such as with President Barack Obama’s earlier attacks on an obstructionist Congress or Hillary Clinton’s attacks on the media over email coverage. This approach will not work for Trump either.
Democrats must resist the urge to fall for Trump’s rhetoric about the presidency and their investigations. They will not be politically harmed by exercising the oversight functions that the voters elected them to take. Instead, Democrats need to ensure that they are pressuring the administration as much as possible along the lines of their investigations. In addition, they must use the investigations to their partisan advantage. The occasional hard-pressed subpoena, or conflict taken all the way to the Supreme Court, would show the president that his opponents in Congress now have power and must be respected. Above all, they can’t let the worthless attack of “presidential harassment” change their behavior in the slightest.