ELI LAKE: Donald Trump is just a grotesque echo of Bill Clinton
'Friday's missile strikes in Syria encapsulate the Trump-Clinton parallel universe'
Watching Donald Trump's presidency lunge and wobble from scandal to crisis, a Bill Clinton déjà vu sets in. We've been here before. The independent prosecutors. Corruption probes that turn up adultery. The liesand the pardons. The cover-ups and the payoffs.
Friday's missile strikes in Syria encapsulate the Trump-Clinton parallel universe. HBO host Bill Maher called it "Operation Desert Stormy," suggesting the military operation was meant to distract from the FBI raid of Michael Cohen's office, home and hotel room. Cohen is alleged to have paid for the silence of Stormy Daniels, the former pornographic performer who says she had a steamy evening with Trump back in 2006.
It's reminiscent of the chatter about Clinton's airstrikes against an aspirin factory in Sudan and some al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan back in 1998. It was the same day his former intern Monica Lewinsky returned to testify before a grand jury. Even the weapon used was the same: the cruise missile.
There's also the self-pitying paranoia. As first lady, Hillary Clinton famously described her husband's pursuers as a "vast right-wing conspiracy," arguing the political opponents set out to destroy him from the beginning. Trump rants on Twitter about the "deep state" trying to do the same thing.
Feminist leaders, who would never have excused Clinton's harassment and predations in other contexts, defended him in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal. Today it's evangelicals who debase themselves and sacrifice their principles to excuse away the same moral failings they decried in Clinton.
Make no mistake: Clinton and Trump are not equivalent. Clinton was a wonk who mastered the details of policy. Trump often makes policy on the fly, surprising even his cabinet. Just see the president's tweets about punishing Syria for the chemical weapons attack before his military had finished drawing up options for a response. Clinton had some strained relationships with his cabinet, particularly in his first term. But he trusted his top officials as they pursued a coherent policy agenda, unlike during Trump's term so far.
And while both presidents had fraught relationships with the FBI, Clinton restrained his resentment while Trump’s spirals out of control. Clinton was dogged by his second FBI director, Louis Freeh, who investigated everything from his sex life to his campaign's financing. But Clinton never fired him, as Trump did with his first FBI director, James Comey. Clinton never publicly called for him to be jailed either, as Trump has done this week with Comey.
What the two men do share are character flaws that rise to the surface and curdle their presidencies. Trump is not Clinton, but a grotesque echo. This manifests in two ways: how they lie and how they are corrupted.
Let's start with lying. Clinton lied like a lawyer. He parsed. Under oath, he answered the accusation that he lied about his affair with Lewinsky by saying it depended on the meaning of the word "is." This kind of dissembling is nauseating, but it's also familiar. Omissions, elisions and faulty memory now count as conventional deception in Washington.
Trump lies like a late-night infomercial. He spews hyperbole and nonsense. He promises to build a wall and he promises that Mexico will pay for it. He compels his supporters and staff to repeat his lies, like instructing his first White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, to insist his inauguration had the largest crowds in history. He assures us that his campaign had no contacts with Russia, even though he was seeking to build a hotel in Moscow when he was running for office.
This brings us to how Bill Clinton and Donald Trump are corrupted. For Trump, there is a real prospect that the sitting president is making public policy to advance his private interests. He declined to divest from his real-estate empire upon taking the office. This sort of concern appears to be the direction of Mueller's investigation. He is now probing the influence of the United Arab Emirates on Trump's inner circle, though the inquiry was initiated to focus on Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And while there is still the possibility of collusion between the Trump circle and the Russian state, so far the Trump administration's relatively tough policy record challenges the theory that Moscow got something in return for its electoral assistance.
The U.S. certainly must brace for the nightmare that Trump is monetizing his presidency. In at least one case, in fact, he is under scrutiny for accepting a cash donation to his charitable foundation from the same Ukrainian oligarch who has given millions of dollars to the Clintons' since 2006.
Clinton didn’t cash in while in the White House, but his fundraising after leaving office has tarnished American politics nevertheless. In the case of Clinton, fundraising as an ex-president smelled particularly bad because his wife was a senator and then secretary of state. She was also running for president in this period, both in 2008 and 2016.
To bring this full circle, the New York Times reported last week that Mueller is now investigating a 2015 contribution of $150,000 from that oligarch, Victor Pinchuk, to Trump's charitable foundation in exchange for Trump appearing by video at a conference in Kiev. Pinchuk has also made contributions in excess of $13 million to the Clinton Foundation. He attended a dinner for the foundation's donors with Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state.
Trump's supporters have seized on this, implying that the obvious hypocrisy somehow excuses Trump. But that misses the point.
Twenty years ago, resurgent House Republicans impeached Clinton for lying under oath. And Democrats defended a president with the same sort of moral failings they insist make Trump unfit for office.