Wednesday Q+A with Robert Dallek

The history professor and best-selling author on presidential investigations, special counsels, and how Trump should proceed.

Robert Dallek, pictured at the St. Louis County Library.
St. Louis County Library
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

Robert Dallek, 83, is in his sixth dec­ade as one of the na­tion’s lead­ing pres­id­en­tial his­tor­i­ans. His books have ex­amined Pres­id­ents Wil­li­am McKin­ley, Frank­lin Roosevelt, Harry Tru­man, John Kennedy, Lyn­don John­son, Richard Nix­on, and Ron­ald Re­agan. His next book, to be re­leased this fall, is Frank­lin D. Roosevelt: A Polit­ic­al Life. Dallek spoke to George E. Con­don Jr. about the cur­rent pres­id­ent, one he finds quite dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers.

We’ve seen pres­id­ents and ad­min­is­tra­tions in­vest­ig­ated be­fore, from Hard­ing to Nix­on to Re­agan, Clin­ton, and the Bushes. Have we ever seen any­thing quite like what we’re see­ing in the Trump White House in its first 150 days?

This is what makes Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion so troub­ling, but it is also the fact that he is un­der such pres­sure. No pres­id­ent this early has been so scru­tin­ized in this way and come un­der the shad­ow of a spe­cial coun­sel.

With the in­vest­ig­a­tions, staffers face the need to hire law­yers and the con­stant worry about what’s go­ing to hap­pen. What does that do to an ad­min­is­tra­tion try­ing to push its agenda?

It dis­tracts it from the nor­mal polit­ic­al give-and-take. The ma­jor thing that Trump has lost is his cred­ib­il­ity. I once wrote a book about what makes for ef­fect­ive pres­id­en­tial lead­er­ship, and you’ve got to have cred­ib­il­ity, you’ve got to be some­body the pub­lic trusts. How many people trust him at this point?

Does his­tory tell us any­thing about how a pres­id­ent should best re­spond when his ad­min­is­tra­tion is go­ing through something like this?

Oh, yes. What it sug­gests is that they need to be as open as they pos­sibly can, and that if Trump were wise and guilt­less, what he would do is say, “I have noth­ing to hide; I will give full co­oper­a­tion to Mr. Mueller, and I’m open to an­swer­ing any ques­tions he wants to ask me.” He would hold more press con­fer­ences; he would be more can­did with the journ­al­ists. That, I think, would be an at­tempt to re­store his cred­ib­il­ity. In­stead, he seems to dig him­self in­to a deep­er trench and be­come more com­bat­ive with these tweets that he lets out.

Pres­id­ent Hard­ing an­guished about wheth­er he needed to cut ties with old friends. Nix­on felt per­se­cuted and lashed out. Re­agan was in deni­al about Ir­an-Con­tra. Clin­ton was maybe the best at com­part­ment­al­iz­ing. Can we draw any con­clu­sions?

The ones who sur­vived their scan­dals like Re­agan and Clin­ton—they are the ones that Trump should read about to see how they man­aged the loss of stand­ing with the pub­lic, the as­sault on their cred­ib­il­ity. Trump should read some his­tory about the pres­id­ency and how some of his pre­de­cessors handled these dif­fi­culties. But the things he says, like that tweet he let out about how suc­cess­ful his pres­id­ency has been, that it is un­pre­ced­en­ted. … It is fantasy world.

What do you make of the com­par­is­ons be­ing made between today and Wa­ter­gate? Is that pre­ma­ture?

Ab­so­lutely. Who knows where the Trump in­vest­ig­a­tion is go­ing to end up? Let’s say they find noth­ing to pro­sec­ute him with or charge him with or sug­gest his im­peach­ment. It will change the whole per­spect­ive on this in­vest­ig­a­tion, es­pe­cially in com­par­ing it to Wa­ter­gate be­cause it will have led to noth­ing con­sequen­tial, the way White­wa­ter did. It’s got to play out. I think it is pre­ma­ture for people to rush in­to these com­par­is­ons. They can raise it, of course, be­cause, in mod­ern Amer­ic­an pres­id­en­tial his­tory, it is sort of the touch­stone of how a pres­id­ent comes up short or ends up be­ing forced out of of­fice. But that’s wish­ful think­ing on the part of lots of Trump’s op­pon­ents—that he will leave of­fice.

One thing that leads to the com­par­is­ons is that a spe­cial coun­sel has been named. Are there les­sons in his­tory about what it means to have a spe­cial coun­sel?

It casts a shad­ow over your whole ad­min­is­tra­tion and brings down your abil­ity to lead. I’ve said that the day Richard Nix­on had to tell a press con­fer­ence, “I am not a crook,” was es­sen­tially the day that his ad­min­is­tra­tion was over. And when Trump’s spokes­wo­man had to come out and say Trump “is not a li­ar,” I think that un­der­cut him severely.

I’ve asked you what we can learn from his­tory to help us un­der­stand this White House. You’ve seen 14 pres­id­ents in your life­time and have stud­ied many oth­ers. Is it pos­sible that this pres­id­ent is un­like any­thing we have seen be­fore?

I think he is. I’ve nev­er seen a start of an ad­min­is­tra­tion like this. This tweet­ing is a whole new thing. Now, one can com­pare it to the fact that Roosevelt used the new me­di­um of his time, ra­dio, to give fireside chats. And he did that bril­liantly. And Kennedy used the new me­di­um of his time, tele­vi­sion, to hold live tele­vised news con­fer­ences. And he used that bril­liantly. But that doesn’t mean Trump is us­ing this new me­di­um in a very ef­fect­ive way. … It may do more to bring him down than to raise him up.

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