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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