How President Bill Clinton managed the threat of removal from office has become a model in effective crisis management. Despite his impeachment, he left office with a 65 percent approval rating.
Nearly two decades later, President Donald Trump is setting a new standard on what not to do. In the face of rapidly spreading legal investigations, Trump’s words and actions are sowing the seeds of his demise.
Conventional wisdom tells us Clinton was simply adept at compartmentalizing the threat he was facing while, at the same time, leading the country. In reality, the investigation hovered over the White House every minute of every day. It was Clinton’s performance as president, the management of the West Wing and his legal teams that enabled him to prevail over his Republican opponents.
There were three core principles that drove all the words and actions of the president, as well as the administration’s day-to-day operations and decisionmaking.
First, while the urgency behind managing the crises was clear, the majority of the White House continued to focus on the problems faced by everyday Americans, as well as on policy solutions. Meanwhile, a team of legal, communications and political staff managed the investigations.
Second, the crisis-management team would never pursue any strategy or activity that could in any way threaten the president’s legal position. There was no communications gain or political victory worth running the risk of increasing the president’s legal exposure. While the crisis-management operation was driven by the legal team, it was fully integrated with the political and communications operations.
Third, the president and White House staff always understood they could not, in any way, convey that they were consumed by the swirling scandal, nor could the president ever appear as if his personal problems were affecting his ability to carry out his responsibilities. Every communication and action was about conveying leadership and stability.
Trump has yet to build a White House team that can manage even the basic functions of government. His second-rate and understaffed legal team seems overwhelmed by the widening scandals.
Trump’s impulsive statements and incendiary tweets have only magnified his legal exposure. The foundation for many of the questions that leaked last week that special counsel Robert Mueller would like to ask Trump came from the president’s own mouth.
Rather than trying to minimize the scandals, Trump seems to look for new opportunities to introduce his personal problems into every issue, constantly reminding the public how obsessed he is with the accusation that his campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election, as well as with the criminal investigation of his personal lawyer.
These mistakes will increase pressure on his Republican congressional supporters, particularly in the Senate, to disavow him when Trump can least afford it. No matter how well the Democrats do in November’s midterm elections, Trump’s fate will ultimately be determined by Republicans in Congress. They are the only ones who could put enough political pressure on the president to either leave office or decline to run for a second term.
So far, congressional Republicans haven’t had to pay a price for supporting Trump. That is likely to change if Republicans, as expected, suffer significant losses in November. As uncomfortable as the past 15 months have been for most GOP elected officials, 70 percent of his four-year term remains. The legal terrain will only get more complicated.
As former campaign advisers, administration officials and possibly even his longtime personal lawyer potentially accept deals to avoid personal prosecution (on top of the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort), it will become increasingly difficult for congressional Republicans to stand by the president. Even Vice President Mike Pence, who has largely avoided the White House drama while campaigning for the midterms, may eventually be forced to choose between damaging his own future political ambitions and standing by Trump.
Despite the difficult circumstances faced by past presidents during previous scandals, they all retained respect for the rule of law and regard for governmental institutions. Trump has shown respect for neither, and as a result, he is not only sowing the seeds of his demise but also threatening the future of the Republican Party.
Doug Sosnik, a Democratic political strategist, was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.