Trump's old counter-punch strategy finds new life in the presidency
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What was he thinking tweeting the allegation that President Obama ordered the feds to wire-tape Trump Tower last October just before election day?

The allegation was all the more jarring for being juxtaposed to a taunting tweet about how Arnold Schwarzenegger was fired from Celebrity Apprentice because of “pathetic ratings.”

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Most of the media focus since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRed states find there’s no free pass on Medicaid changes from Trump Trump meets with Moon in crucial moment for Korea summit The Memo: Trump flirts with constitutional crisis MORE’s early Saturday morning tweeting has been on how a U.S. president can’t just go around ordering wiretaps of opponents, or on the firm denials of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and other onetime senior Obama aides that any such eavesdropping happened.

 

The hunt is on for where Trump came up with the idea — Breitbart News is seen widely as the most likely source for the chutzpah.

But the origins of the allegation — or at least what Trump may have hoped to achieve with the allegation— goes back to the 1970s and 1980s. The Trump smoke-and-mirrors routine hasn’t in fact changed much from the tutorials one time mobster lawyer Roy Cohn gave him on the hard-boiled art of how to counter-punch.

The object lesson began in October 1973 when the brash property tycoon turned to Cohn for advice on what to do about a major civil rights lawsuit filed against Trump and his father accusing them of racial bias in their selection of tenants for the family’s apartment blocks. As Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher tell it in their book “Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President:” “From that moment, he (Trump) adopted the Cohn playbook: when attacked, counterattack with overwhelming force.”

In terms of how to handle the federal lawsuit, it entailed filing an audacious counter-suit accusing the Justice Department of making false and misleading statements and demanding $100 million in damages. In the event, the counter-suit was dismissed by a judge who accused the Trumps of mounting a delaying tactic and of trying to obfuscate.

It was two years before the Trumps settled the case and in filings and arguments they and Cohn accused the Justice Department of using Gestapo tactics and likened FBI agents to “stormtroopers.” Sound familiar? In January, then President-elect Trump unearthed that old Gestapo comparison, accusing the Bureau, and America’s spy agencies, of orchestrating a Nazi-like smear campaign against him.

“Donald does everything for a reason,” according to Jim Dowd, the onetime NBC public relations chief, who worked with Trump on The Apprentice. In the end Trump-style counter-attacks are meant to intimidate foes and distract them and encourage make them to back off. Or, if they keep on coming, wear them down to make them settle for less.

The early-morning tweeting appears to have been a bid to create an impression that the people investigating the claims of Russian meddling in the U.S. election are, in fact, just lawless and not to be trusted, foes out to get America’s populist hero, the cripple the one man who can fix everything.

If the agencies and investigators can be tarnished enough, then whatever they turn up may be doubted — at least by his core supporters. Throw enough muck and maybe it sticks. If your enemies are lawless, then your own rule-breaking doesn't seem so bad.

Before Trump’s inauguration, the big question being asked was, would the office of the presidency change him. He ran against the rules in defiance of conventional wisdom to pull off an improbable victory. Why drop the old routine then?

And judging by his assiduous observance of the old Cohn playbook — the pattern of bragging, airing public grievances loudly and staging huge confrontations in the media — the presidency isn't changing The Donald.

In his book “The Art of the Deal,” he wrote: “One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they're always hungry for a good story and the more sensational the better.” He added: “A little hyperbole never hurts.”

In the past the consequences of his bluster and what he likes to term “truthful hyperbole” were minor — at least for a wider public. The problem now is that as President the consequences are huge.

Jamie Dettmer is a former comment editor at The Hill. He is an international correspondent mainly covering now Europe and the Middle East for VOA. He was recently reporting from the front lines in Mosul.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.