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The old rules of how presidents deal with those who came before them are being rewritten in the Trump era.

President Trump stunned the political world Saturday when he asserted, without evidence, that former President Barack Obama had engaged in “wiretapping” of Trump Tower before the elections.

Obama’s office emphatically denied he had done any such thing, adding that no official in his White House had done so either. 

That back-and-forth came just four months after Trump and Obama exchanged pleasantries at the White House two days after Election Day. At the time, Trump called Obama “a very good man” while the 44th president suggested he was rooting for his successor, saying, “If you succeed, the country succeeds.”

In his tweets over the weekend, Trump called Obama a “bad (or sick) guy” and compared the wiretapping allegation to Watergate and McCarthyism.


Presidential historians are among those startled by Trump’s rhetoric toward Obama, which they view as significantly outside the recent norms.

“It is extraordinarily unusual,” said Russell Riley, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that presidents have not had their issues with their predecessor — and on occasion, they have felt free voicing their objections to them through private channels,” Riley added. “But I personally cannot think of an instance where a president has made such an open attack on his predecessor.”

The controversy rages on. White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted Tuesday that Trump would not withdraw his claims about Obama.

“Why would he withdraw it until it’s adjudicated?” Spicer asked.

The previous day, Spicer had insisted that the relationship between the 45th president and his predecessor would survive the storm. “I think that they’ll be just fine,” he said.

Trump’s words have been defended by conservative media figures. 

Sean Hannity, a Fox News anchor who has been open about his backing of Trump since before the elections, referred to the allegation of surveillance on his show on Monday night, asserting, “Everybody knew about it. It was not something that was hidden. Now, in fact, Donald Trump mentions that … it happened, and somehow … this is outrageous.”

Obama has made his own departure from recent norms, too, albeit in a more modest way. Obama criticized Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees, whereas former President George W. Bush said virtually nothing about policies that Obama pursued while in office. 

In a statement just 10 days after Trump was inaugurated, Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis stated that his boss “fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.” Lewis also gave a clear sense that Obama supported the people who had taken to streets and airports to protest the Trump order, which targeted seven Muslim-majority countries.

Bush has also re-entered the political spotlight, at times offering comments implicitly critical of Trump, a fellow Republican. Trump vanquished Bush’s brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, during last year’s tumultuous battle for the GOP presidential nomination.

In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today,” Bush seemed to take issue with Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigrants, and with his attacks on the media. Bush said he favored an immigration policy that “is welcoming and upholds the law.” He also said, “It’s kind of hard to tell others to have an independent free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that there was a difference between modulated expressions of disagreement about policy and the more sensational claims Trump was leveling against Obama.

“There have been times where we’ve seen new presidents be critical of former presidents,” he said. “Jimmy Carter served as a foil to Ronald Reagan, and you would hear attacks about how he had mishandled the economy and foreign policy.

“But that is a lot different from claiming that your predecessor is agitating activists to go against you, or accusing him of having broken the law with some kind of wiretap. That is a whole other level that you don’t normally see. [President Gerald] Ford and Carter were nicer about [President Richard] Nixon than Trump is about Obama!”

Defenders of Obama also note that, although he ran in 2008 as an emphatic critic of Bush, he tempered his language about his predecessor soon after taking office. 

Obama disappointed some civil liberties groups when his new administration decided against prosecutions of Bush-era officials for interrogation policies that critics said amounted to torture.

In April 2009, Obama said: “This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

One figure among living ex-presidents who has stayed conspicuously quiet about Trump is former President Bill Clinton. 

Clinton is, of course, in a unique position given that his wife, Hillary Clinton, lost the presidential election to Trump. But an open question is how long he will choose to remain silent while others — including his daughter Chelsea Clinton — jab at the new president.

Trump famously promised last year during a presidential debate that if he won the election, he would appoint a special prosecutor to look into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Clinton responded, “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”

Trump then added: “Because you’d be in jail.”

But after he defeated Clinton, Trump backed off, saying: “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”

To be sure, Trump cannot be held solely responsible for lower levels of comity in politics. The United States is becoming more divided all the time, including in its media habits — and that makes fierce political punches and counter-punches all but inevitable.

But some, like Riley, say that the current president’s style is very much part of the picture too.

“There is a distinct turn in mood to being more confrontational and more impolite,” he said.

“It is very hard to separate the popular impulses that bring a president to power from the leadership style of the person. I think, in office, this president’s unconventional style has created a kind of backlash that you otherwise would not have seen.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Hillary Clinton
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