Donald Trump went on the offensive on Sunday, invoking the spectres of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, starkly polarising figures from American history, in a frenzied attack on the New York Times.
The president’s rage was stoked by a bombshell report that said White House counsel Don McGahn has cooperated extensively with special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian election interference, links between Trump aides and Moscow, and potential obstruction of justice.
The president both called the Times report “fake” and confirmed its substance.
Repeating a spelling mistake made in his initial response on Saturday, when the report was published online, Trump wrote: “The failing [New York Times] wrote a Fake piece today implying that because White House Councel [sic] Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the Special Councel [sic], he must be a John Dean type ‘RAT.’”
Dean was White House counsel to Nixon during Watergate. He testified against the president, pled guilty to obstruction of justice and was held at an army base. He spoke on Saturday to Slate.
“Don McGahn is doing exactly the right thing,” Dean said, “not merely to protect himself, but to protect his client. And his client is not Donald Trump; his client is the office of the president.”
The Times said McGahn had spoken to Mueller’s team for a total of 30 hours, on the advice of Trump’s first lawyers in the Russia investigation. McGahn shared some information investigators would not otherwise have known, the Times said, about events including Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller.
In a separate report, Reuters said a person familiar with the matter did not believe McGahn provided incriminating information about the president and had not seen or heard anything that amounted to obstruction of justice by Trump.
Nonetheless, Trump said on Sunday that the Times “wrote a story that made it seem like the White House Councel [sic] had TURNED on the President, when in fact it is just the opposite – & the two Fake reporters knew this. This is why the Fake News Media has become the Enemy of the People. So bad for America!”
Dean tweeted a reply, saying he had “trouble using the title Mr President for someone installed by Putin”. He doubted Trump had “ANY IDEA what McGahn has told Mueller” and added: “Also, Nixon knew I was meeting with prosecutors, b/c I told him. However, he didn’t think I would tell them the truth!”
Trump has used the “enemy of the people” tag repeatedly, attacks decried by the media for potentially encouraging violence. Last month, Times publisher AG Sulzberger said he had asked the president to stop.
It didn’t work. On Sunday the president also claimed, without evidence, that “some members of the media are very Angry at the Fake Story in the New York Times” and had “actually called to complain and apologize”. He also complained about a “disgusting new Board Member” at the Times, apparently a reference to the writer Sarah Jeong.
Dean was not impressed by Trump’s behaviour.
“I see a lot of similarity in the bungling,” he told Slate. “Watergate was not a carefully planned crime and cover-up. It was one bungled event after another. I see the same thing happening with Trump.”
In his Twitter rant, Trump went 20 years back in time from Watergate, to the “red scare” of the 1950s. “Study the late Joseph McCarthy,” the president wrote of the Wisconsin senator who led efforts to criminalise “un-American” political beliefs, “because we are now in period with Mueller and his gang that make Joseph McCarthy look like a baby!”
The president has an acquaintance in common with McCarthy: the rightwing lawyer Roy Cohn, who worked for the senator before mentoring Trump as he rose to prominence in New York.
Trump’s hyperventilation prompted responses from top national security figures. On CNN’s State of the Union former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden expressed amazement that the president had likened Mueller, a widely respected former FBI director, to McCarthy.
“Joe McCarthy was a demagogue,” he said. “We haven’t had a public syllable from Bob Mueller in more than a year.”
Trump aimed at other familiar targets, writing: “What about the Brennan, Comey, McCabe, Strzok lies to Congress, or Crooked [Hillary]’s Emails!”
This week, in a widely criticised move, Trump stripped former CIA director John Brennan of security clearance. FBI director James Comey (fired by Trump in an event looked at by Mueller regarding potential obstruction of justice), fired deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe and fired FBI agent Peter Strzok are among those reported under threat of similar treatment.
Former director of national intelligence James Clapper told CNN on Sunday he had heard expressions of concern from within the Trump administration. Brennan told NBC’s Meet the Press he might take Trump to court.
In classic pugnacious style, Trump’s current lawyer in the Russia investigation, Rudy Giuliani, accused Mueller of leaking the McGahn story as an act of desperation in the absence of evidence on which to hang charges. Giuliani also told NBC Trump had encouraged McGahn to talk to Mueller, “is happy that he did, and is quite secure that there is nothing in the testimony that will hurt the president”.
The Times, however, said McGahn was in part motivated by fear of becoming a scapegoat if wrongdoing was discovered.
Slate asked Dean if McGahn should resign.
“More likely he would be fired than resign,” he said. “Trump does not like people doing the right thing.”
He added: “I think there is good reason for McGahn to believe that Trump would throw him under the bus, since Trump throws almost everyone under the bus … self-preservation is a real motive. At times, I felt it. When I first tried to go in and blow up the Watergate cover-up, I was really worried about the president and the office.”