Trump reprises Nixon's 'madman' strategy

If our First Citizen has evidence to back up his allegation that former President Barack Obama had phones tapped at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, one might expect him to have made it public by now. Or he would have given it to the congressional committees he wants to investigate his charge.

That is, unless the purpose of his unverified bombshell was to change the subject from the myriad political screw-ups that have marked the beginning weeks of his presidency. Instead, he has simply dumped the whole matter into limbo like an intoxicated hit-and-run driver and has gone on his irresponsible way.


Barack Obama in these first weeks of his return to private life has largely stayed out of the public eye and refrained from commentary. President Donald Trump meanwhile has conspicuously chosen to slander his predecessor by saying he committed an illegal act.

Furthermore, he has intensified his war on the American news media, which he has labeled "the enemy of the people," and invoked genuine "fake news" as a device to further muddy the journalistic world of communication.


In consequence he has cheapened and discredited the truth, which my dictionary defines as "conformity with fact or reality." A sleazy business has emerged of manufacturing whoppers and peddling them for mischief or profit, making the realm of politics into a major breeding ground for deceit.

In the heart of it, Donald Trump has developed fake news as an art form, from vilifying political opponents to fueling suspicions of illegal activities by them. Numerous times in the last year, he has lied about matters small and large, and has shown no sign of stopping.

In the 2016 campaign he repeatedly taunted "Crooked Hillary" Clinton, "Lyin' Ted" Cruz and "Little Marco" Rubio. He fantasized that Mr. Obama was foreign-born until later recanting. He inflated the size of his inauguration crowd, and so on and on.

But now Mr. Trump has gone a bridge too far. His wholly unsubstantiated accusation that Mr. Obama somehow ordered the wire-tapping of his Manhattan skyscraper warrants FBI or other official governmental investigation. He even has brazenly called for it himself, which properly could yet happen.

FBI Director James Comey, who himself got in hot water by revealing his investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails last year, has called on his own Justice Department to say there was no such Trump Tower wire-tapping ordered by Mr. Obama. Indeed, no president is empowered to issue such an order.

If Donald Trump was widely viewed as an intemperate, impetuous loose cannon before his allegation against Mr. Obama, he has offered infinitely greater justification for the impression now. He has handed strong ammunition to critics who argue he is unfit to occupy the Oval Office for his remaining first term.

Mr. Obama let the allegation roll off his back. Indeed, the retired 44th president has set an example of dignified behavior of which Mr. Trump seems capable only when, for a singular example, he addresses Congress.

Another former president, Richard Nixon, in the latter stages of his corrupt Oval Office tenure, talked among close aides of using a "madman theory" to end the Vietnam War. It held that by developing an impression among the North Vietnam leaders that he might be crazy and thus capable of irrational behavior, he might bring them to a peace table in Paris.


Nixon's White House chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, wrote at one point of his boss telling him: "I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

It didn't happen that way, and the U.S. forces were finally driven from South Vietnam after Nixon's resignation in disgrace in the Watergate scandal. In any event, the Madman Theory already is in the air, thanks to Mr. Trump himself.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is