Is it a only a personality disorder, a deeper character flaw, or just an insecure ego, this obsession of President Trump with settling scores with his predecessor, Barack Obama, and critics of all stripes? It dominated the two-month interregnum, intensified during his first week of real power, and now looks like the way it is going to be always with the new leader of the free world.
Trump announced last week that he would deploy the Justice Department, the FBI and other instruments of government to expose massive voter fraud that he said caused him to lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million. He hastily signed executive orders in his first days undoing anything he could find in the Obama years that could be overturned instantly without waiting upon an act of Congress, so as to eliminate any evidence that the man he had implored Americans to despise had ever been a diligent president. One remarkable exception: He's keeping Obama's order protecting gay and transgender workers from discrimination by government contractors.
He embarked on his march to the presidency in 2011 by jumping to the head of the illegitimacy movement — the premise that Obama was not the bona fide president because he was an African-born Muslim, despite the evidence of both his short- and long-form birth certificates and the next-day hospital birth notices in Hawaiian newspapers. The issue dogged Trump throughout his campaign until finally, seven weeks before the election, he said he still doubted Obama's American birth and, to still the clamor, the next day told reporters curtly: "President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period." It was a humiliating moment, aggravated by Obama's usual blithe response: "I was pretty confident about where I was born."
Trump's actual election might have made all that bygones, but some media kept reporting Hillary Clinton's popular-vote margin until it reached 2,865,000. Then came the inaugural and the media's usual reporting of crowd sizes, already a Trump obsession, and the side-by-side images of Trump's crowd and Obama's multitude in 2009. Washington and the teeming Maryland and Virginia suburbs are massive Democratic havens. No one but Trump expected a similar horde in cold, wet Washington for a Republican inaugural. But he insisted he had history's biggest crowd and that he would have won the popular vote big if 3 to 5 million people had not voted illegally, all for Clinton.
So the massive criminal investigation will begin as soon as Jeff Sessions is confirmed and sworn in as attorney general. Where he and the FBI will begin is hard to say, because no one has pointed to any evidence of illegal voting except for the people who are registered in two or more states, like two members of the president's family, his press secretary, treasury secretary and chief political adviser and the Arkansas attorney general. What could go wrong?
Trump may have missed the last big voting-fraud scandal, in 2007. Having been at the center of it, Arkansans remember it. It didn't turn out well for the GOP.
President George W. Bush's Justice Department fired eight Republican U.S. attorneys, seven of them because they had disobeyed directives from Bush's attorney general to find and prosecute Democratic vote fraud and the eighth, Arkansas's Bud Cummins, because the White House wanted to give his job to White House political operative Tim Griffin as a launching pad for a political career in Arkansas (congressman and now lieutenant governor).
Cummins, who ran Trump's presidential campaign in Arkansas, was OK with his own firing, but he became a fierce critic of his old bosses for putting politics above principle and the law. I'm sure Bud will warn Trump about what he is getting into.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales became a laughingstock when he said a variant of "I don't recall" 64 times in congressional hearings on the firings. He fell on his sword for Bush and resigned. Federal prosecutors were given a blanket directive in 2002 to hunt down Democrats and prosecute them for voting fraud. Nothing happened, even after Bush passed along rumors he had heard about fraud in a half-dozen states. New Mexico's prosecutor, a rising Republican star, was fired after he ignored Sen. Pete Domenici's phone call telling him to file charges against Democrats before the election.
The prosecutor's summary in a later book summarized the fired attorneys' experiences: "First would come the spurious allegations of voter fraud, then unvarnished legal manipulations to sway elections, followed by a rigorous insistence on unquestioned and absolute obedience and, finally, a phone call from out of the blue."
But when it comes to settling scores, George W. Bush was not in the same league as Trump, who will use the tweet and presidential authority far beyond the limits that Bush seemed to either respect or fear. Trump is used to getting his way.
C.S. Lewis, the novelist and Christian theologian, had something to say that seems apropos. "I am doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently."