World history according to Trump


As with so many of his predecessors, President Donald Trump is inclined to recall historical events to better frame his own performance and political agenda. President Barack Obama was said to favor a “team of rivals” in building his Cabinet, a term the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin coined in a book on President Abraham Lincoln and his administration. Republicans have for years channeled — and sought to align themselves with — President Ronald Reagan.

Throughout his campaign and first six months in the White House, Trump has spoken of the past — his slogan, “Make American Great Again,” states explicitly his desire to return to some idealized version of it. (Note: He said in a March 2016 New York Times interview that the beginning of the 20th century and the years after World War II were eras of true US greatness.)

He’s also expressed a fondness for President Andrew Jackson, at one point suggesting that, had Old Hickory come around “a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” In early February, at a breakfast to mark the beginning of African-American History Month, he shouted out 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died more than 120 years ago, as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

In another extended — and eye-popping by any standard — interview with the New York Times published on Wednesday, the President again revisited some notably historical markers, conjuring them in unmistakably Trumpian terms.

The story of Obamacare (and Hillarycare)

Trump: It’s a tough — you know, health care. Look, Hillary Clinton worked eight years in the White House with her husband as president and having majorities and couldn’t get it done. … Obama was in there for eight years and got Obamacare. Hillary Clinton was in there eight years and they never got Hillarycare, whatever they called it at the time. … Obama worked so hard. They had 60 in the Senate. They had big majorities and had the White House. I mean, ended up giving away the state of Nebraska. They owned the state of Nebraska. Right. Gave it away. Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics. What happened to him?

Taking about the difficulties facing Republicans trying to unwind Obamacare (the Senate has so far failed to get a simple majority for several different approaches), Trump turned his focus to the setbacks on the way to Obamacare. First he recalls the failed 1993 initiative, spearheaded by Clinton during her first year as first lady. It should be noted that, despite what Trump says here, President Bill Clinton only had majorities in both chambers of Congress for two years. They flipped to the Republicans after the 1994 midterms.

Trump is correct in noting Obama enjoyed a 60-vote supermajority out of the gate — he lost it after Sen. Ted Kennedy died and Democrats lost a special election — and that the Senate version of the bill passed, just barely, after some wheeling and dealing — see: the (ultimately abandoned) Cornhusker Kickback — with Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat.

“What happened to him,” by the way, is that Nelson left the Senate after not seeking a third term in 2012.

The greatest speech(!)(?)

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Trump: I have had the best reviews on foreign land. So I go to Poland and make a speech. Enemies of mine in the media, enemies of mine are saying it was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president.

Trump’s speech in Warsaw was his first outdoor address on foreign soil. Where it stacks up with others of its kind is a trickier question. CNN’s Chris Cillizza gave it a good review. But his remarks were mostly panned by many of his “enemies” — we’re taking that to mean typically critical or partisan commentators — for being a love letter to white nationalists.
The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart suggested that one of the big ticket lines from the address, in which Trump questioned “whether the West has the will to survive,” could only be interpreted “as a statement of racial and religious paranoia.”
Alas, only time will decide where Trump’s Warsaw speech lands. But it seems unlikely to surpass Reagan’s 1987 call, in Berlin, for the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Reagan also drew high marks for a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day in France a few years earlier. And then there’s President John F. Kennedy’s own remarks in Germany, from 1963, when he declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Napoleon’s ups and downs

Trump: (The Paris trip) was beautiful. We toured the museum, we went to Napoleon’s tomb … Well, Napoleon finished a little bit bad. … And his one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death. How many times has Russia been saved by the weather?

Let’s take this one point at a time:

1) Napoleon’s story did not end well. This is true. In fact, his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is now synonymous with inglorious endings. (Recall: Former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said back in 2009 that “If we’re able to stop Obama on (Obamacare), it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”)
2) Hard to say precisely what Trump is referencing here with the “extracurricular activities” in Russia. Napoleon spent quite a bit of time in Russia, even holding Moscow for a spell. He did, though, eventually get bogged down in the Russian winter and return to Paris, leaving his troops behind, in a last-ditch effort to save his rule.
3) How many times has Russia been saved by the weather? This might be slightly oversimplifying the matter, but… three times? (I’ll update this as the historians write in to complain.) To wit: in its war against Napoleon; during Swedish King Charles XII’s attempted invasion in the early 1700s; and when the Nazis turned on the Soviets during World War II. More on that below.

The Nazis and Stalingrad(?)

Trump: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army. … But the Russians have great fighters in the cold. They use the cold to their advantage.

This seems to be a reference to World War II’s Battle of Stalingrad. The offensive was launched by Hitler in the summer of 1942 and while the Nazis gained a slim foothold in the city, the fighting carried on for months. By winter, the Russian counteroffensive had beaten back the tide and encircled German troops. Many — those who didn’t freeze, starve or die in combat — would eventually surrender. The battle is often cited as a turning point in the war.

Trump vs. Truman

Trump: I heard that because I said — it could have been a little slip-up in terms of what I said — I meant, for the time in office, five months and couple of weeks, I think I’ve done more than anyone else. They may have taken it as more than anyone else, period. … But I’m talking about for my time. I heard that Harry Truman was first, and then we beat him.

Backstory: Earlier this week, Trump at a White House event claimed, “We’ve signed more bills — and I’m talking about through the legislature — than any president, ever. For a while, Harry Truman had us. And now, I think, we have everybody.”

At that, the Times published a story headlined, “Trump Says He Has Signed More Bills Than Any President, Ever. He Hasn’t.” Hence what Trump described here as what might have been “a little slip-up in terms of what I said.”
Still, the math is not on his side. According to both Politifact and FiveThirtyEight breakdowns, Truman signed more than 50 bills into law during the first 100 days of his first elected term.
Trump hit the six-month mark with 42.

How Nixon changed the FBI

nixon resigns seventies_00000417

Trump: And nothing was changed other than Richard Nixon came along. And when Nixon came along [inaudible] was pretty brutal, and out of courtesy, the FBI started reporting to the Department of Justice. But there was nothing official, there was nothing from Congress. There was nothing — anything. But the FBI person really reports directly to the president of the United States, which is interesting. You know, which is interesting. And I think we’re going to have a great new FBI director.

This one is a mystery.

The FBI has operated under the purview of the Justice Department for decades, so well before Nixon and Watergate. Still, the president — as Trump himself knows firsthand — can fire the FBI director when and for pretty much any reason he wants.



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