Maybe President Trump should come with a warning label.
The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who covers what might be called the Trump flimflam beat, issued his latest installment Thursday with Jonathan O’Connell about the serial exaggerations, omissions and fabrications Trump used on financial statements to lenders: padding Trump Tower with an extra 10 floors, adding 800 phantom acres to a vineyard, puffing up an estate’s value by more than $200 million, ignoring debts and inflating his net worth by $4 billion.
But experts said he might get away with it without being charged with fraud, because he was so bold and outrageous in his dishonesty that nobody would be fooled. One of Trump’s statements even came with a disclaimer saying “users of this financial statement should recognize that they might reach different conclusions about the financial condition of Donald J. Trump if they had access to a revised statement of financial condition prepared in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles.”
In other words: You might feel differently about this huckster if you knew the truth. Caveat emptor.
A similar technique — transparent chicanery — appears to have gotten Trump off the hook in Robert Mueller’s probe into whether he obstructed justice by firing his FBI director and harassing those investigating him.
Trump’s lawyers had argued that his obvious efforts to thwart the investigation couldn’t qualify as obstruction because they happened in plain sight. As the New York Times put it in February: “The president’s brazen public behavior might be his best defense.”
Amazingly, Attorney General William Barr made exactly that point in his four-page summary of the nearly 400-page Mueller report, in which Barr said he would not charge Trump with obstruction. “In cataloguing the president’s actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct,” Barr wrote.
In the broader inquiry into whether his campaign coordinated with Russia to win the 2016 election, Trump’s defenders yet again made a similar argument: A conspiracy is clandestine, but Trump was talking to TV cameras when he asked Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s emails.
In all cases, it boils down to this: Trump’s wrongdoing was too obvious, ham-handed and pervasive to be criminal. The guy’s a con artist; what did you expect? It’s not bank fraud or conspiracy or obstruction of justice: It’s Trump being Trump.
There’s a downside to this, though, as Trump now sees. The same reputation for being a scoundrel that protects him from scandals simultaneously denies him credibility and respect.
Barr claims that Mueller found no criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia, and Barr decided that the evidence Mueller presented did not merit charging Trump with obstruction of justice. Trump now claims “complete and total exoneration,” and it appears he earned at least partial exoneration.
But the public isn’t impressed. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted at the time Barr’s summary came out found Trump’s disapproval rate remained unchanged, at 55 percent, from earlier in the month and earlier this year.
A CNN poll, meanwhile, finds that 56 percent say Trump has not been exonerated of conspiring with Russia, even though Barr says Mueller found no criminal conspiracy. And only 13 percent say Mueller’s findings will sway their 2020 vote; 7 percent for Trump and 6 percent against.
If Trump supposed his troubles would end with the Mueller probe, he confused consequence and cause. Mueller was a consequence, one of many. The cause is a president who is erratic, impulsive and fundamentally dishonest. Even a number of his supporters, polling indicates, don’t regard him as honest or admirable but back him for partisan reasons.
Suppose a special prosecutor in the Obama administration had filed a 300-page report about crimes possibly committed by President Barack Obama, and Obama appointees sat on the report while offering a “nothing to see here” summary.
Trump would no doubt have speculated that the prosecutor had found evidence that Obama had conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald, murdered both Vince Foster and Antonin Scalia, was an operative of both Islamic State and the “deep state,” ran a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant, and was shown by DNA to be Osama bin Laden’s twin brother.
And most people would have just figured that was Trump being Trump.
Now, Trump claims “total and complete exoneration” in the Mueller probe. And most people just figure this is Trump being Trump. In this sense, he already carries a disclaimer, unwritten but understood by all.
Warning: This man is a charlatan.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.