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Mind games: Trump, Biden keep letting us inside their heads

Former president one-ups Nixon as current one searches for dead congresswoman during event

Former President Donald Trump, here at an event in Washington in July, continues taking Richard Nixon's view of presidential powers to new levels.
Former President Donald Trump, here at an event in Washington in July, continues taking Richard Nixon's view of presidential powers to new levels. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It is difficult to truly get inside the minds of politicians. Yet, the two men most likely to take the presidential oath of office in January 2025 keep offering us telling glances.

Voters might want to look away. So far, neither image is exactly inspiring.

Donald Trump’s presidency has most often been compared to that of Richard Milhous Nixon. But when it comes to post-presidencies, folks, we’re way beyond “Tricky Dick.”

Nixon resigned the presidency at the behest of Republican leadership on Capitol Hill during the Watergate scandal. He mostly receded into private life. Trump has done the polar opposite, insisting on remaining the most powerful and divisive force in the GOP. Nixon’s comparatively dull post-presidency did feature his interviews with journalist David Frost.

“Well, when the president does it … that means that it is not illegal,” the former U.S. president told his British interviewer.

Frost shot back: “By definition?”

“Exactly, exactly,” Nixon replied, before laying out a legally dubious theory that any presidential order “enables those who carry it out to carry it out without violating a law.”

Trump, somehow, one-upped Nixon during a Sept. 21 interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity when asked about a trove of national security-themed documents found at his Florida resort. Federal investigators contend those papers came, in many instances, with classified, top secret or sensitive labels.

“OK. You have said on Truth Social a number of times you did declassify,” Hannity said.

Trump replied: “I did declassify.” (Fact check: His legal team has produced no evidence showing he did so with a single page of the hundreds recovered.)

Hannity: “OK. Is there a process, what was your process to declassify?” Trump’s reply was remarkable — and legally vapid.

“There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it. You know, there’s different people saying different things, but as I understand there doesn’t have to be,” Trump said. “If you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying, ‘It’s declassified.’ Even by thinking about it, because you’re sending it to Mar-a-Lago, or to wherever you’re sending it.”

Legal experts reacted almost instantly, some with sarcasm and others with the kind of sober analysis that seems so misaligned with Trump’s brain-melting claims and logic.

Not surprisingly, Democrats’ collective reaction was flabbergasted. Just as unsurprisingly, Republicans just didn’t want to talk about it.

Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican who has at times defended Trump, declined to answer any questions the next morning, Sept. 22, about Trump, the documents found at Mar-a-Lago or the former president’s purported telepathic — cosmic? — powers. A spokeswoman offered her card for a comment later, and CQ Roll Call reached out. No response, over one week later.

A harried Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whom Trump has worked to oust in her reelection bid, went with a tried-and-true method of not further angering the 45th commander in chief and any members of his MAGA movement that might still vote for her in November: “I didn’t see that,” she said as she disappeared into an anteroom.

Once again, Trump has put members of his own party in a difficult position — and right before an election that will decide control of both chambers of Congress. Even by his standards, the “thinking about” declaration is impossible for his fellow Republicans to defend.

‘Shazam!’

Democratic members don’t have those restraints.

“Classification of sensitive documents is a national security process. It’s not about one person. It’s about the security of this country,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., also familiar with all things classification as a senior Foreign Relations member, said during a brief interview. “Documents are classified for reasons, and it must go through a process for declassification.”

Let’s hit the pause button to recall that Trump told Hannity “there doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it.” What say you, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat who deals with sensitive national defense information as an Armed Services Committee member?

“There’s a process for declassifying,” Hirono said in a brief interview, before letting out what seemed an exasperated gasp. Asked if Trump’s purported telepathic authorities, based on his logic, transfer to other top national security officials, like the CIA director or defense secretary, Hirono bluntly said Trump’s claim “makes absolutely no sense.”

She was not alone.

“Yogi Berra said that ‘in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice — in practice there is,’” one former prosecutor said, quoting the amateur philosopher and former Major League Baseball player.

“Applying that wisdom to the Mar-a-Largo documents, in theory, the president’s declassification powers for most non-nuclear documents are quite broad. In practice, there is a very structured declassification process that needs to be followed to properly declassify a document,” the former prosecutor added. “As the special master and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found, there is no evidence that Trump declassified anything — even if only telepathically.”

Cardin called the Hannity interview mostly a “distraction.” He also wasn’t alone.

“Donald Trump is especially imaginative at creating alternative facts. He imagines that he’s one of the richest Americans. He’s not. He imagines he is still president of the United States. He’s not,” said Mark Rom, a Georgetown University public policy professor. “He imagines that he can declassify documents merely by imagining they are declassified. They are not.”

As mind-twisting as it seems, the only place to take this deep-dive is to play forward the presidential telepathy authorities described by Trump forward, to the current president, whose Justice Department has claimed in court filings Trump likely broke federal laws by taking, then continuing to possess, hundreds of pages of highly sensitive papers.

“Of course, by Trump’s logic all Biden needs to do is think the documents are re-classified and they revert to their former classified state,” the former prosecutor said. “I can find nothing that says a magic wand or saying ‘Shazam!’ is a necessary part of the process. But my research is ongoing.”

CQ Roll Call put out a call on Twitter last week for anyone who witnessed Trump declassify a document telepathically. Shockingly, there still have been no testimonials submitted just yet.

‘Where’s Jackie?’

Speaking of Biden, he had his own mental moment this week, one that also raises serious questions about his mental sharpness to lead the country.

“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie? She must not be here.”

That was Biden on Wednesday at a White House hunger conference in Washington, asking if Rep. Jackie Walorski was in attendance. The Indiana Republican, along with two staffers, was killed in a car crash in her home state last month.

Walorski had played a part in making the summit happen, along with other lawmakers Biden also name-checked, including fellow-Hoosier and Sen. Mike Braun, also a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Later Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre committed one of the biggest mistakes anyone in her job can for a president: She made it, somehow, worse.

The world’s most-visible spokeswoman told reporters the White House would be holding an event Friday “in her honor,” but Jean-Pierre also said, because of that event, Walorski was “on top of mind” for Biden.

“I don’t think it’s all that unusual to have someone top of mind,” Jean-Pierre said, repeatedly refusing to acknowledge it is very unusual to search around for dead people. One reporter noted the late music icon John Lennon is near the top of his mind almost daily, but he never searches for him in a crowded room.

To review, the 76-year-old man who might be president again thinks his mind is superhuman, and the mind of the 79-year-old man who is president believes dead congresswomen can attend hunger conferences.

No wonder so many voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — do not want either to run in 2024. A national Marquette University Law School survey released Sept. 22 found 72 percent of respondents do not want Biden to run again, while 69 percent do not want Trump to seek a second White House term.

It was fitting that Lennon’s name was mentioned in the White House briefing room. The front-runners for the 2024 GOP and Democratic presidential nominations over the past 10 days have left us all in a political fever dream, his 1973 hit “Mind Games” as the score — playing on a seemingly endless loop.

“Pushing the barrier, planting seed. Playing the mind guerrilla. Chanting the mantra ‘peace on earth,’” Lennon crooned. “We all been playing those mind games forever. Some kinda druid dude lifting the veil. Doing the mind guerrilla. Some call it magic, the search for the grail.”

Maybe that grail was in a box at Mar-a-Lago, too. Maybe Trump or Biden declassified it, as Lennon wrote, by “playing those mind games together.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only, and newly rebranded, CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

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