There’s more than one kind of political leverage. There’s the kind you pull in the legislative process: bargaining, horse-trading, quid pro quo. There’s the kind you pull in swaying public opinion to pressure counterparts into dealing. Dick Blumenthal knows the difference.
Connecticut’s senior senator plans to introduce a Senate bill establishing a special prosecutor to investigate President Donald Trump’s connections to Russia if the Justice Department’s Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein fails to. Blumenthal said the Senate’s investigation is insufficient. “Only a prosecutor can bring charges,” he said. He knows he has a snowball’s chance of getting that bill through a GOP-controlled Congress. That’s not the point.
There are two points, actually. One is persuading voters that a special prosecutor is reasonable; two is having a bill ready in case the political winds favor Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
Blumenthal may be right on both scores. The Republicans’ unpopular plan to replace the Affordable Care Act has put in play House districts once thought safe. (The Senate is another story). And an increasing number of voters say an independent prosecutor is the way to go.
But there is another kind of leverage: trolling.
For whatever reason, Blumenthal has a knack for crawling into the deep tissue beneath the president’s skin. After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week, invoking immediate comparisons to Watergate, Blumenthal made the rounds comparing the move to Richard Nixon’s sacking of a special prosecutor, later called the “Saturday night massacre.”
Trump responded, as he has in the past, by reminding us of the time Blumenthal allowed voters to believe he’d served *in* Vietnam instead of *during* the Vietnam era. Trump tweeted: “‘Richie’ devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history. For years, as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam —except he was never there.”
There are a couple of things to note. One, Blumenthal would rather avoid this kind of attention from the president. Trolling Trump is fun and all, and the president’s tweets serve to embarrass him more than anything. But on balance, I’m confident Blumenthal would choose not to remind people he played loosey-goosey with his biography.
But Blumenthal’s chagrin is our benefit. One of these men served his country and therefore has the moral authority to call out the other for doing our country harm. The other man didn’t, and doesn’t.
Most of us remember the scandal that was Blumenthal’s “in” versus “during,” but most of us forget he served for half a dozen years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. That’s not a big thing, like seeing combat in Vietnam, but it’s not a small thing either. Say what you will about privilege and political connections. Fact is, Dick did his time.
When he blasts the president for alienating our friends and befriending our foes, Blumenthal is doing so as someone who swore an oath to support and protect the Constitution and to defend the nation against enemies foreign and domestic. When the president errs, Blumenthal has the right, and the authority, to call him out.
In saying Blumenthal “devised one of the greatest military frauds,” and bragged about “his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam,” Trump tries to kneecap that authority. First, by lying. Blumenthal never said that. Second, by drawing on his own moral authority.
Except he has none.
Trump received numerous draft deferments, including one for “heel spurs.” Years later, he could not recall the troublesome foot, but he did say being a military prep school student “felt” like serving in the military. Evidently, that was enough “moral authority” to justify saying a man *who actually served* is a fraud.
Moral authority means little to this president. Ditto, apparently, for the GOP. It continues to shield Trump after he warned James Comey against talking to the press. He suggested he had “tapes” that might expose the former FBI head for … something. Nobody knows. The White House isn’t saying whether the tapes exist or don’t.
For his part, Blumenthal joined a chorus of voices calling for their release. And now, in light of reports that Trump asked Comey to stop investigating Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Blumenthal is again making the rounds. He told the Times last night: “You’re watching an obstruction of justice investigation developing in real time. If there were ever any question about the need for an independent special prosecutor, this report is the nail on the argument.”
Every time Blumenthal speaks out, Trump is likely to bring up Vietnam to undermine his moral authority. The senator should ignore it and should just keep trolling Trump, infuriating him to the point where he says something he and his party may regret (assuming that’s possible). After all, there’s more than one kind of political leverage.
Blumenthal may as well use it.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.