WASHINGTON – So Donald Trump is calling James Comey a liar.
This puts the fired FBI director in some impressive company. Among those Trump has accused of lying, via pronouncements, tweets and retweets:
George W. Bush
The Bush dynasty
Fellow GOP presidential candidates
The Obama administration
GOP strategist Rick Tyler
The Club for Growth
The New York Times
The New York Post
The New York Daily News
Women who accused him of sexual misconduct
Baseball’s Alex Rodriguez
An Ebola patient
Anyone who didn’t tune in to GOP debates to watch Trump
Accusing others of lying is a bit rich coming from the man who has done more than any other to turn public discourse into a parallel universe of alternative facts. If we were psychoanalyzing Trump, we might say he is projecting. Of course, if we were psychoanalyzing Trump, we might throw the entire DSM at him, starting with antisocial personality disorder and working our way through narcissistic personality disorder and then paranoid personality disorder.
But Trump’s tendency to accuse others of the flaws he possesses seems to be more than a reflex. It appears to be a strategy – a verbal jujitsu in which he uses his opponents’ strengths against them.
Trump was the old guy in the Republican debates and more than once seemed to fade partway through – but he managed to brand Jeb Bush “low energy.” He did the same to Clinton, portraying her as weak and tired; now he’s keeping an exceedingly light schedule as president and passing a good chunk of the time at his private retreats. Trump told the most extravagant untruths during the campaign, had the most glaring conflicts of interest and knew the least about governing. But he branded Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted,” Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” and Rubio as a “lightweight” and “Little Marco.”
Trump did not invent this strategy. I first encountered it on the playground of the Old Mill Road elementary school on Long Island in the 1970s: “I’m rubber, you’re glue – whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Other kids used an endlessly entertaining variant: “I know you are but what am I?”
During the campaign, when the topic turned to Trump’s leadership of the “birther” movement questioning Obama’s U.S. birth, Trump declared that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy.”
When Clinton pointed to the racist “alt-right” movement, Trump responded by saying, “Hillary Clinton is a bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.” When Clinton alleged that Trump was “temperamentally unfit” for the presidency, Trump responded by saying it was Clinton who “does not have the temperament to be president.”
On and on it went. Attention to Trump’s thin and vague set of policy proposals led him to say it was Clinton who “never talks about policy.” After a dark GOP convention full of apocalyptic warnings, Trump claimed that Clinton “is the only one fear-mongering.” Clinton’s charge that Trump is volatile and easily baited, likewise, led him to call her “trigger happy.”
Shortly after Clinton said Islamic State terrorists are “rooting for Donald Trump’s victory,” Trump proclaimed that those very same terrorists “dream all night of having Hillary Clinton” as president. Trump’s answer to questions about self-dealing in his family’s charitable work was to point to “crooked” Clinton’s “criminal” foundation. His routine response, even now, to inquiries into his and his aides’ ties to Russia: They should investigate the Clintons’ Russia ties.
We’ve seen this pattern in the early months of the presidency as well – accusing the Democrats of seeking a government shutdown when it was his own late demands that threatened to upend a bipartisan spending bill, and now, when accused of lying by the former FBI director, calling that man a liar.
There’s no doubt Trump’s rubber-and-glue strategy has worked. He is, after all, the president, and Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco and Low-Energy Jeb are not. But can the man who has established himself as one of history’s most prodigious prevaricators convince the country that the former FBI director, celebrated for his integrity, is just another lying liar? Polls before and after Comey’s testimony suggest Trump is losing that contest.
After all, who are you going to believe? Trump? Or everybody else?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.