The apparently reckless US president has mastered the art of blurting out falsehoods – particularly in the witness box
Here’s a teaser as political enthusiasts absorb the results this morning of the hugely significant midterm elections for control of the US Congress.
What is the difference between embattled local home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba and Donald Trump?
The obvious answer is that both have, via audio or video, had matters best left in the bedroom put on excruciating and embarrassing display. In Gigaba’s case, it was via a hacked cellphone, and in Trump’s case it was the enraged detail provided of his nether regions by his scorned (alleged) former paramour, the magnificently named pornographic actress Stormy Daniels.
The next similarity is both men’s difficulty with telling the truth.
According to the Washington Post, Trump has told an amazing torrent of falsehoods. Its Fact Checker site reported that in the seven weeks leading up to Tuesday’s midterm election, he made 1,419 false or misleading claims – a whopping average of 30 a day. His grand total for false or misleading claims since taking office as the 45th president of the US until the end of October, is 6,420.
Now of course the word, or credibility, of the president of the world’s greatest hyper-power matters a whole lot more than a falsehood uttered by a middle-ranking cabinet minister of a middle-range country like SA.
But as Gigaba fights a rearguard to hang onto his job, he might consider two other essential and defining differences between his fraught, objectively hopeless situation and President Trump’s position.
Trump is likely to see his party lose control of one chamber of Congress by the end of Wednesday, the House of Representatives, and his legal problems could worsen and darken in days as a hostile Democrat-controlled branch uses the power of its subpoena to harass him and hope to ensnare his presidency in procedural quagmires and ethical sand traps for the next two years. (Warning: at the time of this writing the result is unknown and reliant on opinion polling, the same science which forecast President Hillary Clinton and Remain winning the Brexit referendum).
But Trump, of course, is to an extent answerable to Congress under the exacting checks and balances of the US constitution. But he is elected directly by the people, via the antique electoral college system. So he certainly does not owe anything to Congress in terms of his mandate, though of course in extremis, the Congress can impeach him and remove him from office.
But poor (not in terms of his sartorial choices) Gigaba is answerable and accountable to an electorate of one person: President Cyril Ramaphosa. And as every major crisis becomes a defining issue, in the unforgiving and scandal-plagued local news cycle, CR is only as good as his handling of the current crunch point.
So, after prevaricating for some time, Ramaphosa won plaudits last week for eventually acting on the Nugent Commission’s imperative that the sinister SARS boss Tom Moyane be fired. This week’s challenge is even more acute. Does he disregard the high court, the Constitutional Court and the public protector –all of whom directly or (in the case of the Constitutional Court’s dismissal) indirectly have found Gigaba to be a perjurious liar?
And here the quality of the lie and the forum in which it was uttered differentiates Trump’s thousands of apparent falsehoods and Gigaba’s lie in the matter of the Fireblade private jet terminal.
Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the Oppenheimer family’s desire to go to war over a landing berth for the rich and famous, the fact is a cabinet minister has been found to have perjured himself before a court of law.
That elevates the event and the falsehood into – forgive the analogy – a different stratosphere.
Quite aside from his inability to see the compounding damage his continuance in office is causing the country, his party, his credibility and every citizen, except perhaps his tailor, Gigaba’s prideful arrogance is matched only by his poor choice of lawyers. Or, his unwillingness to heed their counsel.
Lying in the witness box is a serious matter. Certainly, in America for example, it almost always results in a term of imprisonment.
And that is where the apparently reckless and careening Trump can teach Gigaba a trick or two.
Bob Woodward won universal fame as the co-author, some 44 years ago, of the destruction of the presidency of Richard Nixon, the only US head of state forced, by the Watergate revelations chronicled by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to resign the office.
Now, Woodward has produced a new volume on the first year of the Trump presidency entitled Fear: Trump in the White House.
Based on exhaustive interviews with hundreds of sources interviewed on “deep background”, it is unlikely to lead to the fall of Trump. It is not particularly page-turning and is more the work of an engaged stenographer than a riveting original volume of analysis. But that might be because, via the medium of Twitter, we know the inner often off-the-wall thinking of the US president in a manner which was unimaginable during the secrecy-obsessed pre-social media age of Richard Nixon.
But if Ramaphosa steps up to the plate and axes Gigaba, the home affairs minister might have some more leisure time to flick through this volume and learn the essential error he committed.
Because there is a revealing section in the book on Trump’s legal counsel, veteran Washington lawyer John Dowd. Although Dowd ultimately resigned his brief, he has managed, to date, to dissuade his erstwhile client from testifying before special counsel Bob Mueller who is investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
And as Dowd is recorded as saying, Trump believed he would be a great witness. But then, like a certain nattily dressed local minister, most extreme narcissists suffer from self-delusion.
While Dowd was scornful of Mueller and believed there was no collusion between Trump and the Russians, of one thing he was convinced: “But in the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back and forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying ‘fake news’, the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a f…… liar.’”
Pride? Arrogance? Poor advice? Who knows what combination of hubristic nonchalance impelled Gigaba to testify under oath in court and to do it in such an obviously mendacious manner? A case that could have been settled or conceded is now the cross he will bear for the rest of his political life, short or long as it might be.
Now Ramaphosa has to be what another US president prided himself on being: “The Decider.”
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
Featured in Times Select