Those of us who had the honour and privilege of working for Jean Chrétien knew that aphorism well. It was his mantra and therefore ours, too.
It worked. Chrétien was never once defeated in his 40 years in the political game. He won three back-to-back majorities and was the most popular Canadian prime minister in the history of polling. He repatriated the Constitution, he defeated the separatists and he kept us out of Iraq. He did okay, you might say. A proof is a proof.
And the reason he was so successful, politically? Along with being a regular guy, along with being likable, along with having an innate understanding of what Canadians wanted? Because he undersold and overperformed.
He didn’t brag a lot. He didn’t take credit for the achievements of others. He didn’t make everything about him. He kept quiet when he should and he stayed out of the papers.
U.S. President Donald Trump, now under criminal investigation for obstruction of justice, could have benefited from following Chrétien’s example. He could have survived if he’d kept his mouth shut, just once. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.
Trump’s presidency is now measured in months, not years. Because, as the Washington Post has reported, special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump’s conduct on two fronts. One, whether he obstructed justice when he fired former FBI director James Comey. And, two, when he earlier told Comey to “let go” of a criminal probe into the connections between Russia and his campaign team.
When did the Washington Post discover that Trump was under criminal investigation by Mueller’s FBI team? Just a day or two after Trump surrogates darkly warned that the president was seriously contemplating firing Mueller.
Cause and effect. Action, reaction. Trump just couldn’t keep his mouth shut – he just couldn’t keep his thumbs away from Twitter – and he made things markedly worse for himself by threatening Mueller. Now he couldn’t fire Mueller if he tried – it would be a stronger admission of guilt than a signed confession and videotape of the crimes being committed.
The same thing happened with Comey. Trump just could not keep quiet.
So, not long he after he fired Comey – because Comey, he knew, was getting perilously close to finding out the truth about if Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a pact to subvert U.S. democracy – Trump tweeted that Comey better hope “there are no tapes” of their conversations at the White House.
With that, Trump bought himself a world of hurt, on two fronts. One, it prompted Comey to release a highly detailed account of a previously secret meeting with Trump – a meeting in which the FBI director was directed to drop the Russia inquiries. And, two, it spurred Congress to demand the tapes. And the disclosure of Oval Office tapes, historians will note, are what brought down Richard Nixon.
But that’s not all. Trump’s mouth and tweets have gotten him in plenty of other messes. To cite just one example: executive privilege. Comey was a federal employee when he met with Trump. Their discussions entirely dealt with sensitive matters, most relating to national security.
Trump, therefore, could have easily invoked executive privilege – a presidential prerogative that would have effectively silenced Comey and prevented Congress from questioning him on Trump-Comey interactions.
So what did Trump do? He tweeted about his meetings with Comey. A lot. He disclosed what was not supposed to be disclosed – thereby giving Comey the pretext for doing so, too. And he eliminated any credible argument for the invocation of executive privilege. How, everyone wondered, could executive privilege happen when the most senior member of the executive has violated it?
It goes on and on. His Muslim ban, defeated in serial lawsuits in the Ninth Circuit courts because of Trump’s own words. Lawsuits by two states, in which they claim that Trump has violated the Constitution by benefiting financially from his position – all because he loudly refused to withdraw from his Trump business empire. And, of course, the millions of women (and men, like this one) who marched against Trump the day after his inauguration – because we objected to the foul, feral things that he says and tweets.
All of Trump’s political wounds are of the worst kind: self-inflicted. Those are always the ones that cut deepest and are usually fatal. He’s unlikely to see the inside of a jail cell – sycophantic Vice-President Mike Pence can be expected to pardon him for his crimes, naturally – but he’s certain to be drummed out of office.
How can it be otherwise? How can it be avoided, now?
It could have been different. It could have been avoided. If Trump had kept his mouth shut, if he had stayed away from Twitter, he could have dramatically improved the odds.
Most of all, if he had simply undersold and overperformed – as Chrétien did – it would have all been so different.
He didn’t. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.