By Jacob Grandstaff
Several media commentators have wondered whether Trump’s missile strikes in Syria serve to distract from the negative press that the Russia investigation has triggered. This has prompted many on the left to draw the same movie analogy that many on the right drew two decades ago when many saw Clinton’s strikes on Sudan and Iraq as an attempt to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow commented on her evening show as the news broke on April 13 that the timing carried the appearance of a “wag the dog” scenario.
“Even if the tail is not wagging the dog, even if you give the president every benefit of the doubt,” Maddow continued, “even if this decision was taken with absolutely no regard for whatever else is going on in the president’s life right now, what else is going on in the president’s life right now unavoidably creates a real perception around the globe that that may have been part of the motivation.
Maddow was referencing the 1997 movie that starred Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro about a president who orders a military expedition into Albania to distract from a scandal in which he groped a teenage girl.
The expression to “wag the dog” entered the American vocabulary when less than a year after the movie’s release, on August 20, 1998, Clinton ordered missile strikes on a Sudanese chemical plant. The Clinton administration claimed that the plant was producing chemical weapons for Al Qaeda, and presented the strikes as retaliation to Al Qaeda’s embassy bombings on August 7, which resulted in a dozen American deaths.
Although no definitive proof surfaced to show that Clinton ordered the strikes to distract from the exploding Monica Lewinsky scandal, the circumstantial evidence provided ample ammunition for his opponents to make that argument. Three days before, Lewinsky had testified before a grand jury.
On the same day, Clinton had testified before the Independent special counsel, and publicly admitted to the affair and his previous dishonesty. Rep. Jim Gibbobs (R-NV) explicitly compared the bombings to the movie, and reporters bombarded both the film’s producers and the White House with questions about possible connections.
Newsweek remarked, “If nothing else, the strikes provided an opportunity for Clinton to once again look presidential.”
Robert Dallek noted in the Los Angeles Times that Clinton’s cutting his vacation at Martha’s Vinyard short and rushing to Washington to coordinate the attacks was unnecessary, and suggested it added fuel to speculations that Clinton’s handling of the matter was meant for media optics.
Recently, Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s foundation and the FBI’s raid of Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen’s residence created a constant, negative news barrage. This in turn, cast doubt on Trump’s innocence—or at least the innocence of the people with whom he surrounds himself. The release of excerpts from fired FBI Director James Comey’s coming book A Higher Loyalty—a reference to Trump’s alleged request for Comey’s loyalty—only exacerbated the negative coverage.
Ainsley Earhardt of Fox & Friends—one of Trump’s favorite shows—suggestively asked Geraldo Rivera on the morning of the strikes, “If the president, France and the UK decide to strike Syria, don’t you think that story would be a bigger story than Comey’s book that is released on Tuesday?”
The Guardian noted that the Wag the Dog reference marked a favorite line of cynics, but acknowledged that it did temporarily push Comey and Mueller out of the news cycle.
Fort Myers, Florida’s NBC-2 News’ Michael Langan suggested the same as Maddow, and Chris Matthews and The View’s Joy Behar had both referenced the film previously as Trump considered how to respond to the alleged chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
New Republic’s Jeet Heer, however, took a more holistic approach. He sees Trump’s tweeting behavior as a means of distracting from unflattering news in itself. Heer remarked how the Washington Post observed that a barrage of seemingly contradictory tweets aimed toward Russia distracted and confused his own national security staff.
An administration official told CNN that when Trump taunted Russia and Syria of “nice, new, and smart” missiles coming, he had essentially “forced their hand and made some type of strikes inevitable.”
Trump’s tweet undermined not only his staff, but one of the few well-defined foreign policy stances of his presidential campaign. Time magazine found that Trump had previously tweeted at least 18 times that the U.S. should not attack Syria. As a candidate, he repudiated calls to overthrow Assad, arguing that ISIS—which still exists in Syria—is the real threat.
If Trump broke with his previous foreign policy to wag the proverbial dog, his troubles with the FBI and Mueller will not go away. But sometimes a break in the news cycle is all a president needs to regain some breathing room. Clinton got a second wind on December 16, 1998 when he authorized the bombing of Iraq for four days during Operation Desert Fox. The previous day, the House of Representatives had issued a report, accusing Clinton of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for his lying about the Lewinsky affair.
Dallek argued that “a wounded president whose credibility has been shattered by his own lies and misdeeds simply is not in a good position to conduct foreign policy.” His 1998 column offered a way in which Clinton—and now Trump—could have removed speculation that they were bombing for distraction. “As president and commander in chief, Clinton holds the power to order military actions necessary to the national security. But foreign and defense policies in our democracy, especially those posing costs in blood and treasure, demand a national consensus.”