June 8, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dr. Phil thinks Trump will be good

An expert on human behavioral patterns can’t see Trump’s.

Courtesy of CNN, via screenshot.
Courtesy of CNN, via screenshot.

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The criminal former president has been offered this week several opportunities to walk back, or at least back away from, his stated desire for getting even with his enemies, especially President Joe Biden, whom he and virtually the entire Republican Party blame for his felony conviction.

He sat for an interview with Phil McGraw, the self-help guide. Dr. Phil tried steering him away from retribution toward higher moral ground, according to the Times. “Enough is enough,” Dr. Phil said. “Too much is too much. This is a race to the bottom and it stops here. It stops now.”

Trump declined. “I’m OK with that,” he said, before quickly adding that “sometimes, I’m sure in certain moments I wouldn’t be, you know, when you go through what I’ve been through.” The Times went on:

Then, when Dr. McGraw said that revenge and retribution were unhealthy for the country and that Mr. Trump did not have time to “get even,” the former president replied: “Revenge does take time. I will say that. And sometimes revenge can be justified Phil, I have to be honest — sometimes it can.”

Trump repeated this on other outlets, including Fox. Each time, he was invited to be a better man. Each time, he accepted the invitation, then dropped it. This week’s interviews were a master class in “the Trump two-step”: appease your interviewer’s moral demands (you’re right, Dr. Phil, revenge is bad!) before rejecting them (but sometimes, Dr. Phil, I gotta be bad!). He does this often. (Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.) The goal is the appearance of uncertainty when there’s actual certainty.

I don’t know why a celebrated personage such as Dr. Phil McGraw, a man who claims to understand human behavior, doesn’t recognize “the Trump two-step.” Perhaps he’s too busy being a TV host. What I do know is he’s hilarious. During a follow-up interview with CNN, Dr. Phil said he made headway in getting Trump to choose good over evil.  

Abby Phillip: “Just today, he said he would indict the January 6 committee members, presumptively the members of Congress who were on that committee investigating what happened on January 6. Are you more or less convinced, after sitting down with him, that he would actually follow through on those kinds of pledges.”

Phil McGraw: “I don’t think he will. I think this is a situation that’s a process, something I think he’s had in his mind, that there’s only one way to go, and that’s to get even. I think I really made some headway with him, that that is not the way to go. I think it’s a process. I think he’ll turn this over and over in his mind. I don’t think he will do that. To the extent that I have any opportunity to lean into this with him, I am going to relentlessly try to get him to not do that” (italics mine ha ha).

Let’s take a break so we can stop laughing.

OK, we’re back. 

If a jury had concluded beyond a shadow of doubt that you, me or anyone we know had set out to break 34 New York state laws, I doubt very much someone like Dr. Phil McGraw would give any of us so much benefit of the doubt. This criminal former president isn’t going to be a good man, because he’s not a good man. He’s a criminal former president. Yet Dr. Phil McGraw holds out hope that he might be.

The question isn’t whether he will seek vengeance on his enemies. The question is how we got to a point at which we’re wondering if he will. We got here, because two facts are missing from “the revenge story.”

First, that Trump only has himself to blame for being found guilty of crimes. Two, that blaming his enemies is based on a lie. According to Trump, Biden rigged his trial. Therefore, Trump is justified in revenge. Biden didn’t, however. The president had nothing to do with the Manhattan district attorney’s case. So Trump isn’t justified, and that brings us back to him being the only one to blame for his guilt.

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Without these facts anchoring us to reality, we’re adrift with airy questions about whether Trump will or won’t, which is where this criminal former president would like us to be. He’d rather have us debating the morality of revenge than the conclusive findings of law and fact that undergird his criminal case. He’d rather have a public debate that’s informed by conspiracy theory (Biden did it) than knowledge of how government works (he couldn’t have done it).

Trump is scapegoating Biden to justify “getting even” with him. But “the revenge story” skips the first part and goes straight to the second.

There is another thing missing. History. 

If Trump becomes president again, we know he will try to prosecute his enemies, because when he was president, he tried to prosecute Hillary Clinton for the crime of … well, she was never found to have done anything wrong, she only appeared to when she used a private email server while secretary of state. Trump tried and tried until someone stopped him. That someone was US Attorney General Bill Barr.

Barr stopped him, not because he’s a good man but because he rightly feared the political consequences of a president seeming to prosecute, and perhaps imprison, his former opponent. As terrible as Barr is, and make no mistake, he is terrible, he likely saved Trump from his worst instincts. Trump wanted the bad thing, as he wants the bad thing now, but Barr refused to do the bad thing for him. So Trump dropped it.

If he wins, we can expect another kind of two-step. Trump will deny wanting to prosecute his former opponent while telling the big lie (Biden rigged the trial) that justifies prosecuting him. Then he will find someone who will say, in public, that he believes the big lie. That person, unlike Barr, will do the bad thing Trump wants badly to do.

All this seems so obvious, even a busy man like Dr. Phil could see it.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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