Donald Trump tries out the Pee-wee Herman defence

Former president sees attack as his only remaining form of defence

Paul Reubens, in character as Pee-wee Herman, poses on stage after a performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway in New York in 2010. AP
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Pee-wee Herman, the bow tie-wearing man child created by comic icon Paul Reubens, delighted in silly catchphrases including his most famous retort: “I know you are, but what am I?”

Mr Reubens, who died this week, would perhaps have been surprised to see his nonsensical comeback become the cornerstone of Donald Trump's defence following his latest criminal indictment.

The former US president will on Thursday be arraigned in Washington on federal charges of trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election and of sowing the seeds of insurrection by pushing lies about having won, when in real life Democrat Joe Biden trounced him by securing seven million more votes.

For anyone who cares to read it – and didn't already know – the 45-page indictment lays bare Mr Trump's desperate attempts to cling to power and his determination to shred the US Constitution to achieve his goal.

Special counsel Jack Smith and his team of federal prosecutors have accused Mr Trump of repeatedly lying about the election results and engaging in a conspiracy to “disenfranchise millions of voters” by installing puppet representatives to support his bogus election claims in Congress. Many of those fake electors are also charged with felonies.

Mr Trump's response, and that of his Republican Party, to the new accusations of election interference has been to mount a Pee-wee Herman-esque defence: I know you are, but what am I?

On his Truth Social platform, Mr Trump accused prosecutors of “election interference”, arguing that Mr Smith and the Department of Justice had only filed charges in a bid to derail his campaign to reclaim the White House in 2024.

It's classic Trump, who responds to criticism and lawsuits by throwing accusations back at his accusers.

Why did prosecutors “wait two and a half years to bring these fake charges, right in the middle of President Trump’s winning campaign for 2024?” the Trump campaign said in a statement.

“The answer is, election interference! The lawlessness of these persecutions of President Trump and his supporters is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes.”

If irony isn't dead already, it's definitely in intensive care.

Here is the man who has repeatedly bragged of his contempt for US democracy, saying in 2016 that he would gladly accept the election results “if I win”.

He lied repeatedly after his humiliating defeat to Mr Biden and tried to overturn the results on January 6 by telling his enraged supporters to “fight like hell” and trying to strong-arm his vice president, Mike Pence, into refusing to certify the election results in Congress.

Mr Pence, who is also running for president, ultimately refused the order, causing the pro-Trump mob to call for his public execution by erecting a gallows outside the Capitol and braying for him to be hanged.

Following Tuesday's indictment against his former boss, Mr Pence finally found the courage to speak out.

“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” he said in a statement.

“Our country is more important than one man. Our Constitution is more important than any one man’s career.”

But such criticism from a Republican is rare these days, and the conservative establishment has largely moved as a bloc to regurgitate Mr Trump's claims that the three (at last count) indictments he faces are all political hit jobs.

His talking points are being repeated verbatim on Fox News and other right-wing media, and most of Mr Trump's rivals to seek the Republican Party nomination are too afraid of his base to criticise him.

Republicans' blind loyalty to Mr Trump even as the probability of him going to prison mounts reminds me of another of Pee-wee Herman's classic lines: “If you love (insert random object here) so much, why don't you marry it?”

In one episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, he married a bowl of fruit salad.

Published: August 03, 2023, 3:04 AM