Donald Trump and the Sleaze Factor

Most of yesterday’s buzz was about the miasma of Trump investigations.  There was a flap over whether the Justice Department sought to prevent former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence that Trump associates’ contacts with possible Russian agents involved wrongdoing (though there are some odd transactions in the past of Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort).

There is also a flap over the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, refusing to disclose to the committee who gave him intelligence reports that indicated Pres. Trump and his associates may have been ensnared in incidental intelligence collection outside the probe into the Russia-related issues.

Recall that to date, there appears to be no public evidence to substantiate Nunes’s claim this intelligence was improperly circulated without redacting the names of Trump and his associates in cases where the names were of no intelligence value.

In recent days, I have noted the tendency to treat similarly unsupported claims as Very Big Deals by anti-Trumpers and anti-anti-Trumpers, according to their confirmation biases.  I have also noted that there is a certain sort of partisan fever that drives people to give way too much credit to even nutty conspiracy theories.

Today, I simply want to add that the odds are that none of it may matter much.

Consider that Ronald Reagan got dubbed “the Teflon President” by Rep. Patricia Schroeder on the basis of her list of 225 Reagan administration personnel or nominees who were the subject of allegations of ethical infractions.  It led Dems to claim the Reagan administration had a “sleaze factor.”  The Associated Press drily noted: “The figure has been disputed.  Most were never charged with any wrongdoing, although some nominees didn’t get jobs after the alleged transgressions came to light.”

That didn’t stop the more sober Washington Post from claiming a list of 110 senior administration officials have been accused of unethical or illegal conduct from 1981-86.  Even so, some of the biggest accusations, such as those against Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, fizzled.  The major convictions would mostly come during the Iran-Contra scandal in Reagan’s second term (and some of those would be reversed due to grants of immunity issued in the Congressional investigation).

None of the earlier Reagan-era scandals and pseudo-scandals (which were in large part a function of the then-new standards of the Ethics in Government Act) mattered in the grand scheme because they didn’t touch the President personally and — tbh — people simply don’t care as much about scandals when the economy is doing well (see also: Clinton, Bill).

Based on what we know to date, I would expect the same basic rules to apply here.  Both stories so far look like pseudo-scandals not involving either Pres. Trump or Obama directly.  And if the economy picks up as the GOP hopes, few outside the partisan fever swamps will care much.

As such, the anti-Trumpers are likely just spinning their wheels until some investigation with credibility delivers some evidence bearing on whether Trump associates behaved badly.  And the anti-anti-Trumpers are in the same boat regarding Nunes’s claims.  The latter, however, also carry a whiff of the people who are constantly complaining that the establishment media isn’t covering their pet story enough. Sad!

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The Insanely Low Stakes of Trump’s Steaks

Pres. Trump apparently likes his steaks extremely well done.  The punditry about this has been extreme, but not well done.  The commentary more resembles the fattiest tartare you’ve ever tasted.

First, there were the the mopes like Vanity Fair‘s Graydon Carter, the Washington Post‘s food critic, and the occasional random food blogger recoiling in horror from Trump’s vulgar taste, exacerbated by his use of ketchup.  It was of course suggested that Trump’s gauche dining habits were in some way a metaphor for his parochial and close-minded politics.

Then there were the conservatives.  Some of the movers and shakers in conservative media, the thinkers, even one of its most elegant writers appeared on some of the right’s most respected and influential platforms to defend Trump’s dietary habits, or at least to note that others would see it as an asset.

And many smart conservatives shared those columns on social media, nodding their heads at the notion that lefties’ hysteria about Trump was largely a matter of aesthetics.

Yet righties found it scandalous that then-candidate Barack Obama passed up a the campaign ritual of a Philly Cheesesteak in 2007.  And notable that he was the sort who ate arugula…and kale.  It was a metaphor, you see, for his effete liberal sensibilities and politics.

Does the Trump/Obama comparison simply reflect the long-simmering populism of the GOP?  In a word, no.

Righties also had great fun with Bill Clinton’s appetites for fast food and… women with big hair.  They were a metaphor, you see, for the decadence and generally low class of the Democrats, not to mention the seeming grubbiness of the Clintons’ scandal-laden politics.  So inferior to the patrician Pres. George H. W. Bush.

Of course, the Democrats also have done this before Trump.  Ronald Reagan supposedly liked jellybeans — a childish indulgence that reflected a simpleton who once co-starred in a movie with a chimp.  Etc., etc.

This is what happens to people who never get out of the marinade of partisanship.  It’s what drives otherwise normal people to take insane conspiracy theories seriously.  It’s the sort of thing people will look back upon with mild embarrassment, should they ever bother to reflect.

The temptation will be to justify spending time on Trump’s steak by framing it as an example of anti-Trump hysteria.  But if you pass a man on a street corner wearing a sandwich board and ranting about the Freemasons, do you stop to loudly counter him to other passers-by?  No, you don’t.  And you know why you don’t.

The other temptation will be to denigrate the Left by supposing lefties’ objections to Trump are significantly aesthetic.  To be sure, many liberals preferred Trump to Cruz and Rubio during the primaries.

But he’s Pres. Trump now.  His picks for his Cabinet were significantly Republican and often conservative.  His Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, compares favorably to the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump and a GOP Congress are rolling back some regulations.  And while the House GOP’s AHCA strikes me as a lame effort to marginally roll back Obamacare, Democrats will see it as the wrong sort of wealth distribution.

Moreover, Dems clearly have opposition on the merits to some of the more uniquely Trumpian policies, such as the “extreme vetting” of refugees and the expansion of immigration enforcement (even though it falls short of some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric).

It’s pretty obvious that the Left’s opposition to Trump is not significantly driven by his tastes (or lack thereof).  Those tastes are just another target of opportunity for them.  But the people responding seriously to these trivial pursuits are not doing themselves or their audiences any favors.

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Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, Revisited

Consider this an update or continuation of an earlier posting arguing that when considering the political prospects for a heterodox president like Donald Trump, one might consider other recent heterodox presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Under the Bill Clinton scenario, the president’s party and associated movement goes along (in varying degrees of reluctance) with a more centrist president, despite losses suffered by the party and a cloud of personal craziness, mostly from an aversion to the other side winning.  Under the Jimmy Carter scenario, the president’s party supports some of the heterodox positions at first, but relations with Congress ultimately deteriorate, contributing to a failed presidency and a change in the political direction of the country.

Pres. Trump has been in office for only a month, so it’s far too early to judge which type of scenario will play out here.  Nevertheless, it may be useful to mark out a starting point.

The current political environment provides a fair amount of evidence that a substantial segment of the right cares much more about what they’re against instead of what they support.  Half of Republicans see Vladmir Putin as an ally while Russia secretly deployed a new cruise missile U.S. officials say violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  This seems like a party and perhaps a movement that will have plenty of tolerance for Trump and his issues — for now, anyway.

The administration’s relationship to Congress, otoh, seems to remain dodgy.  Trump’s legislative agenda seems to lag that of his predecessors.  The administration gently grouses that Congress doesn’t want to be told what to do… until it does.  Those on the Hill suggest they initially welcomed Trump’s benign neglect, but are paralyzed by the lack of any White House guidance on tax reform, Obamacare and infrastructure spending (the last perhaps being kicked into 2018).

Meanwhile, Corey Robin has written a lengthy comparison of Trump and Carter for the lefty journal n+1.  There’s plenty of interest to agree and disagree with in the article.  For example, Robin notes the generally declining vote share for Republican presidents from 1972 through 2016 without addressing the gains of Republicans at virtually every other level of government.

Robin’s observation that the general lack of prior government experience in Trump’s cabinet may hinder his ability to deliver the change he promised, however, is worth considering, even if the administration’s goal is to greatly diminish the administrative state.  Apart from the Carter example, when Pres. Reagan picked George Schultz as Secretary of State, the latter had experience that equipped him to anticipate and fight bureaucratic resistance within Foggy Bottom.

More significantly, Robin highlights that part of Carter’s dilemma was sitting atop a party that was in transition between the remnants of the New Deal and the influx of the New Left.

Today, Trump sits atop a GOP split between its coastal donor class, a bloc of supposed True Conservatives, and perhaps the sort of nationalists Trump’s senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, would like to make the dominant faction.

How this schism gets resolved has a fair amount to do with how many of the supposed TruCons are are amenable to Trump’s populist nationalism.  This cannot be predicted with any certainty, but the Carter and Clinton examples may yet be instructive.

Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

Why did Clinton and Carter fail to fundamentally reshape their party?  One big reason is that progressivism is supported by an expansive web of institutions, including grassroots activists, publications, think-tanks and other organizations, all devoted to advancing a broadly New Left agenda (and increasingly a New New Left agenda).

Carter essentially had no such institutions supporting his agenda.  Bill Clinton had a few – notably the Democratic Leadership Council – which has since gone the way of the Dodo.

Small-government conservatives may find themselves with less power during the Trump era, but can take some comfort in the fact that movement conservatism has institutional support similar to that progressivism had to sustain them during the Carter and Clinton years.   Trump’s victories caused Tucker Carlson and others to declare these institutions a failure; in fact, they were blamed for not achieving a purpose for which most of them were never designed to fulfill (excepting the activists).

The fact that the GOP nominated and elected a heterodox figure like Donald Trump does not necessarily signal that the party has undergone a realignment or that the conservative movement is dead.  The United States and Europe may have reached a more nationalist moment, but there has been much less of a foundation laid to sustain that mode of politics on this side of the Atlantic.

The real questions are more along the lines of whether Trump will get involved in more state party leadership fights (he won in Ohio after several rounds of deadlocked voting). Or whether Trump acolytes can succeed in down-ticket races without his celebrity.  Or whether Trump is interested in creating – or coopting – the infrastructure of institutions that supported Ronald Reagan and have extended his philosophical and political legacy for decades.

Trump is getting the big ovations at CPAC today.  Whether and how much more he’s willing to do beyond flying a few miles in Marine One remains to be seen.

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Further Down Mike Flynn’s Rabbit Hole

Believe me, I do not intend to get in the habit of writing on a Friday night for a Saturday posting.  However, given the traffic and feedback I got about “Another Flynn Conspiracy Theory,” it’s worth going a bit further down this rabbit hole in a timely manner.

As the kids say on Twitter: Are you ready for some game theory?

Yesterday’s posting was a piece of media criticism examining the evidence — or lack thereof — in a story asserting that fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn was ousted as the result of a campaign waged by fmr Obama adviser Ben Rhodes and a small task force of Obama alumni for the purpose of stopping Flynn from revealing secret aspects of Obama’s Iran deal.

That story is generally lacking in evidence and when acting as a media critic, I judge what’s on the page or screen.  And when commenting on the general reaction to the piece on the right, my general presumption is that readers also should judge what’s on the page or screen.

Nevertheless, I repeatedly stressed that Adam Kredo is a thorough reporter and that if he could have produced more evidence to support this conspiracy theory, he would have done so.  I also refused to dismiss the possibility that the attacks on Flynn were more organized than the groupthink of progressives inside and outside the bureaucracy attacking a weak link in the Trump administration.

The reason I did both things is because — when not wearing a media critic hat — I considered the possibility that Kredo knows or has reason to believe more than what he wrote in his story.

I have no evidence to support that speculation.  Zero, zip, nil, nada.  I have never had any kind of contact with Kredo.  I have had no contact with anyone at the Washington Free Beacon about this story.  That’s why my speculation wasn’t in yesterday’s posting.

But I did have that thought, which influenced the writing.

I had the same sort of speculation after reading Friday’s piece by Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard.  I have had contact with Hemingway, though I don’t know whether he knows this.  But I have had no contact with him or anyone affiliated with him about the story.

Hemingway writes that “in recent days there have been rumblings that Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor and architect of the infamous Iran Deal echo chamber; Obama National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor; and other Obama foreign policy officials have been active organizing and leaking against Trump.”  Hemingway links Kredo’s story, but notes its anonymous sourcing and Rhodes calling the theory bizarre.

Nevertheless, Hemingway argues that the consistent appearance of the silly suggestion that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act as a “tell” that there was some sort of campaign being waged against Flynn.  He concludes that “it’s worth trying to get a handle on how active and organized the Obama opposition to Trump is,” a sentiment with which I entirely agree.

I am not quite as sold on the idea that the Logan Act nonsense is a “tell.”  It could be.  OTOH, Dems accused then-candidate Trump of violating the Logan Act for suggesting that Russia should find the 30,000 emails deleted from the private server Hillary Clinton used to mishandle classified information.

The Left also accused Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 other Senate Republicans of violating the Logan Act for publishing a letter to Iran’s leaders that undercut Pres. Obama’s efforts to negotiate the Iran deal (at least this example relates to the Iran deal).  Before that, MoveOn had a petition drive suggesting then-Speaker of the House John Boehner violated the Logan Act by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress.

Plus, I’m old enough to remember when it was GOPers and conservatives who tended to bring up the Logan Act.  In 2007, Republicans claimed then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi violated the Logan Act (even if it shouldn’t have been prosecuted) by meeting with Syrian Pres. Assad.  Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter has been accused of violating the Logan Act over the years for his meddling in foreign policy well after his presidency ended.

In 1984, Newt Gingrich accused ten House Democrats, including then-Majority Leader Jim Wright, of violating the Logan Act for offering political advice to Daniel Ortega, leader of the Communist junta that ruled Nicaragua.  James Kirchick brought up the Logan Act not only with respect to Carter, but also regarding Sen. Ted Kennedy’s attempt to get the Soviets to meddle in the 1983 election.

Pres. Ronald Reagan suggested then-Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson had violated the Act during a mission to Cuba (while saying he would not seek a prosecution).

I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Logan Act is just one of those political talking points that people will invoke, given enough aggravation.  So maybe it’s not a “tell” in this case.  But maybe it is.

In either event, Hemingway’s mention of “rumblings” will ring true to anyone who has worked in DC or knows those who have.  Leaking and gossiping are fairly rampant in the Beltway.

And Hemingway mentions Vietor, who is not featured in Kredo’s story, which suggests those rumblings are not just the product of Kredo’s story.  Again, it’s not evidence.  But I’m not doing evidence right now.

People reading Hemingway might speculate that the rumblings extend beyond the Friends of Flynn that Kredo quoted.  Or that Hemingway knows — or has reason to believe he knows — more than he feels comfortable reporting.

But that leaves us with the question Hemingway raises, i.e., how do people get a handle on whether the Flynn/Rhodes/Iran theory is true?

I have a suggestion that will almost certainly be rejected.  If the theory is that Obama alumni orchestrated press leaks against Mike Flynn (or is campaigning against anyone else in the Trump admin), don’t ask anonymous Trump allies.  Instead, ask journalists.

Granted, most of the leak recipients are probably progressives who aren’t going to say a thing.  But the premise of the speculation that writers like Kredo and Hemingway know more than they can report is that anti-Flynn pitches were made to them or others like them.

Of course, it’s further possible that conservative journalists wouldn’t want to burn their lefty sources for both ethical and practical reasons, even by anonymously ratting out those sources to a fellow conservative journalist.  But keep in mind that those who would squeal loudest about this tactic are people who have no problem at all with government officials illegally leaking classified information for political gain.

If these politically-motivated leaks are the threat to the Republic many — including many conservative writers — seem to believe they are, people may want to wrestle with the ethical questions as I do.  The wrestling should not stop there either.

After all, once you take seriously the possibility that conservative journalists know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting, you cannot dismiss the possibility that the Big Media journalists and the sources feeding them anti-Flynn material know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting.

This leads us back to the unresolved questions surrounding Flynn’s firing.  Given the general tough-on-Iran line up of the Trump administration, are we willing to believe that Obama alumni went after Flynn on this big a scale out of pure personal pique?  If Pres. Trump dismisses the anti-Flynn leak stories as “fake news,” then why did he ask for Flynn to resign?  Why was Flynn cashiered for misleading VP Mike Pence if the FBI concluded Flynn was truthful in claiming it was unintentional?  And so on.

This is the problem: When you start going down a rabbit hole, you generally don’t know how deep it will go.

Update: If you’re into speculation about this topic, per my warning about what the Deep State or Big Media might know that we don’t, read HotAir’s Allahpundit on FBI Director Comey’s long and mysterious meeting with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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