Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Six jungles deep in the weeds: Brooks gets into The Normalizing

Still from Tom Huckabee, Carried Away (2009) via.
Shorter David Brooks, "Let's Not Get Carried Away", New York Times, June 20 2017:
Back in the day when I was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal for several months in 1994-95 was the height of the Whitewater scandal, and as the Journal ran numerous "investigative pieces" about the awful things Bill and Hillary Clinton were supposed to have done back in Dogpatch, I found that I couldn't understand anything about what was actually being alleged, like what was this story anyway? Fortunately at WSJ the editorial page editor isn't required to understand any of the pieces he signs off on, in fact not understanding them can be an advantage, which is how Paul Gigot has managed to hold on to the job for 16 years. But anyway it turned out in the end that the Clintons hadn't done anything wrong at all, which nobody could have predicted! So since I also can't understand any of the things they're saying about Trump and collusion with Russian attempts to manipulate the 2016 presidential election, it's pretty obvious Trump hasn't done anything wrong either. People should focus instead on the perfectly legal ways in which he is unfit for the presidency.
In fact,
at least so far, the Whitewater scandal was far more substantive than the Russia-collusion scandal now gripping Washington.
In what respect, David? What did you find "substantive" about it?
CONASON AND LYONS [The Hunting of the President, 2000on the report issued by the Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, 1996, for the Resolution Trust Company]: The firm's findings could hardly have been more favorable to the White House. Based on the Clintons' sworn interrogatories, interviews with forty-five other witnesses, and some two hundred thousand documents, the report concluded that the president and first lady had told the truth about their Whitewater investment: The Clintons were passive investors who were misled about the actual status of the project by Jim McDougal almost from the start. The report failed to challenge their account on a single substantive point.... 
The Pillsbury Report found no evidence that Whitewater's losses had been subsidized by taxpayers in the savings and loan bailout. But even if they were, it concluded, the Clintons were not at fault: "There is no basis to assert that the Clintons knew anything of substance about the McDougals' advances to Whitewater, the source of the funds used to make those advances, or the sources of the funds used to make payments on the bank debt...There is no basis to charge the Clintons with any kind of primary liability for fraud or intentional misconduct. This investigation has revealed no evidence to support any such claims...There is evidence that the McDougals may have engaged in intentional misconduct. There are legal theories by which one can become liable for the conduct of others—e.g. conspiracy and aiding and abetting. On this evidentiary record, however, these theories have no legal application to the Clintons." [from a post at the late lamented Daily Howler, April 2000]
There never was anything. The folks at the Wall Street Journal editorial page and their compatriots at the Times and the other rags devoted to the destruction of the Clinton presidency, "six jungles deep in the weeds", as Brooks says (don't ask me what that means), churned themselves into a frenzy over nothing, as should have been clear from that first incoherent Jeff Gerth article in the Times, March 8 1992. Gerth himself, Eric Boehlert notes,
actually points his finger at Times editors who have steadfastly defended his work in the past and blames them for nearly ruining his Whitewater exposé. Gerth claims that editors, without his knowledge, rewrote his first and best-known Whitewater article and saddled it with factual errors. The unsettling revelation, buried in a Her Way endnote, raises even more questions about Gerth, the Times, and their Whitewater misadventure.
Though it seems clear to me if Gerth's stories had been better written they would have been able to suggest still less, since there wasn't anything behind the innuendos, and wouldn't have been published at all. There really never was a story, just breathless bad writing concealing the absence of a story, as Lyons and Conason kept demonstrating, until finally the attackers had to admit it (and then came Monica, and Jonah Goldberg's mom, and they were able to salvage a couple additional years and an actual, though abortive, impeachment proceeding into the process).

Whereas in the Trump-Russia case the story is as clear as can be: after long associations of variously criminal kinds with variously criminal former Soviets (in Trump's own case mostly involving real estate deals with money-laundering Russians, Kazakhs, and Azerbaijanis), Trump and his crew found themselves making a deal with Russian Federation intelligence, in which the Russians would help the Trump campaign win the election in return for the removal of economic sanctions, sealed at the Cleveland convention in July, where the Trumpists showed their earnest by altering the Republican party platform and the Russians immediately began releasing the stolen DNC documents; and starting to unravel around the January inauguration, when the Trump team found that they couldn't get rid of the sanctions as easily as they'd hoped. At its base, it's a pretty simple story. Simpler than Julius Caesar.

And the ongoing investigation into the collaboration?
There may be a giant revelation still to come. But as the Trump-Russia story has evolved, it is striking how little evidence there is that any underlying crime occurred — that there was any actual collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russians. Everything seems to be leaking out of this administration, but so far the leaks about actual collusion are meager.
Here's the beginning of a thread laying out the evidence of actual collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russians: please click on the date stamp and read the whole thing:

There were some meetings between Trump officials and some Russians, but so far no more than you’d expect from a campaign that was publicly and proudly pro-Putin. And so far nothing we know of these meetings proves or even indicates collusion.
Except for the fact that the Trump associates repeatedly lied about them, even under oath. And Trump and his people lying (in the case of Page, Manafort, and Stone, not to mention the abominable Felix Sater) about whether they were his associates or not. How many meetings would you expect a pro-Putin campaign to have with Russian intelligence agents and bankers? How would you know when they were held in secret?

And we know a good deal about the content of at least some of the communications as well: there were meetings on eliminating the Republican platform condemnation of Russia's illegal seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine; phone calls discussing the possibility of unilateral lifting of US sanctions on the Russian Federation; and meetings of Stone and Giuliani over the stolen DNC emails. We'll know a lot more about these when the FBI is ready to bring its evidence public. The leaks so far aren't from people who are conducting the investigation, they're from freaked out White House and State Department and Pentagon personnel and the like, including all the major "Trump loyalist" players like Conway and Kushner covering themselves.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be an investigation into potential Russia-Trump links. Russia’s attack on American democracy was truly heinous, and if the Trump people were involved, that would be treason. 
So there is "evidence that an underlying crime occurred". What Brooks is denying is that the Trump campaign was involved in it. Though the Trump campaign clearly profited from it and clearly offered the Russian Federation things it wanted. It's like saying there was "no evidence that an underlying crime occurred" when Nicole Simpson's body was found and there was no video of anybody killing her, I'm sorry, but somebody committed that crime, and there's plenty of evidence that the Trump campaign was hanging out in the driveway where it took place, including decades of Trump's personal involvement with the Russian criminals and money launderers who have constituted the Russian political elite for the past 18 years, and all that perjury.
Second, there is something disturbingly meta about this whole affair. This is, as Yuval Levin put it, an investigation about itself. 
And Al Capone never hurt anybody—he was just a little slow with those tax returns. The fact that much of the investigation is now concerned with Trump's blatant attempts to stop it doesn't mean that no crimes were committed before he started obstructing justice. To the contrary, the fact that Trump is obstructing justice proves in itself that there is some justice here that needs to be done.
Now of course Trump shouldn’t have tweeted about Oval Office tape recordings. Of course he shouldn’t have fired James Comey.
Why shouldn't he have fired James Comey if he felt like it? He's the president, he's allowed. He shouldn't have fired Comey because he shouldn't have done anything to prevent his crimes from being discovered and punished. I mean I'm sorry to be so obvious about this, but the significant thing about the Comey firing (and the implied threat of the tapes) isn't that it was mean to Comey, it's that it was part of an attempt to hide criminal misconduct.
But even if you took a paragon of modern presidents — a contemporary Abraham Lincoln — and you directed a democratically unsupervised, infinitely financed team of prosecutors at him and gave them power to subpoena his staff and look under any related or unrelated rock in an attempt to bring him down, there’s a pretty good chance you could spur even this modern paragon to want to fight back. You could spur even him to do something that had the whiff of obstruction.
Democratically unsupervised by whom? The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are on the job, in spite of Republican dominance, because they're interested. (Plus the House Ethics Committee in the peculiar matter of Devin Nunes.) Infinitely financed really? No. Look under any related or unrelated rock? Wrong:
Mueller is charged with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” In addition, Mueller is to look into “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” That would include any obstruction of the investigation or perjury related to it.... As the federal code explains, a special counsel must consult the acting attorney general (Rosenstein) if he wishes to expand the inquiry beyond what was spelled out in Rosenstein’s order “or to investigate new matters that come to light in the course of his or her investigation.” In addition, Rosenstein can ask the special counsel to “provide an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step,” and if such step is deemed “inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices” the acting attorney general reserves the right to intervene, provided Congress is notified.... [And] Congress’ mandate is broader, “looking at questions of governance generally not just violations of criminal laws, which is the question to which Mueller is restricted.”
There’s just something worrisome every time we find ourselves replacing politics of democracy with the politics of scandal.
Oh, the old "there's just something worrisome" argument!

Actually there are two things worrisome. There's the possibility that the president's political enemies are using the thing to combat him when the weapons of normal politics don't suffice, as in the 27 years of groundless Clinton persecution, and then there's the possibility that THE PRESIDENT IS A FUCKING CRIMINAL as was the case in 1974. Pretty sure I know which one this looks like.

Which the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Treasury Department's financial crimes unit, not some think tank conspiracy, are working on. And I'd guess they're not going to show us all the evidence until they're good and ready. The story is not really about the revelations of White House staffers in the Times and Wapo and Newsweek, but about what those agencies are up to, as quietly as they can make it.

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