One of the most pernicious notions that has taken hold in modern pop culture is the Nietzschean claim, echoed by the post-modernists, that there are no facts, only interpretations. And since there is no such thing as truth, there is no such thing as right and wrong; there are only preferences. So the choice of Vanilla or Chocolate ice cream is on par with the choice of whether or not to have an abortion.
That this mindset has taken hold can be seen in the common use and abuse of language, something that George Orwell warned about. In the popular culture, modern idioms routinely gloss over substance by muddying the waters all the while disguising the planted axiom. The result is sloppy thinking and mind-numbing conformity.
Consider some phrases that are routinely tossed around in the public discourse. What about “affordable housing” for instance? How about putting a price on a house instead? That is pretty straightforward. But who can afford what is not. I am quite sure Bill Gates and I have very different ideas about what constitutes an affordable house. The planted axiom in the phrase affordable housing is that there is, or ought to be, some floating standard of affordability, determined by bureaucrats (experts) to determine who will benefit from their munificence with other people’s money.
Similarly, the phrase “pro-choice” (“pro-life” is the other side of the same coin) really means being in favor of a legal right to abortion on demand. That it has nothing to do with being in favor of maximizing consumer choice is made clear by the vociferous opposition to charter schools by “pro-choice” groups. Related dodges include referring to abortion rights as women’s health “issues”.
These understatements are simply designed to avoid the underlying substance of the issues involved. But while it may be easy to avoid the underlying issues of any given dispute by resorting to euphemisms the facts on the ground create a culture of, if not acceptance, at least acquiescence. And it becomes progressively easier to resort to euphemism, then spin—itself a euphemism—and a host of other subject switching and issue reframing devices to avoid the plain truth.
White House Credibility—or the Lack of It
Which brings us to the latest round of wounds the White House has managed to inflict on itself. The star of the show, naturally enough, is Donald Trump, whose mastery of the art of forming a rapid-fire circular firing squad is unparalleled in modern political history.
In rapid succession the Trump White House asserted that (1) the President fired Jim Comey (who should have been fired months ago) because of the way he handled the Clinton e-mail investigation, only to be undercut shortly thereafter by (2) Trump himself. Trump went on to national television and announced he was going to fire Comey anyway because he was thinking of “this Russia thing” not to mention that (Comey) was a show boater.
As if this were not bad enough, within a day or two, the Washington Post (and then the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal) got leaks to the effect that Trump revealed “highly classified” information about ISIS to a Russian diplomat. The source of the intelligence was reported to be Israel, which means that Trump may have compromised Israeli sources and methods. The response of the White House communications amateurs, now crouched in fetal position, was to send out General Bruce McMaster to argue that Trump didn’t do what he wasn’t accused of. But then Trump himself seemed to confirm the essence of the story by Tweeting (of course) that he had every right to share information with leaders of foreign governments.
While it may be true that Trump can declassify anything he wants, it is worth noting that, if the reporting is correct, he shared the information with the Russian diplomat, but there is no indication that he actually declassified it. Also worth noting is that while General McMaster tried to defend Trump by saying that Trump didn’t say anything “inappropriate” McMaster also intimated that it is possible that Trump may not have understood the security implications of what he said. That by the way is the Clinton non-defense defense—there was no intent to harm the U.S.
But wait, there’s more. Naturally enough, it has to do with the Comey – Trump grudge match. Apparently James Comey made a practice of taking copious notes of his meetings after which he wrote memos to the file about them when he suspected problems could emerge. (Note here: It would be interesting to see Comey’s contemporaneous notes concerning the Clinton e-mail investigation). Anyway, an anonymous FBI associate of Comey’s reportedly read a Comey memo to the file to a Washington Post reporter. According to the Post, Trump asked Comey to lay off investigating Mike Flynn with respect to Flynn’s Russian ties. The White House denies it.
Now the words Obstruction of Justice and Impeachment are getting tossed around Washington, sometimes with glee, sometimes with fear.
Enter Robert Mueller
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, author of the blistering memo that recommended the dismissal of Director Comey has now appointed former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller as a “special counsel” with a broad mandate to take charge of the whole Russian / collusion investigation. It is important to note that Mueller’s title is special counsel. He has not been appointed as an independent prosecutor primarily because there is no such thing in the American legal / political system. All prosecutorial power lies in the Executive Branch and the President is its most senior officer.
To the extent that Mueller is independent, it is a function of his personal reputation for integrity. He is not structurally or legally independent. He can be fired by the President at-will. But there would be a political price to pay were he to do so, as Nixon found out when he fired Archibald Cox.
The State of Play
What to make of all this? With respect to the various charges and denials vis-à-vis (1) Trump asking Comey to put the Russia / Flynn investigation aside, and (2) revealing highly classified information to a hostile foreign power, somebody is lying, which of course implies that there actually is such a thing as truth.
Consider possibility #1: The press, meaning the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Washington Post and NBC News are making all this stuff up, or have been collectively hoodwinked by anonymous sources. Nobody this side of sanity believes this. Are the leakers cherry-picking materials designed to maximize political damage to the Trump Administration and possibly bring it down? Probably. Are the leaks essentially accurate? Probably yes, the leaks are essentially accurate.
Let’s consider possibility #2, which is a much better bet. The leaks are essentially accurate. Trump gave a Russian diplomat highly classified intelligence information, and in so doing he may have compromised Israeli (and possibly U.S.) sources and methods. Moreover, in the process he jeopardized the lives of agents in the field. Trump may be within his rights to do this, as he argued on Twitter, but that doesn’t make it smart. In fact, it is incredibly reckless. Trump basically guaranteed that no ally will want to share intelligence with the U.S. while Trump sits in the Oval Office.
Moreover it is almost certainly true that Comey kept contemporaneous notes designed to cast himself in the most flattering light. Which also means that there is almost certainly a Comey memo to the file in which he portrays himself as a hero fending off pressure from Trump to drop the Russia / Flynn investigation. Now that Robert Mueller has been appointed special counsel, these (and other) memos and documents will surely be subpoenaed and will make their way into the public record.
Game theorists will quickly recognize the set of developing incentive structures faced by the players. Flynn wants to avoid prosecution. Trump wants to save his Presidency. Flynn’s attorney asked for immunity a while ago to clearly signal that his client had no intention of being a sacrificial lamb for Trump. In response Trump asked Comey to lay off the investigation. This is a coordination maneuver designed to circumvent the problem of the prisoner’s dilemma that Trump and Flynn find themselves in.
The naming of Mueller as special counsel puts an end to coordination maneuvers of this sort. Now it will be every man for himself, and that does not bode well for Trump. (An interesting side note is that the Clintons routinely found themselves in these sorts of predicaments so they typically got all the potential defendants on the same page by using a joint defense so they could coordinate through their lawyers. See for instance, the arrangement with Hillary Clinton and Cheryl Mills in the e-mail mail scandal. Also the Clintons paid the legal fees of the guy who set up the server.)
In the end this is not going to end well for Trump. Flynn is likely to give testimony that is damaging to Trump in order to save his own hide. He may just turn out to be the John Dean of 2017. The fat lady may not be singing yet, but she is clearing her throat.
Conservatives Trade Principle for Power
In what seems like a very long time ago in a far-away land, Conservatives read people like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville and used to argue that character mattered. Along the way, roughly corresponding to the time Trump decided to run for President, they caught the same disease that afflicts Progressives. They know what’s best for you. And so with a deeply flawed candidate they decided that character wasn’t so important after all.
In seeking power at any price “conservatives” threw Conservatism overboard to make a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. And just 4 months in, it is becoming increasingly clear just how steep the price is ultimately going to be. You can bet that the groundwork is already being prepared for the attack on Mueller’s integrity if he doesn’t find an impeachable offense, pretty much the way the Clinton’s attacked Ken Starr. And they are going to begin roughing up Mike Pence to weaken him if he ascends to the Presidency by virtue of a successful impeachment effort.
And Trump supporting conservatives have no one to blame but for all this but themselves.