Warren G. Harding is widely regarded as the worst President ever to occupy the office.
Many say he won the election because he “looked like a President”. This was the tail end of an era where those who LOOKED like gentlemen were assumed to possess all of qualities and capabilities associated with gentlemen. While Harding was popular during his term, the scandals which emerged after he left office relegated him to his status as a failed president.
We are now in an era of billionaires. Those who appear to possess great wealth are assumed to possess special qualities and talents that set them apart. Trump’s election is an example of the trust that some voters have in a wealthy person. They elected a man whose only qualification to occupy the most powerful political office in the country is that he appears to be wealthy.
I think it is fair to say that in the first month and half, the Trump administration is struggling to find its way. Even though it is early, there are seeds of scandal that are already blooming.
The White House has been working furiously to discredit a story that the NYT broke regarding contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In a now famous interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press, Reince Priebus disputed the story alternately calling it “grossly overstated”, “inaccurate”, “totally wrong”, “total baloney”, and “garbage”. He claimed that people in both the intelligence community and the congress confirmed this description. The next leak was that Priebus asked the FBI to go on the record with what they had told him. The FBI refused because the request would politicize the FBI even more than it is now. Then Priebus assembled a group of intelligence community members and Republican members of Congress to rebut the story, but only anonymously. This is particular ironic since Priebus (and later Trump) used anonymity of the NYT sources to question the accuracy of the whole article.
It is this sort of fake news stuff that is enormously important that, when you get a front page story of The New York Times without a single source on the record saying that your campaign had constant contacts– they didn’t say one contact. They didn’t say two contacts. It doesn’t matter. We have not been informed of even that. But to say, “Constant contact?”
In this process, however, the two points that the White House objected to in the story became clear.
- The story said “repeated contacts”. The White House has built a straw man by claiming that the story said “constant contacts”.
- The story said the contacts were with senior Russian Intelligence officials. We now know that the White House is trying to claim that the Russian conversations that DID occur were not with senior Russian Intelligence officials.
“NBC News was told by law enforcement and intelligence sources that the NYT story WAS wrong — in its use of the term ‘Russian intelligence officials.’ Our sources say there were contacts with Russians, but that the US hasn’t confirmed they work for spy agencies. We were also told CNN’s description of Trump aides being in ‘constant touch’ with Russians was overstated. However, our sources did tell us that intelligence intercepts picked up contacts among Trump aides and Russians during the campaign.”
We find out today that new AG Jeff Sessions was one of the people who DID have at least two conversations with a Russian official during the campaign and neglected to share that information during his confirmation hearing.
Testifying under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was asked in January by Al Franken what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. “I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
There’s more: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) sent Sessions an additional written question: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” The AG’s one-word answer could not have been more categorical: “No.”
Sessions response was that his conversations with the Russian ambassador did not involve the campaign, so he felt he answered the questions accurately. He has also agreed to recuse himself from future congressional investigations.
Here’s the scope of this potential scandal.
There WERE conversations between the Trump campaign and Russians during the election. Those conversations included Jeff Sessions, though he claims that their conversations didn’t touch on the campaign. Sessions clearly had an opportunity to disclose his conversations during his confirmation hearings and chose not to.
The White House is disputing that these conversations (Sessions and others) were “constant”, that they were with Russians who worked for Russia’s various intelligence agencies, and that they were about the 2016 election. Of course this begs the question of why the FBI or other intelligence agencies were listening to the phone conversations of “regular” Russians, but the larger issue is the nature of the White House’s attempt to bury this story.
The risk to the Trump administration is that their efforts to bury the story will ultimately be more damaging than the story itself. Flynn was the first victim. Fired for lying supposedly lying to the President. The second victim could be Sessions. He could be on the hook for perjury. The cover-up is always more dangerous than the story itself, but in this case the story about a foreign power intervening in a US election is unprecedented.
The father of the Navy Seal that died in last month’s operation refused to meet with the President. He is blaming his son’s death on a poorly planned and poorly executed operation. He has demanded an investigation.
“Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why?” said Mr. Owens, who told The Herald that he had not voted for Mr. Trump. “For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now all of a sudden we had to make this grand display“ “Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation.”
“The government owes my son an investigation,” the father, William Owens, told The Miami Herald.
One of Trump’s campaign positions was that Clinton failed in her responsibilities to protect the lives of Americans in the Benghazi attack. Trump criticized the Clinton investigations. He claimed she was guilty even though the investigations produced no evidence to support that claim. The Trump campaign produced an ad quoting some of the family members of those who were killed in the attack. Several of them spoke at the Republican National Convention. One was in the audience at the third debate.
Ryan Owens’ wife was at Trump’s first speech to Congress. Trump recognized her for her sacrifice. But he has also failed to take any responsibility for the failed mission. He has instead blamed both the military and the Obama administration.
Here’s the scope of this potential scandal.
Will there be as thorough an investigation into this failed raid as Trump called for in Benghazi?
Will Ryan Owens’ father be as celebrated in his grief as Ryan Owens’ widow?
Will the White House drop their claim that the raid yielded valuable intelligence – a claim that has since been disputed by intelligence officials?
The risk to the Trump administration will be similar to Russia. If they oppose or interfere with an independent investigation, they will be putting the administration in jeopardy. If the investigations reveal that decisions on either the raid or the speech were mainly political, they will lose the trust of voters.
As these and other scandals continue to pop up and unfold, the façade of media bias as the root cause for Trump’s troubles will fall away. What will be left are the tawdry facts that the Trump campaign DID have conversations with the Russians about the election. And the Trump administration DID approve a poorly planned, poorly executed mission that discovered no new information because there was political benefit to what appeared at the time to be an easy win.
The legacy of this administration will be similar to the business legacy of the President. The claims of expertise and unique skill will all fail to produce any substance. The bodies will stack up. The collateral damage will mount. The domestic and foreign mistakes will increase dissension and weaken our country. At some point, enough people will realize that the only thing that Trump brought to this office was wealthy arrogance. Once they realize that being President requires larger skill set, they will kick him out of office. When they finally tire of his attempts to blame his failures on others, they will finally blame him for misleading them. The fact, however, is that it was voters who misled themselves. They assumed that wealth somehow qualified a person to be President. Like Harding, voters will realize that wealth, just like looks, has little or nothing to do with competence or trustworthiness.