In politics, as in life, success depends on a fairly simple concept – when opportunity knocks, open the damned door. There are other ways to put this – seize control of the narrative – don’t let a good disaster go to waste. Any big event can make you a hero, if you apply the proper outrage. That worked for George W. Bush after an awful September morning almost fifteen years ago. He got his war with Iraq. He could have invaded and occupied Portugal if he wanted. Everyone was with him. Everyone was outraged. All he had to do is repeatedly remind them that they were. The details could be worked out later. The proper outrage was all.
That may seem a bit crass if not Machiavellian – no one wanted a massive terror attack and three thousand dead, and the war in Iraq and everything else we did in in the Middle East was a disaster – but the principle still holds. Politicians are always on the lookout for the right outrageous event, to whip up outrage – quite proper outrage – to keep their side in power, or to regain power if they don’t have it at the moment. No one has to die of course, but something has to be outrageous. Point at it. You’ll be the hero.
This doesn’t happen often, but the Republicans were just handed this:
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Wednesday said the Justice Department has decided not to pursue charges against Hillary Clinton or her aides and will close the investigation into her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.
The announcement comes a day after FBI Director James Comey held a press conference in which he said “no reasonable prosecutor” would pursue a case against Clinton, even though she and her staff were “extremely careless” in their handling of classified material…
Lynch had previously said that she would accept the FBI’s recommendation, a declaration that came after Lynch came under fire for an impromptu meeting she had with former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac late last month.
She said she’d do that. She did that. Case closed – and there was a quick attempt at proper outrage:
Donald Trump seized on that meeting and a later New York Times article that said Clinton would consider keeping Lynch in her current role as evidence the system was “rigged” in Clinton’s favor and that Lynch had been bribed.
Some believed the first – maybe the system is rigged (a popular meme these days) – but no one believed the second, that Lynch had been bribed. That was just Trump being Trump. Unemployment is really forty-two percent? There is no drought in California? Tens of thousands of American Muslims danced for joy in the streets of New Jersey on that awful September morning almost fifteen years ago? Whatever, dude – the man says lots of things. He’s good at outrage. He’s lousy at proper outrage.
It didn’t matter much. The big Trump story of the day, as Jonathan Chait notes, is that two more folks walked away from him:
Donald Trump spent yesterday campaigning with Senator Bob Corker, whom the Republican nominee called “a great friend of mine, somebody respected by everybody.” This was the sort of affirmation Trump is counting on to consolidate Republican support and tamp down potential unpleasantness in Cleveland. Unfortunately for him, Corker proceeded to announce that he is withdrawing from consideration to be Trump’s vice-presidential nominee. Worse, from Trump’s point of view, he did so in an interview with the Washington Post, a newspaper banished by Trump’s campaign. And then, even worse still, Trump’s campaign bizarrely refused to accept that Corker was breaking up with Trump. Katrina Pierson tells CNN, “Historically a lot of the candidates say they’re not interested or they don’t want to be considered. At the end of the day, once they’re asked, they usually accept.”
Corker isn’t accepting, and Chait adds this:
The Trump campaign has operated on a circular form of reasoning about its vice-presidential selection. Its premise is that anybody would be gratified to run on a ticket with Trump. It follows that, if any rumored candidates say they would not run with Trump, this only proves they have not been considered. Yet reality is not following this script. Today’s withdrawal from consideration by Joni Ernst, the right-wing Iowa senator, contributes to the dilemma.
Trump’s intent to use of the period leading up to his convention as a reality-television-style audition where he appears with a series of potential running mates and selects the most desirable is giving way to a reality in which the field is considering, and then rejecting, Trump, until he is left with no other decent options. This is a version of the Trump show in which a series of guests appear across the table from Trump to tell him they quit.
That’s fascinating, but what about the outrage of the day, Hillary Clinton walking free? That went missing, and Jonathan Martin reports on the Republicans’ despair:
As the Republican strategist Brian Walsh watched the nonstop cable news coverage Tuesday from his K Street office, he thought he was seeing the stuff of his party’s dreams.
A week after former President Bill Clinton lit a political firestorm by strolling onto Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch’s plane for a private conversation, the director of the FBI announced that the bureau would not recommend criminal charges over Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information. And then, just three hours later, President Obama and Mrs. Clinton emerged arm in arm from Air Force One in North Carolina for their first joint campaign rally.
But this politically pregnant convergence of events was not met with a battalion of well-credentialed Republican law enforcement and national security officials flooding the television airwaves to raise questions about the inquiry and hammer Mrs. Clinton. Nor was there any made-for-social-media video contrasting what the FBI director, James B. Comey, called Mrs. Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of 110 classified emails with the former secretary of state’s shifting explanations over the last year about her use of a private email server.
There were not even any talking points sent to leading Republican members of Congress offering guidance on the best lines of attack against Mrs. Clinton in the aftermath of what was a remarkably harsh assessment of her conduct.
“Instead we’re relying on somebody who’s tweeting with exclamation points,” said Mr. Walsh, referring to Donald J. Trump’s initial response to Mr. Comey’s news conference.
Yeah, he tweeted – there’s no money or staff for that other stuff, which he scorns anyway, and tweets are essentially free – and high-profile Republicans with foreign policy experience, or any kind of experience, are walking away from him. What else was he going to do?
These others only saw another lost opportunity:
For many in the party it also was a painful reminder of what could have been – how a different standard-bearer could have capitalized on one of the most difficult days Mrs. Clinton has faced as a candidate. For the Republican establishment, the months since Mr. Trump began closing in on the presidential nomination have been a season of dismay and frustration: Handed a historically weak Democratic opponent to run against, the party’s voters responded by nominating a candidate even more unpopular and toxic than Mrs. Clinton.
And this was the perfect moment to nail her:
“Imagine Jeb Bush looking disappointed and talking about the importance of following the rules and a society ruled by law with a government that is held accountable,” said Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a national security aide in George W. Bush’s administration who is now backing Mrs. Clinton. “This should be a really great moment for a Republican nominee. But there’s no way in the world Donald Trump could pull that off.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign did, in fact, issue a longer statement regarding Mrs. Clinton’s email use beyond his initial assessment of “very very unfair!” and he used his own rally Tuesday night in North Carolina to assail his Democratic rival. “We are talking about the safety of our people,” he told a crowd in Raleigh. “The laws are very explicit. Stupidity is not a reason that you’re going to be innocent.”
Yet for many in his own party, there was deep angst over the possibility that they could lose to a Democratic candidate who was just deemed by one of the country’s most highly respected law enforcement officials to have presided over a State Department whose lackadaisical security culture invited foreign hackers.
“He’s making somebody who should be sitting in a jail cell look like the sane choice for president,” said John Noonan, a former Air Force officer who served as a national security aide to Mitt Romney in 2012 and in Mr. Bush’s campaign this year.
Perhaps so, but that’s what he does:
The Islamic State-inspired rampage in Orlando, Fla., and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, offered him prime political moments, but he unnecessarily inserted himself into each story and saw no improvement in his standing in the polls.
“Trump overtakes news cycles at every turn,” complained Mr. Walsh. “My God, he was on his golf course saying what a good thing the pound’s collapse would be for his bottom line.” (Some Republicans feared Mr. Trump was again frittering away an opportunity when, rather than focusing entirely on the FBI probe, he used his speech on Tuesday night to offer praise for Saddam Hussein.)
However, in a campaign year animated by a voter revolt against Washington and the perceived self-dealing of an all-too-cozy political class there may be no more of a gift than what Mr. Comey delivered to an outsider candidate like Mr. Trump, whose jeremiads against what he calls a “rigged” system have been central to his improbable rise.
“This is an example of what voters are totally fed up with,” said Liesl Hickey, the former executive director of the House Republican campaign arm, alluding to the FBI’s decision to not recommend charges.
But Ms. Hickey, pointing out that Mr. Trump refuses to release his income tax returns, noted that the candidate also bore his own baggage on the very argument he is making against Mrs. Clinton. “Americans also think the system is rigged for the top 1 percent, so they think the system could be rigged for him, too,” she said.
The guy just doesn’t get it:
“He doesn’t think traditional campaigns matter as much anymore, that he can do this on social media,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist. “But the truth is, running a campaign still matters a great deal. And if we had nominated anyone else we’d be up on Hillary. But we’re down because we’ve got an incompetent candidate who has alienated large swaths of the electorate.”
For his part, Mr. Walsh was just flabbergasted that his party had a nominee whose war room often seems to begin and end with the candidate’s Twitter feed.
“Why would he rush out a tweet as his primary response?” wondered Mr. Walsh. “He’s just demonstrating he is unable or unwilling to appear presidential at moments like this, when it’s required.”
It seems that tweets aren’t a place for proper outrage, or the conduct of foreign affairs, or the development and administration of public policy. Who knew? Trump didn’t. Attorney General Lynch accepted a bribe!
Well, they’re stuck with him, but Greg Sargent won’t let them off the hook so easily:
Trump is already overreaching. But some Very Serious Republicans may be doing the same. Now Paul Ryan’s House Republicans will hold hearings into Comey’s recommendation, and he is calling on the FBI to release all of the information that went into that decision, because it “underscores the belief that the Clintons live above the law.” Interestingly, Ryan appears somewhat uncomfortable with the implications of his criticism. In his statement, Ryan carefully highlighted his “respect for the law enforcement professionals at the FBI,” but no matter: He essentially suggested that the bureau had placed Clinton “above the law.” Many other Republicans, including others of the Very Serious variety, are making similar suggestions while calling for a special prosecutor.
They’re actually much like Trump:
To be clear, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with pressing Comey for more detail justifying his decision. It’s true that Comey’s statement contained a wealth of new details that undercut some of Clinton’s previous claims and, in his words, showed an “extremely careless” treatment of classified information. We need to know more about how and why all this nonetheless led to his conclusion that no illegal “grossly negligent” conduct occurred.
But the looming question here is one of degree, and Ryan, too, should be pressed to justify his suggestion that the FBI placed Clinton above the law. As we’ve already seen with Benghazi, Republicans don’t ever stop, no matter how many investigations fail to turn up that single devastating piece of evidence of Clinton perfidy and lawbreaking they are looking for. The same may prove true in the case of the emails. As Bloomberg Politics puts it, Ryan is basically helping Trump “whip up conspiracy theories over the FBI process” in a manner designed mainly to “rally the base,” but which “may do little to convince general election voters” that the fix was in.
Sargent is suggesting that they too are good at outrage, and lousy at proper outrage:
I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Clinton, whose trust numbers are dismal, could sustain further damage. But GOP overreach now looks like a very real possibility. If so, the problem here isn’t necessarily just Trump. It’s the broader GOP willingness to play these games to “rally the base.” And it’s possible this will be priced into the broader public reaction to GOP criticism of Clinton over the emails, perhaps helping mitigate what could otherwise be more damaging.
Kevin Drum puts that this way:
Consider two “scandals.” The first is Benghazi. Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong. It was, essentially, a complete nothingburger. The second was Emailgate. In that one, Hillary unquestionably did things that were foolish at best and possibly criminal at worst. It was a genuine story.
But Republicans treated them both exactly the same. It didn’t matter whether Hillary actually did something wrong or not. They went after her with their usual Whitewater/Travelgate/Vince Foster level of fury, convinced that if only they yelled loudly enough the country would finally see her unmasked as the villain she really is. And they’re still doing it. James Comey has spoken, and no one reasonable thinks he’s on the take for the Clintons. But conservatives are almost unanimous in their shrieking that she is too guilty and ought to be put behind bars. Paul Ryan is now promising a probe of the probe, and idiotically calling for the director of national intelligence to “block” Hillary’s access to classified information while she’s running for president. The only surprise here is that he isn’t demanding that Hillary’s access to classified information be blocked even if she wins.
In short, these guys have no sense of proper outrage:
After eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency and now four years of Hillary Clinton’s post-cabinet career, Republicans have been crying wolf about Hillary for more than a decade. It’s pretty obvious that they’re going to continue, and that they really don’t care whether she’s actually done anything wrong. I have a feeling the public may finally be getting tired of their games.
Trump could fix this, and then he turned up in Cincinnati:
Donald J. Trump on Wednesday offered a defiant defense of his campaign’s decision to publish an image widely viewed as anti-Semitic – saying he regretted deleting it – and vigorously reaffirmed his praise of Saddam Hussein, the murderous Iraqi dictator.
In the span of 30 minutes, an often-shouting Mr. Trump breathed new life into a controversy that was sparked on Saturday by his posting of an image on his Twitter account of a six-pointed star next to a picture of Hillary Clinton, with money seeming to rain down in the background. The image was quickly, and broadly, criticized for invoking stereotypes of Jews. Mr. Trump deleted it two hours later, and replaced the star image with a circle.
“‘You shouldn’t have taken it down,'” Mr. Trump recalled telling one of his campaign workers. “I said ‘Too bad, you should have left it up.’ I would have rather defended it.”
“That’s just a star,” Mr. Trump said repeatedly.
What about the outrage of the day, Hillary Clinton walking free, after the head of the damned FBI raked her over the coals for being “extremely careless” and all the rest? What about no one wanting to be his running mate? Forget it:
The rally in Cincinnati had been promoted by Mr. Trump’s team for two days as a chance for him to give a tryout to a potential running mate, former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Periodically, beginning midway through Mr. Trump’s speech, the crowd chanted Mr. Gingrich’s name, but Mr. Trump did not heed its wishes.
He decided, instead, to revive a news story that was over. He couldn’t help himself:
Mr. Trump had not discussed the Twitter message at length until Wednesday night, at his rally in Cincinnati, and his remarks seemed to clash with those of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, who earlier in the day had defended Mr. Trump in an unusual and candid op-ed article, suggesting that the Twitter post was “careless.”
The attention paid to the controversy had begun to die down by the time Mr. Trump took the stage, and he began to read from notes about the criticism leveled against Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday by the FBI director, James B. Comey.
But within 20 minutes, Mr. Trump tossed his notes aside and moved on to topics closer to home – the criticism he had received for his praise of Saddam Hussein at a rally Tuesday night in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Trump reiterated his belief that Hussein was “bad,” but effective at killing terrorists, despite Hussein’s classification by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism.
But the bulk of Mr. Trump’s energy was spent on the Twitter post.
“They’re racially profiling, they’re profiling, not us,” he said of the news media.
And then he kind of lost it:
Mr. Trump called the news media “dishonest” in the rambling and sometimes manic-sounding address, in which he hopscotched from one topic to another.
He angrily lamented his treatment at the hands of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which he called a “crooked, crooked, disgusting group.” Raising his voice to a hoarse shout, he complained that the Clinton campaign had released an ad showing Mr. Trump playing golf, though he said he did not play golf on his recent trip to Scotland.
“The picture was from two years before,” Mr. Trump said. “At a different course!”
He also noted, in a calmer tone, that the clip used by the Clinton campaign made him look thin. “The swing,” he added, “actually looked good.”
What? The head of the FBI has just ripped his opponent to shreds, in public, on national television. It was the perfect moment for some righteous proper outrage. Opportunity knocked.
That bored him. He tossed the notes about that aside. He was outraged about other things. Certain people had been unfair to him, personally. He thought we should all share his outrage, and also note that he does have a fine golf swing. The Republican Party wept.
And meanwhile, up north, his opponent was showing how proper outrage is done. Matt Yglesias explains here:
Speaking today in Atlantic City, Hillary Clinton lit into Donald Trump’s record of managing casinos in the New Jersey resort town and gambling mecca, and argued that his business career shows he’s unfit to serve as president.
“As the people of Atlantic City know better than anyone,” she said, “Donald Trump cannot get the job done for American workers.”
Yglesias was impressed with her focus:
Trump is essentially unique among modern presidential candidates in having no experience in elected office or high-level government service. Consequently, much of his campaign necessarily focuses on the idea that the skills he has deployed as a businessman are both admirable and transferable to service in the Oval Office.
But Clinton is arguing that his actual business record proves the opposite – that he’s only skilled at enriching himself at the expense of others and has demonstrated no competence in actually building and managing sustainable operating companies.
“What he did for his businesses and his workers,” said Clinton “is nothing to brag about. In fact, it’s shameful. And every single voter in America needs to hear about it.”
And there’s not much Trump can do about that:
Trump has a standard line of defense on this point.
“I made a lot of money in Atlantic City,” he said in a Republican debate late last year. “And I’m very proud of it.”
He further notes that he personally got out of the Atlantic City casino business before it collapsed entirely, and that the collapse of Atlantic City casinos has much more to do with the spread of legal gambling to other East Coast locations than with anything particular to the Atlantic City properties.
This all appears to be true. But the upshot of extensive reporting from Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli of the New York Times is that Trump made money despite the fact that his “casino business was a protracted failure” in which he “put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments.”
As Clinton put it, “He intentionally ran up huge amounts of debt on his companies – hundreds of millions of dollars – he borrowed at high interest rates, he defaulted on those loans, didn’t pay them back, and in the end he declared bankruptcy four times.”
Trump, Clinton argues “always got paid no matter how his companies performed” and proved himself to be someone with a fundamentally exploitative approach to business dealings. Contractors didn’t get paid, “and many of them went bust, but Trump walked away with millions.”
This was putting the “proper” back in proper outrage:
Whatever else you may throw at her, Clinton can always fall back on a long list of initiatives promoted or enacted by herself, her husband, and Barack Obama, that were aimed squarely at helping people afford health care, higher education, child care, etc.
Trump has nothing but his businesses, and his approach to business is fundamentally zero-sum, emphasizing “winning” deals and mining the value of his brand name rather than inventing new products or creating sustainable ongoing enterprises.
With Trump, says Clinton, “it’s not about what he can build – it’s about what he can take.” She says “he didn’t just take advantage of investors; he took advantage of working people as well.”
It’s a charge that’s particularly powerful because while Clinton can always try to pivot away from aspects of her record that she’s less proud of in favor of discussing more popular aspects of her legacy, Trump really doesn’t have much beyond his businesses. Either he can make the case that his record of taking money out of Atlantic City and running a fake university is admirable, or he has nothing at all.
To be clear, her Atlantic City speech was brutal and full of outrage:
In this fading hub of spinning fortunes and Northeastern excess, Hillary Clinton found little occasion for subtlety.
Behind her was the barely visible outline of a Trump Plaza casino sign. Above her, dozens of once-gleaming light bulbs, now dark.
And looking back at her on Wednesday, in the company of sea gulls and a handful of protesters baking in the midday heat, hundreds of locals familiar with the handiwork of Donald J. Trump filled a patch of this historic boardwalk that has, in recent years, had too few customers.
“People get hurt,” Mrs. Clinton said, speaking briefly in bumper sticker, “and Donald gets paid.”
Mrs. Clinton had come to perhaps the foremost site of Mr. Trump’s checkered business history to make the case that his appeals to working people belie his history of hurting them.
She spoke of unpaid contractors and despondent lenders.
She said the voters he was courting “are the same people he’s been exploiting for years.”
She checked off the casinos that had come and faltered, one after another, noting that Mr. Trump’s businesses stumbled long before the rest of the city followed in its latest series of setbacks.
“Just down the boardwalk is the Trump Taj Mahal,” she said. “Donald once called it the eighth wonder of the world.”
Opportunity knocked. She opened the door. She suggested the proper outrage. It was devastating, and a few hours later, in Cincinnati, Trump tossed aside his page of notes citing all the devastating things that the head of the FBI had said about her and, instead, asked America to be outraged that the media was picking on him about that Star of David tweet, which everyone had already pretty much forgotten. Opportunity knocked. It bored him. He decided that the proper outrage had to do will his hurt feelings – and the election may have been decided.