August opened with another Trump scandal. It’s a scandal a day, and this one was just bizarre:
A private detective who investigated the slaying of a Democratic National Committee staffer alleged in a lawsuit Tuesday that Fox News Channel worked with White House officials to push a discredited theory about the case to undermine allegations of Russian collusion with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The investigator, Rod Wheeler, further claims in the suit that President Trump was aware of the bogus story and urged Fox to publish it on its website.
Wheeler’s defamation lawsuit – which names Fox News, a Fox reporter and a wealthy businessman as defendants – is an outgrowth of the slaying last summer of Seth Rich, a young data specialist at the DNC.
That was an obscure event – an apparent mugging – but it was something to work with:
Rich was killed in his D.C. neighborhood in July 2016 in what police said was a botched robbery attempt. But the timing set off a conspiracy theory among Trump supporters and those on the far right: that Rich’s death was somehow arranged by Democratic officials as payback for his leak of thousands of DNC emails and electronic files to WikiLeaks, which published them.
The emails were an embarrassment to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but Rich’s family and D.C. police have denied that Rich was the source or that his slaying had anything to do with his work at the DNC. Intelligence sources have said that the emails were stolen from the DNC by Russian hackers.
In May, however, a story was published on Foxnews.com asserting that Rich was the source of the email leak. It quoted Wheeler – who has worked as a Fox News contributor – as a primary source for the allegation.
Amid complaints from Rich’s family, Foxnews.com retracted its story a week after publication, saying it had been published prematurely.
Sean Hannity, who now dines frequently with the president at the White House, was livid. He had pushed the story on his Fox News show – it may be that Hillary Clinton had this guy murdered, to cover up the fact that he had leaked those emails, not the Russians. Remember Vince Foster! Julian Assange had also offered a reward to be paid to anyone who could provide evidence that Hillary Clinton had this guy bumped off – WikiLeaks had the cash for that. This was a big deal – and then the “news” side of Fox News told Hannity to cool it. He did, truculently.
That was too little too late:
Wheeler alleges in his suit that a Fox News reporter, Malia Zimmerman, made up two quotes in the story and attributed them to him. His suit claims that Foxnews.com pushed the story in an effort to deflect public attention from the ongoing investigations into the administration’s ties to the Russian government.
Fox News Channel worked with White House officials on this – that’s the charge – and Jonathan Chait finds that charge credible:
This represents a historical milestone of sorts. Trump’s administration has fully erased the boundary between legitimate conservatism and the most disreputable paranoid discourse on the far right.
The allegations, contained in a lawsuit, have not been proven. But the most important fact they allege, that Fox News commentator Ed Butowsky claimed Trump himself reviewed the story in the White House and was eager to see it published, is substantiated by a screenshot of a text from Butowsky. (Butowsky now claims this statement was a joke, which is also the defense the White House offers of Trump’s urging of police to rough up suspects, Trump ordering Comey to back off investigating Michael Flynn, Trump urging Russia to hack his opponent’s emails, as well as the explanation Kevin McCarthy has put forward for his recorded suspicion that Trump was paid by Russia. It is a true age of dry wit in the Republican Party.)
Chait isn’t laughing:
Trump of course built his political brand by stoking a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace. Trump’s birtherism gave him the authentic connection to the conservative base that made his many past ideological heresies forgivable. He has continued to spread wild and baseless rumors: Antonin Scalia may have been murdered, Ted Cruz’s father may have helped assassinate President Kennedy, and millions of illegal votes allowed Hillary Clinton to win the popular vote, Russia did not try to help him win the election.
These bizarre lies are not merely a symptom of Trump’s idiosyncratic verbal diarrhea. They grow out of a long tradition of paranoia that once lurked on the margins of American politics.
Chait discusses that tradition at some length, but it comes down to this:
As the party has moved farther and farther right, it has grown increasingly skeptical of facts and knowledge emanating from Establishment sources (the mainstream media, academia, the Congressional Budget Office, and so on) and increasingly open to kooks. The boundaries have extended farther and farther over the decades, and under Trump they have taken a noticeable leap. Trump brought into his administration Michael Flynn, an enthusiastic purveyor of exotic theories – Al Qaeda has built a secret trail with signs leading its followers to infiltrate the southern border, Hillary Clinton is implicated in sex trafficking, and so on. Trump openly courts crackpots like Alex Jones…
The lawsuit claims that President Trump personally directed Fox News to report false “facts” in its Seth Rich story. The allegations may or may not be borne out. What is telling is that the image the suit summons, of the president of the United States using his office to advance a feverish conspiracy theory, is not remotely unimaginable.
And it’s too stupid for words – all conspiracy theories are – but Donald Trump may be a special case, because Politico finds another cover-up:
President Donald Trump called his son-in-law a “good boy” while thanking Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker for a positive editorial about Jared Kushner and said the leader of the Boy Scouts told him his jamboree speech was “the greatest speech ever made to them.”
The comments, made to The Wall Street Journal and obtained in a transcript by POLITICO, show Trump holding forth at length with Baker and engaging in a familiar back and forth. Baker, according to the transcript, asked many of the questions and took the lead byline on the main piece about the interview as well, an unusual step for the editor in chief of a paper with a large White House reporting staff.
The Journal has not published a full transcript of the interview. The newspaper posted certain excerpts of the transcript online, but the full version has circulated around the Journal newsroom as well as among others in New York and Washington.
Matt Murray, the Journal’s deputy editor-in-chief, warned staffers in a conference call in recent days about leaking the transcript, saying it would be a breach of trust, according to several sources familiar with the call.
“Damn right I told them that. It’s true,” Murray said on Tuesday via a Journal spokesperson.
Maybe that was the right call:
A Wall Street Journal spokesperson said the newspaper is “proud of the on-the-record interview we conducted with President Trump, which produced multiple, newsworthy articles.”
“We published the noteworthy excerpts from the interview. We saw no reason to publish the crosstalk that inevitably accompanies any conversation,” the spokesperson said.
That makes sense, but Politico published the full transcript and there was more than crosstalk, and Adam Raymond has the highlights:
On Jared Kushner: “He’s a good – he’s a good boy.”
On calling the U.K. Britain: “I mean, you don’t hear the word Britain anymore. It’s very interesting. It’s like, nope.”
On the future of the British Open if Scotland leaves the U.K.: “One little thing, what would they do with the British Open if they ever got out? They’d no longer have the British Open.”
On whether his speech to the Boy Scouts received mixed reviews: “I’d be the first to admit mixed. I’m a guy that will tell you mixed. There was no mix there. That was a standing ovation from the time I walked out to the time I left, and for five minutes after I had already gone. There was no mix.”
On the reaction to the speech from the head of the Boy Scouts, who later apologized for Trump’s political attacks: “And I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them, and they were very thankful. So there was – there was no mix.”
On Anthony Scaramucci: “But I’m very happy with Anthony. I think Anthony is going to do amazing.”
On the Miss Universe pageant, held in Russia four years ago: “I mean, I had Ms. Universe there, like, nine years ago, eight years ago, something like that. But I have nothing to do with Russia.”
On conversations with foreign leaders about their domestic economies: “So I deal with foreign countries, and despite what you may read I have unbelievable relationships with all of the foreign leaders. They like me. I like them. You know, it’s amazing. So I’ll call, like, major – major countries, and I’ll be dealing with the prime minister or the president. And I’ll say how are you doing? Oh, don’t know, don’t know, not well, Mr. President, not well. I said, well, what’s the problem? Oh, GDP 9 percent, not well. And I’m saying to myself, here we are at like 1 percent, dying, and they’re at 9 percent and they’re unhappy.”
On his astonishment upon learning about the large populations of other countries: “And then you call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have.”
Who knew? But Jordan Weissmann notes that those last two items are related:
At some point, it appears Donald Trump heard somebody say that the United States cannot grow as fast as China or Malaysia because we have a “large” economy. No doubt, what they meant is that the U.S. is a highly developed, rich nation and therefore can’t expand as quickly as developing countries that can still reap large gains from taking basic steps to improve their living standards. But Trump did not understand it that way. He apparently thought that when whoever he was listening to said “large,” they were talking about population. Therefore, in his mind, if China grows at nearly 7 percent per year with its 1.4 billion people, the U.S. should be able to do it too.
This is the man who millions of voters are relying on to bring back jobs.
Keven Drum sums it up this way – “It’s like watching a middle-schooler trying to bluff his way through a book report on a book he hasn’t read.”
Most of it was too stupid for words, and maybe that’s a family thing. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, spoke with a group of congressional interns and warned them not to leak anything he said. One of them promptly leaked an audio recording of the session, and Wired has it, and as Jared Kushner is the de facto secretary of state, charged with bringing peace to the Middle East, this is curious:
While the recording doesn’t catch the entirety of the question, it appears to have centered on how Kushner plans to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as why he believes he’ll be successful where every other administration has failed. He doesn’t directly answer either question, but he does reveal that, from his extensive research, he’s learned that “not a whole lot has been accomplished over the last 40 or 50 years.” He also notes that he’s spoken to “a lot of people,” which has taught him that “this is a very emotionally charged situation.”
Later in the clip, Kushner expresses frustration at others’ attempts to teach him about the delicate situation he’s been inserted into, saying, “Everyone finds an issue, that, ‘You have to understand what they did then’ and ‘You have to understand that they did this.’ But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on how you come up with a conclusion to the situation.”
Finally, Kushner closed with the following statement of reassurance: “So, what do we offer that’s unique? I don’t know.”
He doesn’t know? Do these folks know anything? Well, one of them knows this:
President Donald Trump explained his frequent weekend visits to his own properties by disparaging the White House in no uncertain terms, according to a report published Tuesday by Sports Illustrated.
Sports Illustrated reported that Trump recently explained his frequent weekend visits to his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, by telling members, “That White House is a real dump.”
In contrast, Trump is in the habit of lavishing effusive praise on his own properties, Sports Illustrated reported, citing numerous people who have played golf with Trump: “Is this not the most beautiful asphalt you’ve ever seen in your life?”
What? It’s time to back away, slowly. In fact, that seems to be happening in Washington:
The relationship between President Trump and Senate Republicans has deteriorated so sharply in recent days that some are openly defying his directives, bringing long-simmering tensions to a boil as the GOP labors to reorient its stalled legislative agenda.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced Tuesday that he would work with his Democratic colleagues to “stabilize and strengthen” the individual insurance market under the Affordable Care Act, which the president has badgered the Senate to keep trying to repeal. Alexander also urged the White House to keep up payments to insurers that help low-income consumers afford plans, which Trump has threatened to cut off.
There’s a lot of that going around:
Several Republican senators have sought to distance themselves from the president, who has belittled them as looking like “fools” and tried to strong-arm their agenda and browbeat them into changing a venerated rule to make it easier to ram through legislation along party lines.
Some are describing the dynamic in cold, transactional terms, speaking of Trump as more of a supporting actor than the marquee leader of the Republican Party. If he can help advance their plans, then great, they say. If not, so be it.
“We work for the American people. We don’t work for the president,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said. He added, “We should do what’s good for the administration as long as that does not in any way, shape or form make it harder on the American people.”
They just don’t need him:
As public opinion polls show a decline in Trump’s approval rating, some Republican senators have sought to address difficult questions about what the president’s diminishing popularity means for his mandate by insisting that congressional Republicans, not Trump, are the ones driving the GOP agenda.
“Ever since we’ve been here, we’ve really been following our lead,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). After ticking through major Republican initiatives so far, he added, “Almost every bit of this has been 100 percent internal to Congress.”
In fact, they find him too stupid for words:
Trump had spent the preceding few days in an antagonistic posture.
He used his favorite social media platform to push Senate Republicans to end the 60-vote threshold for most legislation, writing: “Republicans in the Senate will NEVER win if they don’t go to a 51 vote majority NOW. They look like fools and are just wasting time.” He also demanded they vote again on health care, despite an inability to round up enough votes for a far narrower bill than they had long promised.
By Tuesday, it was wearing thin on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said that if the rules were changed as Trump wants, “it would be the end of the Republican Party. And it would be the end of the Senate.” Trump’s repeated insistence “doesn’t help,” Hatch said. “But he just doesn’t understand that.”
They’re ready to move on, but maybe he is too. There’s Reihan Salam – the executive editor of National Review – the original voice of conservatism – who has argued that the Republican Party has lost touch with its own base and that the Bush-era, big-government policies were “an evolutionary dead end” – who now sees this:
When an ally of recently deposed White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told CNBC’s John Harwood that Trump was moving toward a more independent White House, it had the ring of truth. Why else would the president have dumped Priebus so unceremoniously? It can’t have been merely to please Anthony Scaramucci, because the president soon rid himself of his newly minted communications guru. While the most parsimonious explanation is that Trump is a hothead who fired Priebus on a whim, his decision to install John Kelly as Priebus’ successor suggests something slightly more premeditated. Tasked with defending some of Trump’s most controversial policies as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly did the job remarkably well. By installing a well-regarded retired Marine general as his new COO, the president is giving himself an opportunity for a reset: Priebus the party hack is out; Kelly the disciplined public servant is in.
At this point there are no Republican operatives left in the White House – just Donald Trump as a party of one, or the head of a party of generals and hedge fund managers and Goldman Sachs executives, and Steve Bannon and his daughter and son-in-law.
Salam thinks that may be the plan:
Post-Priebus, it’s not hard to imagine Trump distancing himself from a party and a movement he’s never held in especially high regard. Rather than offer passive-aggressive criticism of Republican policies, such as when he called a GOP health care proposal “mean” while nevertheless giving it half-hearted support, he could offer more forthright, and hopefully more coherent, criticism. Tussling with Republican regulars wouldn’t help Trump woo Democrats in Congress, who will remain implacably opposed to him regardless of how he tries to pivot. What it might do, however, is reassure the Obama-Trump voters who were so essential to his victory that he has not put down roots in the D.C. swamp – a real danger, as demonstrated by the softening of support for Trump in much of the Rust Belt.
That might work:
As for the substance of Trump’s post-Republican agenda, think of it as Trumpism 2.0. Trumpism’s core tenets, including immigration restriction, would remain. Where he might change course is on economic policy, tweaking some of his old chestnuts to make them a bit more intellectually credible and more convincing to wary moderates and independents.
That may be happening:
Last week, Ryan Grim of the Intercept reported that Steve Bannon has been banging the drum in favor of imposing a new 44 percent marginal tax rate on all income greater than $5 million. House Speaker Paul Ryan would never tolerate such a high rate, which he’d no doubt see as an unsavory manifestation of class warfare. I’m not convinced of the wisdom of a new millionaire’s bracket myself. Nevertheless, if Trump were to call for a higher top tax rate, he’d strengthen his populist bona fides and the notion that he is something other than a standard-issue Republican.
If there’s one consistent theme in Trump’s politics, it’s his gut-level commitment to economic nationalism, which, while anathema to the GOP wonk class, has proven at least somewhat appealing to the Republican rank and file. Whereas the president’s erstwhile GOP allies might not want him bashing “Benedict Arnold CEOs” who offshore production, as John Kerry did as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, a Trump liberated from the GOP might go all in on anti-trade demagoguery.
Still, Trump is not that smart, but he should be:
I’m under no illusion that Trump will adopt anything like this agenda. But regardless of how exactly he does it, going a more independent route has the advantage of allowing Trump to be Trump. No longer would he be judged by the standard of whether he’s advancing the interests of a party to which he nominally belongs. He’d instead find himself in his comfort zone, firing thunderbolts at swamp-dwelling apparatchiks (or, if you prefer, responsible stewards of constitutional government) in both parties. This way, if he doesn’t get anything done, which seems inevitable, he can blame anyone and everyone aside from himself.
That’s a win-win situation for Donald Trump, but of course to get to that sweet-spot he would have to think this through, and then plan his moves, and then execute this plan to become America’s first independent president.
That’s not him. He doesn’t think things through – he’s impulsive and proud that he is. That’s authenticity. That’s how he won the presidency. And as for planning and execution, well, Obamacare is still around, and there’s been nothing else he’s pulled off. And everyone he needs, to get anything done, seems to be backing away, slowly. They seem to find him too stupid for words.
“Is this not the most beautiful asphalt you’ve ever seen in your life?”
That could sum up his presidency.