Proving a negative is difficult. Demanding that one proves the non-existence of something is absurd. “I know Elvis’ ghost is visiting me in my dreams.” Ah, well, that may not be Elvis’ ghost. “Prove that it’s not!”
How does one prove that? It’s best to walk away from such arguments. Argue about what is so – what is – not about what is not so – what isn’t – but it’s not that easy. It was November 17, 1973, in the middle of that Watergate mess, when Richard Nixon said this:
I want to say this to the television audience. I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service. I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
He resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974 – because he had obstructed justice. And no one had called him a crook anyway. And of course he couldn’t prove a negative, that something was just not so. There was positive proof of what he had done. There was what was, and now it’s Donald Trump’s turn.
This was the week where Trump seemed to making three assertions:
“People have got to know whether or not their President is a moron, and I am not moron. Forget what Rex Tillerson said. Forget what’s in that Michael Wolff book. I’m not a moron.”
“People have got to know whether or not their President is a racist, and I am not a racist. Forget that I asked why we have to accept immigrants from all those “shithole countries” full of black and brown people instead of immigrants from Norway. I’m not a racist.”
“People have got to know whether or not their President is a dirty old man into group sex with porn stars, and I am not a dirty old man. Forget what the Wall Street Journal published on Friday afternoon. I’m not a dirty old man.”
That last assertion had to do with late-breaking news:
On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Michael Cohen, the longtime lawyer for President Donald J. Trump, arranged a $130,000 hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels one month prior to the 2016 presidential election.
According to the Journal, the payment was made “as part of an agreement that precluded her from publicly discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump.” Daniels (given name: Stephanie Clifford) had reportedly been in talks with both ABC’s Good Morning America and the parent company of the National Enquirer about going public with the allegations.
The Daily Beast had also been in protracted talks with Daniels about arranging an interview after three sources – including fellow porn star Alana Evans – told The Daily Beast that Daniels and Trump were involved. She ultimately backed out on Nov. 3, just five days before the 2016 election.
So now it was time to try to prove the negative:
Cohen on Friday did not address the alleged payout to Daniels but provided the following statement to The Daily Beast: “These rumors have circulated time and again since 2011. President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels.” The attorney also provided a letter dated Jan. 10, 2018 – allegedly signed by Daniels – that denied any “sexual and/or romantic affair” with Trump or the receipt of any “hush money” from Trump.
None of that sounds particularly convincing, because the Wall Street Journal dug up the bank records of the transaction in question, and there is other context:
Daniels’ story would have come on the heels of the porn star Jessica Drake coming forward in late October 2016 to accuse Trump of kissing her without consent and offering her $10,000 in exchange for sex in 2006. Then, on Nov. 4, 2016, the Journal unearthed documents revealing that the Trump-friendly National Enquirer had paid out $150,000 to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal for a tell-all about her alleged 10-month affair with The Donald from 2006 to 2007. They never ran the piece.
If Drake and McDougal are to be believed, their encounters with Trump took place in the months after Melania gave birth to the Trumps’ youngest son, Barron, in March 2006.
According to three sources with knowledge of the matter, Trump also engaged in a curious relationship during this period with another porn star: Stormy Daniels.
It just keeps getting better and better, or worse and worse:
Rumors of Daniels’ strange relationship with Trump first emerged on the gossip website TheDirty.com in October 2011. The site, run by Nik Richie (real name: Hooman Karamian), ran a post titled: “World Exclusive: Donald Trump Cheats on His Wife Melania Trump While She Was Pregnant.” In it, an anonymous tipster wrote to the site claiming that: “Donald Trump is the scum of the earth! Not only did he break up my friend’s marriage, but he also cheated on Melania Trump as she was pregnant with his child. My friend had sex with Donald after one of his golfing events and he lured her to multiple hotels [sic] rooms after that. My friend wants to speak with you directly because she is in fear that Donald Trump will ruin her life more than he already has.”
In a follow-up post, Richie wrote, “I know you cheated on your wife with Stephanie Gregory Clifford aka Stormy Daniels and now the world knows.”
Trump and his legal team now have a lot of negatives to prove – that none of this ever happened – that he is NOT a dirty old man – and it is hard to prove something is not so. As Nixon discovered, there’s nowhere to start. One has to talk about what isn’t, not what is. One has to talk about nothing, quite literally. That never goes well.
At this point this story is only a few hours old. Trump may survive this. His evangelical base can use “the flesh is weak” argument. Trump sinned, but God forgives repentant sinners and Trump is a changed man now – he now hates abortion and birth control and gay marriage too. God uses sinners for the greater good. Expect that, or expect Trump to say none of this ever happened, over and over and over. That’s what President Nixon did.
Okay, Trump may not survive this – but Nixon didn’t have Fox News, so Trump may survive this. Fox News specializes in proving negatives. Everyone remembers Barack and Michelle Obama’s frightening terrorist fist-bump – quite the scandal at the time. Fox News can make this Trump “hush money” scandal go away easily enough. They can prove this negative too.
As for the first matter, Kevin Drum addresses that:
Stung by Michael Wolff’s portrayal of him as a childlike idiot in Fire and Fury, President Trump embarked on a series of public events this week designed to show the country that he’s well briefed and in command of his administration.
How did that go? Drum decides a report card is in order:
Monday evening: Tries to sing along to the national anthem but can’t remember all the words. Grade: C
Tuesday morning: Holds televised roundtable on immigration. Absent-mindedly agrees to abandon his immigration plan and adopt the Democrats’ plan instead until Kevin McCarthy interrupts to correct him. Grade: D
Wednesday noon: Tells the press that he got letters from a “lot” of TV anchors saying that Tuesday’s immigration session was “one of the greatest meetings they’ve ever witnessed.” Grade: C-
Wednesday afternoon: Announces that Norway has purchased a batch of F-52 fighters, a plane that doesn’t exist. Trump’s confusion probably stemmed from his belief that Norway had bought 52 F-35 jets. In fact, Norway has authorized the purchase of only 40 F-35s. Grade: D-
Thursday morning: After watching Fox & Friends, tweets that he opposes extension of warrantless surveillance, something that his administration has been pushing for weeks. This sends Congress into a temporary tizzy until an aide tells Trump what he’s done and he puts up a second tweet walking back the first one. Grade: F
Thursday morning: Meets with members of Congress and asks why we accept immigrants from “shithole countries.” Grade: F
Thursday afternoon: In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, insists that DACA and Dreamers are different things and he wants everyone to get that straight. In fact, they are the exact same thing. Grade: F
Thursday afternoon: In the same interview, forgets he has an upcoming meeting five minutes after being told he has an upcoming meeting. Grade: D
People have got to know whether or not their President is a moron. Now they know.
But is he a racist? That’s the question:
President Donald Trump on Friday ignored questions from the press about his use of the term “shithole countries” to describe African nations and Haiti, as he signed a proclamation in honor of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Trump began the event by carefully reading a set of scripted remarks. “Today we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear: That no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God,” said the president.
Yes, the air was thick with irony, and then it got nasty:
Near the end of the somber affair, Trump got up from the signing table and began to leave. That’s when the questions started.
“Mr. President, will you give an apology for the statement yesterday?” asked one reporter.
“Mr. President, did you refer to African nations, did you use the word ‘shithole’?” asked another.
Then the voice of White House correspondent April Ryan rang out. “Mr. President, are you a racist?”
She would ask that:
Ryan, a veteran journalist who is black, had a notable interaction with Trump in February of last year, when the president asked Ryan during a press conference if she would set up a meeting for him with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
On Friday, however, Trump ignored Ryan and the rest of the press pool as he made his way around the edge of the Oval Office, shaking hands with guests. The event was Trump’s only public appearance of the day, making it the only chance journalists had to ask him questions.
That’s no way to prove that he’s not a racist, to prove that negative, and no one would buy it anyway:
While the televised event appeared calm, off-camera both the White House and Capitol Hill were reeling over the fallout from Trump’s comments, which were confirmed by a half-dozen major news organizations.
For much of the day, members of Congress, diplomats and world leaders had been demanding that Trump apologize for insulting Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion people, and Haiti, a nation with deep social and economic ties to the United States.
Haiti’s former Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, wrote on Twitter that the world was witnessing a new low today – “SHAME ON TRUMP! The world is witnessing a new low today with this #ShitholeNations remark! Totally unacceptable! Uncalled-for moreover it shows a lack a respect and IGNORANCE never seen before in the recent history of the US by any President! Enough is enough!”
Former U.K. foreign secretary David Miliband accused Trump of betraying America’s future – “Trump Administration leading a race to the bottom on refugees and immigrants that is a betrayal of America’s future as well as of its history. These are PEOPLE!”
Later, Trump offered a counter-tweet:
Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said “take them out.” Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!
That was Nixonian. People have got to know whether or not their President is a racist, and he is not a racist. And Nixon is not a crook. And so on and so forth.
The New York Times’ Peter Baker takes it from there:
Mr. Trump’s comment to lawmakers that the United States should accept more immigrants from places like Norway instead of from Haiti or “shithole countries” in Africa did not sound consistent with the notion that all people are equal no matter the place of their birth or the color of their skin.
If it were a one-time comment, an inadvertent insensitivity, it would still have stirred a firestorm. But Mr. Trump has said so many things on so many occasions that have rubbed the raw edges of race in America that they have raised the larger issue. A country tainted at its founding by slavery and struggling with that legacy ever since is now led by a chief executive who, intentionally or not, has fanned, rather than doused, the fires that divide white, black and brown.
That can’t be good:
The president’s approach to race has by many accounts damaged America’s standing in the world and complicated his foreign policy. At home, his words have at times emboldened what was once a political fringe and made it more acceptable to express thoughts that in recent decades had been deemed politically offensive. And he has put the Republican Party in the uncomfortable position of having to defend or denounce him as it heads into an already tough election year.
Trump has made a mess of things, but the question remains:
“Is the president racist? I would say unequivocally yes to that,” said George Yancy, a professor at Emory University and the author of “On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis,” published last fall. “Had he said one thing one time, we might say that was a slip of the tongue or it’s an example of unconscious racial bias or it was a mistake,” he added. “But I don’t think this is a case of unconscious racial bias. I think this is a case of unabashed white supremacist ideas.”
White supremacists agreed. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader, said on Friday that conservatives defending Mr. Trump on Fox News should stop saying it was about economics and legal systems, rather than race. “It’s obviously all about race, and to their credit, liberals point out the obvious,” he said.
The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, likewise welcomed Mr. Trump’s comments. “This is encouraging and refreshing, as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration,” the site said.
When the openly racist Daily Stormer is glad that you’re on their side, well, you just might be a racist too, but the evangelicals will forgive you:
“Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment,” Robert Jeffress, the evangelical pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and a presidential adviser, told CBN News. “As individual Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to place the needs of others above our own, but as commander in chief, President Trump has the constitutional responsibility to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.”
Robert Jeffress carved out a theological exception for Trump here, but Baker points to other times in Trump’ life:
Mr. Trump’s history of racially inflammatory episodes traces back to his first days in the public eye. As a young real estate businessman raised in Queens and working with his father, Mr. Trump and the family firm were sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for discriminating against black applicants for rental apartments. He eventually signed a consent decree requiring him to desegregate his properties, although he claimed victory because it included no financial penalty.
As he became more of a public figure, Mr. Trump waded into racially charged controversies that periodically erupted in New York. After five Latino and African-American teenagers were charged with beating and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989, he spent $85,000 to take out full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for the death penalty.
The Central Park Five, as they were called, were later exonerated and were paid a $41 million settlement, but Mr. Trump has never accepted that outcome. As late as 2016, he insisted that they were still guilty and that the settlement was “outrageous.”
Forget the DNA evidence, he still wants them executed, and that’s not all:
While Mr. Obama was in office, Mr. Trump was a leader of the so-called birther movement, promoting the conspiracy theory that Mr. Obama had been born in Kenya, a false claim he did not abandon until 2016. During the campaign, Mr. Trump also generated criticism for describing illegal immigrants from Mexico as “rapists”; proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the nation; and being slow to disavow the support of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman.
Since taking office, he has asserted that there were good people on both sides of a white supremacist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va., and repeatedly lashed out at black football players he deemed insufficiently patriotic for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
This is fairly simple. Argue about what is so – what is – not about what is not so – what isn’t – and that includes this:
When he was in business, he supported the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Indeed, Mr. Trump donated free office space for Mr. Jackson’s civil rights group.
But Mr. Jackson was among those who spoke out on Friday against Mr. Trump. “He speaks like a racist,” Mr. Jackson said. “He conjures up those fears. But to categorize him by a name does not quite address the issue.” Mr. Jackson concluded, “A misinformed man with power is a weapon of mass destruction.”
Jackson seems to think that the word “racist” is too mild a term here, so something is wrong here:
“When reporters shout out to Mr. Trump ‘are you a racist’ at an event to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, something is amiss,” said Ron Christie, who wrote a book about his time as an African-American adviser in President George W. Bush’s White House. “That the president needs to confront questions of racism or bias tells you that this isn’t fake news but a painful reality he must immediately confront.”
But how can he confront questions of racism and bias? How can he prove he’s not a racist? How can he prove a negative?
There’s no point in even trying. The only answer is to change what is, ignoring what isn’t. It’s not what you say. Anyone can say anything. It’s what you do. Fess up, apologize, and do something different, something better, if possible. But there’s the problem. What is possible with this man? That’s what frightens everyone in the world.