Avoid old men. They’re stuck. They tell stories, only a few, and always the same ones. Perhaps they don’t remember they’ve told this or that story before, perhaps an hour before. Perhaps, given the present, they prefer the past, when they mattered, or imagined that they mattered. They can be forgiven for that sort of story – they were cool at one time, long ago – but something else might be going on. Something just happened. They’ve seen this before. They’re offering a warning. It’s happening again. So forgive an old man, for the same story again.
Long ago, each year, it was Paris in December – two weeks alone with the city – a younger man with his pipe and his room at the Hôtel Madison – where Camus had finished writing L’Étranger – with a view of the old church across the street where Descartes is buried. L’Étranger (The Stranger) is “the” existentialist novel. The “truth” of any situation is unknowable. Descartes had fretted about that too. What do we really know? What can we say is a fact – something we know for certain? All he could come up with was “I think, therefore I am.” That was it. Everything else is open to question.
Now all the news shows are running that clip, over and over, of what Rudy Guliani shouted out on Meet the Press – “The Truth is NOT the truth!”
Those weren’t his exact words, and he didn’t shout. He sat calmly and, in a lawyerly condescending dismissive way, as if explaining something to someone a bit dense, someone not as sharp as he is, or as sharp as almost anyone else is, a simple fact that any good lawyer knows, a simple fact that everyone knows – “Truth isn’t truth.”
Everyone doesn’t know that, but he stands with Descartes and Camus, arguing deep matters of epistemology. It was like being back in Paris again. The “truth” of any situation is unknowable. Rudy Guliani is an Existentialist.
No, he’s not. He’s a bit of a fool:
President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Sunday claimed “truth isn’t truth” when trying to explain why the president should not testify for special counsel Robert Mueller for fear of being trapped into a lie that could lead to a perjury charge.
“When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth,” Giuliani told Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday morning
Giuliani was framing this as a he-said she-said situation, which, but for all the evidence, and Trump’s habit of saying one thing and then the opposite, and not paying attention to what he just said, it might be:
Giuliani and others have expressed concerns that Mueller might use a statement by Trump to indict him for perjury based on differences in what the president might say from what others have testified. “They have two pieces of evidence,” Giuliani said to Todd in explaining that idea. “Trump says I didn’t tell them and the other guy says that he did say it. Which is the truth? Maybe you know because you’re a genius.”
Except for the passive-aggressive sneering that’s a fair point, but Giuliani should choose his words more carefully:
“Truth is truth,” Todd responded.
“No, no, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. “Truth isn’t truth. The President of the United States says, ‘I didn’t…'”
A startled Todd answered: “Truth isn’t truth?”
Giuliani: “No, no, no.”
Todd said: “This is going to become a bad meme.”
It became a bad meme within an hour. All the news shows, except those on Fox News and its affiliates, were running a clip, over and over, of Giuliani saying those three words. Pundit after pundit said that this said everything that anyone needed to know about the Trump crowd, and about Donald Trump. Expect reporters to shove their microphone in Paul Ryan’s face, and Mitch McConnell’s face, and in the face of every Republican they can corner. Do you agree with the Trump administration, that truth isn’t truth? Do you believe there is such a thing as truth?
They’ll run and hide. Expect the clip of Giuliani saying those three words to pop up in campaign ads in the midterm elections too. These guys say truth isn’t truth. Everyone knows better. What are they hiding? Do they even know what the truth is? Expect the clip of Giuliani saying those three words to pop up in campaign ads in 2020 – if Donald Trump is still around. Expect a simple tag-line. Does this guy even know what the truth is? Giuliani handed the Democrats the gift of a lifetime.
Giuliani does that sort of thing:
Last week on CNN, he rejected Chris Cuomo’s assertion that “facts are not in the eye of the beholder.”
“Yes, they are,” Giuliani said. “Nowadays they are.”
In May, the former New York mayor pursued a similar line of thought in an interview with The Washington Post about the Mueller investigation: “They may have a different version of the truth than we do.”
The statement also recalled Kellyanne Conway’s statement in January 2017 referring to “alternative facts” offered by the White House about crowd sizes at Trump’s inauguration.
They’re all existentialists. Maybe they’re secretly French, but the former FBI director James Comey isn’t French. Trump fired him. Trump said he fired him because Comey had mistreated Hillary Clinton. Trump was coming to the defense of the woman who has been so badly wronged – a noble thing – the right thing. The nation laughed. Trump then said he fired Comey because everybody at the FBI hated the guy – he’d lost the confidence of the whole organization. The testimonials rolled in. They all loved the guy. Trump then admitted to Lester Holt, on national television, that he fired Comey because of “the Russia thing” – and now Giuliani says Trump did no such thing, and Trump, if forced to testify about any of this, will say he did no such thing. Giuliani, however, won’t let Trump testify about any of this. Giuliani senses a trap. Trump might say anything, but the truth isn’t the truth, not really – trust him on that.
James Comey watched from the sidelines and then tweeted this:
Truth exists and truth matters. Truth has always been the touchstone of our country’s justice system and political life. People who lie are held accountable. If we are untethered to truth, our justice system cannot function and a society based on the rule of law dissolves.
There’s a bumper sticker for the Democrats – TRUTH EXISTS AND TRUTH MATTERS – to counter the 2020 Trump bumper sticker – TRUTH ISN’T TRUTH! VOTE TRUMP!
Perhaps the Democrats should print a few million copies of that second bumper sticker, to twist the knife, but all of this raises a Cartesian question. Do these guys even know what the truth is? Do these guys even know what’s going on? Descartes would say that’s impossible for anyone to know.
These guys are out to prove that. At the same time that Rudy Giuliani was discussing the illusory nature of truth, if there is such a thing, the New York Times broke a series of stories that came down to this:
President Trump’s lawyers do not know just how much the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, told the special counsel’s investigators during months of interviews, a lapse that has contributed to a growing recognition that an early strategy of full cooperation with the inquiry was a potentially damaging mistake.
The president’s lawyers said on Sunday that they were confident that Mr. McGahn had said nothing injurious to the president during the 30 hours of interviews. But Mr. McGahn’s lawyer has offered only a limited accounting of what Mr. McGahn told the investigators, according to two people close to the president.
That has prompted concern among Mr. Trump’s advisers that Mr. McGahn’s statements could help serve as a key component for a damning report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, which the Justice Department could send to Congress, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Play fast and loose with the truth, settle on the idea that there may be no such thing, and it’s easy enough to forget that there really is the truth and someone who does know the truth. They didn’t account for that. Why would they? Now it’s too late:
Mr. Trump’s lawyers realized on Saturday that they had not been provided a full accounting after the New York Times published an article describing Mr. McGahn’s extensive cooperation with Mr. Mueller’s office. After Mr. McGahn was initially interviewed by the special counsel’s office in November, Mr. Trump’s lawyers never asked for a complete description of what Mr. McGahn had said, according to a person close to the president.
They didn’t ask, and they got only bits and pieces of what had happened:
Mr. McGahn’s lawyer, William A. Burck, gave the president’s lawyers a short overview of the interview but few details, and he did not inform them of what Mr. McGahn said in subsequent interactions with the investigators, according to a person close to Mr. Trump. Mr. McGahn and Mr. Burck feared that Mr. Trump was setting up Mr. McGahn to take the blame for any possible wrongdoing, so they embraced the opening to cooperate fully with Mr. Mueller in an effort to demonstrate that Mr. McGahn had done nothing wrong.
In short, McGahn was covering his ass, and of course Rudy Giuliani was in the dark:
On Sunday, Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer dealing with the special counsel, Rudolph W. Giuliani, appeared to acknowledge that he had only a partial understanding of what Mr. McGahn had revealed. Mr. Giuliani said his knowledge was secondhand, given to him by a former Trump lawyer, John Dowd, who was one of the primary forces behind the initial strategy of full cooperation.
Giuliani doesn’t believe in the truth anyway, as a concept, so he was unconcerned, and everyone missed the key detail here:
Mr. McGahn, who as White House counsel is not the president’s personal lawyer, has repeatedly made clear to the president that his role is as a protector of the presidency, not of Mr. Trump personally.
McGahn was just doing his job, which wasn’t to be Trump’s lawyer, but they might have asked what he was up to:
Legal experts and former White House counsels said the president’s lawyers had been careless in not asking Mr. McGahn what he had planned to tell Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors. The experts said Mr. Trump’s lawyers had the right to know the full extent of what Mr. McGahn was going to say.
It seems they didn’t care, until it was too late:
In its article, The Times said Mr. McGahn had shared detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the investigation into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice in the Russia inquiry. Some of the episodes – like Mr. Trump’s attempt to fire Mr. Mueller last summer – would not have been revealed to investigators without Mr. McGahn’s help.
The article set off a scramble on Saturday among Mr. Trump’s lawyers and advisers. The president – sequestered at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J. – solicited opinions from a small group of advisers on the possible repercussions from the article. The president ordered Mr. Giuliani to tell reporters that the article was wrong, but Mr. Giuliani did not go that far in his television appearances.
That was not on his agenda. He had one message – “truth isn’t truth” – so he couldn’t say the article was either wrong or right. He was saying such things don’t matter, but there was a told-you-so moment in all this:
Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, who had argued last summer against cooperating with Mr. Mueller, said, “This was a reckless and dangerously naïve strategy, and I’ve vocally said that since the time I left the White House, and I’ve said it to the president.”
Sure, but he had been tossed out of the White House long ago, for being a jerk, and far too definitive about what he saw as the truth – that the “administrative state” (the government) had to end and the nation needed to be ethically and culturally pure. Everyone else, except for Stephen Miller, preferred ambiguity to his truth, and now prefers no truth at all.
Now that’s a problem:
Mr. Trump was rattled by the Times report, according to people familiar with his thinking. The president, who is said to be obsessed with the role that John W. Dean, the White House counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, played as an informant during Watergate, was jolted by the notion that he did not know what Mr. McGahn had shared.
In fact, there was something Nixonian about this:
Last fall, Mr. McGahn believed that he was being set up to be blamed for any wrongdoing by the president in part because of an article published in The Times in September, which described a conversation that a reporter had overheard between Mr. Dowd and Mr. Cobb.
In the conversation – which occurred over lunch at a table on the sidewalk outside the Washington steakhouse BLT – Mr. Cobb discussed the White House’s production of documents to Mr. Mueller’s office. Mr. Cobb talked about how Mr. McGahn was opposed to cooperation and had documents locked in his safe.
After the account of the lunch conversation was published, Mr. McGahn became convinced that Mr. Cobb believed that he was hiding documents. Concerned that he would be blamed, he decided to try to demonstrate to Mr. Mueller that he and other White House lawyers had done nothing wrong.
McGahn was thinking of John Dean, so Jonathan Swan chatted with him:
President Trump tweeted this morning: “The failing @nytimes wrote a Fake piece today implying that because White House Councel [sic] Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the Special Councel [sic], he must be a John Dean type “RAT.” But I allowed him and all others to testify – I didn’t have to. I have nothing to hide.”
This afternoon, I called up said “RAT,” John Dean, to get his take. Dean was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and heavily involved in the Watergate cover-up before he became a key witness for the prosecution.
“I am actually honored to be on his enemies list as I was on Nixon’s when I made it there,” Dean told me. “This is a president I hold in such low esteem I would be fretting if he said something nice.”
Slate’s Isaac Chotiner got Dean to say a bit more:
I think there is good reason for McGahn to believe that Trump would throw him under the bus, since Trump throws almost everyone under the bus. So I don’t think it is a reach to have that in your consciousness…
Self-preservation is a real motive. At times, I felt it. When I first tried to go in and blow up the Watergate cover-up, I was really worried about the president and the office. When it got back through the grapevine that they were planning to have former Attorney General John Mitchell take the rap for the break-in, and me take the rap for the cover-up, I wasn’t very keen on the idea. The first time I ever talked to the press during my tenure in government was when I dictated a couple sentences for my secretary and had her read it to the AP, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, to communicate to my superiors – who were not sharing this with me – that I would not be the scapegoat, and they were making a mistake if they were suiting me up for that.
That seems to be happening again, and Dean does understand what McGahn was really doing:
I don’t think he was motivated to provide damning evidence. I think he was explaining what he knew. He was a fact witness, and trying to explain the facts as he understood them. I don’t think he could even evaluate the importance of some of his testimony that later-times and circumstances fit into a bigger pattern. We don’t have all that information now. But I saw that occur in Watergate, where people were providing information, not necessarily for any sinister or other motive, that turned out to be very important and damning for Nixon.
Truth exists and truth matters, and there’s this:
Everybody thinks Nixon was extremely competent. There is no question he was. He understood the presidency very well. He had been a member of the House, the Senate. He had been vice president. He had actually been acting president. He was trained as a lawyer and argued cases before the Supreme Court. Unlike Trump, he knew that justices don’t sign bills; they write opinions. So there is no question there is a different level of sophistication – but, having said that, I see a lot of similarity in this bungling. Watergate was not a carefully planned crime and cover-up. It was one bungled event after another. I see the same thing happening with Trump.
Something just happened. It happened before, and the old man tells the story, once again, of the younger man long ago, standing at the window of Camus’ hotel room, sipping cognac late at night, watching the cold December rain fall on Boulevard St-Germain, thinking of Descartes buried in the church across the street. What can anyone know for sure? Start with the basics.
Camus, building on Descartes, spoke of the inherent “meaninglessness” of all previous notions of meaning. All we have is what exists in the here and now – an “absurd” life. He embraced the absurdity. That absurdity could be harrowing, but that absurdity was freedom. In Paris, long ago, that seemed cool. Now that seems absurd. That’s a reason to tell the story again. It’s a warning.