Requesting Simple Lies

The masthead of the New York Times has read “All the News That’s Fit to Print” since October 25, 1896, back when Adolph Ochs had acquired the New York Times in bankruptcy court and wanted to let everyone know this wasn’t going to be the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. This was a serious newspaper, covering events and issues that mattered, not voyeuristic lurid tabloid nonsense that really didn’t matter to anyone at all. This would be news that was “fit” to print, a boast that has always angered those on the right:

In 1960 Wright Patman, a US congressman from Texas, asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether “All the news that’s fit to print” amounted to false and misleading advertising.

“Surely this questionable claim has a tendency to make the public believe, and probably does make the public believe, that the New York Times is superior to other newspapers,” Patman wrote.

The Trade Commission declined to investigate, saying: “We do not believe there are any apparent objective standards by which to measure whether ‘news’ is or is not ‘fit to print’.”

That was a slogan, just fluff used to draw in paying customers. Fox News says it’s Fair and Balanced. No one can prove Fox News is any such thing. No one can prove that Fox News isn’t. Fox News just is.

And so is the New York Times, the newspaper that first published the Pentagon Papers – proof that early on, Johnson, and then everyone else through the Nixon administration, knew that our war in Vietnam was a lost cause, that we never could “win” anything there, that the whole thing had become pointless. All of them over all those years had lied about that. No one had wanted to admit the truth. The war dragged on year after year after year for no good reason. Many died. For no good reason. That was the news that was fit to print.

The news that was fit to print was what had really been going on, what no one had known. And the New York Times is doing that again. Donald Trump is no longer the president and soon he may not matter much at all. Eventually he won’t matter at all. But now everyone will know what had been going on as he tried to find a way to say he won the election he had so clearly lost. The New York Times broke the story that was soon confirmed by other major news organizations. Donald Trump had been working on a coup:

President Donald J. Trump pressed top Justice Department officials late last year to declare that the election was corrupt even though they had found no instances of widespread fraud, so he and his allies in Congress could use the assertion to try to overturn the results, according to new documents provided to lawmakers.

The demands were an extraordinary instance of a president interfering with an agency that is typically more independent from the White House to advance his personal agenda. They are also the latest example of Mr. Trump’s wide-ranging campaign during his final weeks in office to delegitimize the election results.

But this was new, proof that Trump had asked the Department of Justice to lie for him. Just one little lie. He’d take care of the rest:

The exchange unfolded during a phone call on Dec. 27 in which Mr. Trump pressed the acting attorney general at the time, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and his deputy, Richard P. Donoghue, on voter fraud claims that the Justice Department had found no evidence for. Mr. Donoghue warned that the department had no power to change the outcome of the election. Mr. Trump replied that he did not expect that, according to notes Mr. Donoghue took memorializing the conversation.

“Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me” and to congressional allies, Mr. Donoghue wrote in summarizing Mr. Trump’s response.

So this was just a small favor. He had “his people” who would do the heavy lifting:

Mr. Trump did not name the lawmakers, but at other points during the call, he mentioned Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, whom he described as a “fighter”; Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, who at the time promoted the idea that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump; and Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, whom Mr. Trump praised for “getting to bottom of things.”

The New York Times ran the story. These three guys ran for the hills:

Mr. Jordan and Mr. Johnson denied any role in Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department.

“Congressman Jordan did not, has not, and would not pressure anyone at the Justice Department about the 2020 election,” said Russell Dye, a spokesman for Mr. Jordan, who voted to overturn election results in key states but has downplayed his role in the president’s pressure campaign. “He continues to agree with President Trump that it is perfectly appropriate to raise concerns about election integrity.”

Mr. Johnson had “no conversations with President Trump about the D.O.J. questioning the election results,” said his spokeswoman, Alexa Henning. She noted that he had acknowledged Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the president-elect but that he had also called for what he sees as election irregularities to be fully investigated and addressed to restore confidence in future elections.

The captain goes down with the ship. Those two weren’t going to go down with any ship over this. They were not part of any coup, or whatever this was. This was Trump’s problem. Scott Perry wasn’t saying anything. He disappeared for a bit. This was Trump’s idea:

The phone call by Mr. Trump was perhaps the most audacious moment in a monthslong pressure campaign aimed at enlisting the Justice Department in his crusade to overturn the election results.

After the departure of Mr. Rosen’s predecessor, William P. Barr, became public on Dec. 14, Mr. Trump and his allies harangued Mr. Rosen and his top deputies nearly every day until Jan. 6, when Congress met to certify the Electoral College and was disrupted by Mr. Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol, according to emails and other documents obtained by Congress and interviews with former Trump administration officials.

The conversations often included complaints about unfounded voter fraud conspiracy theories, frustration that the Justice Department would not ask the Supreme Court to invalidate the election and admonishments that department leaders had failed to fight hard enough for Mr. Trump,

That must have seemed both pathetic and dangerous, but there’s a new Justice Department now. one that really doesn’t care what Donald Trump wants:  

The Justice Department provided Mr. Donoghue’s notes to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is investigating the Trump administration’s efforts to unlawfully reverse the election results.

Typically, the department has fought to keep secret any accounts of private discussions between a president and his cabinet to avoid setting a precedent that would prevent officials in future administrations from candidly advising presidents out of concern that their conversations would later be made public.

But handing over the notes to Congress is part of a pattern of allowing scrutiny of Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. The Biden Justice Department also told Mr. Rosen, Mr. Donoghue and other former officials this week that they could provide unrestricted testimony to investigators with the House Oversight and Reform and the Senate Judiciary Committees.

And there’s not much that Trump can do about that:

Because executive privilege is meant to benefit the country, rather than the president as an individual, invoking it over Mr. Trump’s efforts to push his personal agenda would be inappropriate, the department concluded.

So now everyone knows what was really going on:

Mr. Trump’s conversation with Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue reflected his single-minded focus on overturning the election results. At one point, Mr. Trump claimed voter fraud in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Arizona, which he called “corrupted elections.” Mr. Donoghue pushed back.

“Much of the info you’re getting is false,” Mr. Donoghue said, adding that the department had conducted “dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews” and had not found evidence to support his claims. “We look at allegations but they don’t pan out,” the officials told Mr. Trump, according to the notes.

They told him that someone had been feeding him bullshit but that didn’t matter. Bullshit could be useful:

The department found that the error rate of ballot counting in Michigan was 0.0063 percent, not the 68 percent that the president asserted; it did not find evidence of a conspiracy theory that an employee in Pennsylvania had tampered with ballots; and after examining video and interviewing witnesses, it found no evidence of ballot fraud in Fulton County, Ga., according to the notes.

Mr. Trump, undeterred, brushed off the department’s findings. “OK fine – but what about the others?” Mr. Donoghue wrote in his notes describing the president’s remarks. Mr. Trump asked Mr. Donoghue to travel to Fulton County to verify signatures on ballots.

The people “saying that the election isn’t corrupt are corrupt,” Mr. Trump told the officials, adding that they needed to act. “Not much time left.”

This was getting absurd. At that point all they could do was let him down as gently as possible:

At another point, Mr. Donoghue said that the department could quickly verify or disprove the assertion that more ballots were cast in Pennsylvania than there were voters.

“Should be able to check on that quickly, but understand that the D.O.J. can’t and won’t snap its fingers and change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Donoghue wrote in his notes.

The officials also told Mr. Trump that the Justice Department had no evidence to support a lawsuit regarding the election results. “We are not in a position based on the evidence,” they said. “We can only act on the actual evidence developed.”

That didn’t work:

Mr. Trump castigated the officials, saying that “thousands of people called” their local U.S. attorney’s offices to complain about the election and that “nobody trusts the F.B.I.” He said that “people are angry – blaming D.O.J. for inaction.”

“You guys may not be following the internet the way I do,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document.

He was right about that, and he was wrong about this:

During the call, Mr. Trump also told the Justice Department officials to “figure out what to do” with Hunter Biden, Mr. Biden’s son. “People will criticize the D.O.J. if he’s not investigated for real,” he told them, violating longstanding guidelines against White House intervention in criminal investigations or other law enforcement actions.

They ignored him on that, and then there was this:

Two days after the phone call with Mr. Trump, Mr. Donoghue took notes of a meeting with Justice Department officials that also included Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows; the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone; and the White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin. They met to discuss a conspiracy theory known as Italygate, which asserts without evidence that people in Italy used military technology to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States.

The Justice Department officials told the White House that they had assigned someone to look into the matter, according to the notes and a person briefed on the meeting. They did not mention that the department was looking into the theory to debunk it, the person said.

They were dealing with crackpots and they knew it. They did their best, but the Atlantic’s David Graham puts this in the larger context here:

For raw emotional content, Tuesday’s hearing of the new House select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection was nonpareil. Four police officers who fought to hold back armed hordes seeking to disrupt Congress told stories of physical injury, racist abuse, and post-traumatic distress. Even for Americans who paid close attention to the crisis, these stories added new texture and horror.

But the House Oversight Committee shed more light this week on just how and why January 6 happened, releasing handwritten notes by Richard Donoghue, a top Justice Department official in the waning days of the Trump administration. The violence of the day has taken center stage, but these notes help put it in context: The angry crowd was just one part of President Donald Trump’s long-running effort to overturn the results of the election in the House of Representatives.

Yes, this goes way back:

Trump’s coup attempt started not on January 6 but in the wee hours of November 4, when Trump said at the White House, “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election.” He added: “Frankly, we did win this election.” (He did not, and was not being frank.)

In November and early December, the focus of Trump’s efforts was pressuring state officials in places such as Arizona and Georgia to decline to certify results in favor of Biden, and pressing Attorney General William Barr to cast doubt on the results.

But Barr declined, breaking with Trump, and so did pivotal Republicans, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. Once Barr was pushed aside, Trump began a daily campaign to pressure Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen into doing what Barr would not, trying to place new claims of fraud before the Justice Department. Unbeknownst to Rosen, Trump was also orchestrating a plan to topple him.

But that’s a subplot not worth worrying about. That didn’t work. In fact, nothing worked:

What Trump hoped to achieve from these efforts has always been a little hazy. The Justice Department doesn’t certify elections, and at most could have pursued fraud claims in court – had there been any credible ones, which there were not. The new releases by the House Oversight Committee, first reported by The New York Times, connect the dots. Donoghue explained to Trump that the DOJ couldn’t overturn the result, but the president was unruffled.

All he asked for was a simple one-sentence declaration. The election was corrupt. He and his three guys would take it from there. But he had other alternatives:

All Trump wanted was some semi-independent arbiter to declare the election fraudulent – whether that was the governor of Arizona, the Georgia secretary of state, or the U.S. Justice Department. This much was clear even then, but Trump’s endgame was not. After all, Democrat Joe Biden’s lead was wide enough that a single state declining to certify or a single fraud case couldn’t have erased it. Trump, despite his weakness for conspiracy theories, understood that. But he didn’t need any of these officials to set aside the results on their own. He just needed enough ammunition, no matter how tenuous, that he could derail certification of the election in Congress.

If the election couldn’t be decided based on the results, then it would go to the House of Representatives. Though Democrats held a majority there, the presidency would have been decided by state delegations, of which Republicans controlled more.

That seemed to be the plan, but everything went wrong:

The Justice Department refused to say the election was stolen, of course. Ahead of January 6, Trump tried his last two options. First, he pressured Vice President Mike Pence, both publicly and privately, to refuse to certify the results, but Pence concluded that he had no constitutional authority to do so. Trump also summoned a crowd to Washington and demanded they fight. They did, but it didn’t work.

And that left Trump with no more options:

What is becoming clear is that the violence, though abhorrent, was simply a part of the bigger and more dangerous plot, not the culmination of it. Although Trump clearly had no problem with the riot, there is no evidence that Trump envisioned a violent coup, and as the attack on the Capitol unfolded, he watched, bemused, from the White House, neither calling off the attackers nor doing anything more to spur them on.

That wasn’t the plan. But what had been the plan, to ask people to lie for him? That was never going to work.

And then there’s this from the Washington Post:

Donald Trump and his lawyers could have sought to block the release of Donoghue’s notes to Congress. There were days of discussion among Trump advisers about whether to do so, one adviser said, but the former president did not believe that the notes showed anything problematic, even though some of his advisers feared that the disclosures would be damaging.

“If it gets more attention on the election, he welcomes it,” this adviser said.

At least some of the former Justice Department officials with knowledge of the phone conversations had privately hoped that Trump would seek to block the sharing of the notes, to prevent those former officials from having to testify on Capitol Hill about the exchanges, said people familiar with their thinking. Those people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

But Trump did not attempt to stop the release.

Why would he? He had tried to overthrow the brand-new duly-elected government of the United States for two months. He wants his base to know that. They’ll save him.

That seems unlikely now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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