Caught With His Pants Down

What if the president just told the truth about Stormy Daniels?

Daniels—as possibly you’ve heard—is the porn star who claims to have had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump in 2006 and been paid $130,000 in hush money by Trump’s lawyer shortly before the 2016 election.

While Daniels maintained her silence through the campaign and the first year of Trump’s presidency, she has been singing like a canary as of late, divulging enough details about their Lake Tahoe tryst to keep comedy writers busy for months and provoking a rare silence from the perpetually pugilistic commander-in-chief.  Curiously, Trump hasn’t tweeted a single word about this story since it first broke on January 12.

Naturally, the president’s press secretary and legal team have disputed Daniels’s account on Trump’s behalf, claiming the alleged affair didn’t occur, while admitting the $130,000 payment—and an accompanying nondisclosure agreement—did.  The two parties have been suing each other ever since.

Legal maneuverings aside, deep down, every American knows Stormy Daniels is telling the truth.  First, because presidential candidates tend not to pay beautiful women six figures for sex they did not have.  Second, because the particulars of Daniels’s chronicle bear striking similarities to those of Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who has asserted a yearlong affair with Trump around the same time as Daniels’s.

Finally—and, by far, most importantly—we believe Trump had sex with a porn star one year into his third marriage because that’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.  There is nothing we have gleaned from his character—or his public statements—that is inconsistent with anything Daniels told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes last Sunday night, and in other interviews.  For his entire adult life—from “best sex I’ve ever had” to “grab ’em by the pussy”—Trump has proudly branded himself a boorish horndog of the highest order, and we have no reason to believe he has reformed himself since becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

So why not say so?  If you’re Trump, why go through the charade of pretending Daniels is part of some nefarious conspiracy—or is simply a lone wolf liar—when the truth is so much easier—and so much cheaper—to come by?  With Robert Mueller on the march and all the usual chaos enveloping the West Wing on a daily basis, is Stormy Daniels really a battle worth fighting—and, presumably, losing?

It was almost exactly 20 years ago when another skirt-chasing president stood in front of a phalanx of TV cameras and categorically denied accusations of a sexual dalliance with a White House intern.  Seven months—and several million dollars in legal fees—later, Bill Clinton reappeared in a prime time address to admit that, in fact, he’d been lying the whole time and Monica Lewinsky was telling the truth.  Whoops.

What prodded Clinton’s belated confession, you’ll recall, was not a sudden attack of conscience or a pang of moral responsibility as leader of the free world.  Rather, it was a grand jury deposition and a stained blue dress—two factors he was too arrogant to anticipate but which eventually proved a near-existential threat to his presidency.  He’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar with no good options for getting it out, and in the meantime, the entire country had to endure a full year of pointless political melodrama—complete with a special prosecutor—culminating in an equally pointless impeachment from which both Clinton and his antagonists emerged thoroughly embarrassed and without anything positive to show for it.

And all rooted in a single presidential lie that didn’t need to be told in the first place.

Is this the future Donald Trump wants for himself?  Does he believe he can improvise his way through this crisis as he has with every crisis that has come before?  Has he convinced himself that by telling a bald-faced lie with enough frequency, he can bend reality to his will and carry a hefty minority of the public along with him, up to and including re-election in 2020?

Perhaps he has, and perhaps he can.  Certainly Trump has proved more adept at conning his way up the success ladder than any political figure of our time.

And yet the world of depositions—where “truthful exaggeration” is called “perjury”—is different from the world of electoral politics, as Bill Clinton so salaciously discovered in 1998.  Trump, who has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits, presumably understands this distinction and, for all his supposed mental depreciation, possesses the wherewithal to find an escape hatch before this particular legal squabble reaches the point of no return.

Here’s a scenario for you:  Trump calls a press conference sometime in the near future and says to the American public, “It’s true that I had sexual relations with Stormy Daniels in 2006, and that my attorney paid her $130,000 to keep quiet.  I’d like to apologize to Melania for breaking the bonds of our marriage, and to the public for setting a poor example for our children.  I will try to be a better man and a better husband in the future, and will not waste the public’s time with petty litigation with Ms. Daniels, to whom I also apologize and wish all the best in her future endeavors.  I hope the American people can forgive me, and that we can now move on to the important business of making America great again.”

Does Donald Trump have it in him to make such a statement and mean it?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

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Character Is Destiny

Donald Trump has been president for all of two weeks, yet already he has proved himself the most brazenly Nixonian person to ever sit in the Oval Office—Richard Nixon included.

How much of a paranoid megalomaniac is our new commander-in-chief?  Well, for starters, it took Nixon a full four-and-a-half years to dismiss his own attorney general for failing to carry out the president’s imperial agenda.  Trump?  He took care of that on Day 11.

There’s a classic saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself—but it rhymes.”  Of course, historians love to draw parallels between the past and the present in any case, but the truth is that some connections are so blindingly obvious that we needn’t even bring experts to the table.  We can do the rhyming ourselves, thank you very much.

At this absurdly premature juncture in the life of the new administration, it has become evident—to the shock of no one—that the Trump White House is destined to most resemble Nixon’s in both form and effect, and there may be no surer means of anticipating this West Wing’s machinations—good and bad, but mostly bad—than through a close study of the one that dissolved, oh-so-ignominiously, on August 9, 1974.

In light of recent events, we might as well begin with the Saturday Night Massacre.

In the fall of 1973, President Nixon was drowning in controversy about his role in the Watergate caper, thanks largely to the efforts of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.  Suddenly, on October 20, Nixon decided he had had enough and ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox ASAP.  Having promised to respect Cox’s independence, Richardson refused to comply and promptly resigned, as did his deputy shortly thereafter.

Once the dust settled and Cox was finally sacked by Solicitor General Robert Bork (yes, that Robert Bork), it became clear to every man, woman and child in America that the president of the United States was a crook and a scumbag—albeit a cartoonishly sloppy one—and so began the suddenly-inevitable march to impeachment that would end only with Nixon’s resignation in August of the following year.

What’s the lesson in all of this?  For my money, it’s that if the president feels he cannot do his job without depriving America’s chief law enforcement officer of his, something extraordinarily shady is afoot, and it’s only a matter of time before the public—and Congress—demands some manner of accountability.

Cut to the present day, and the constitutional (and humanitarian) crisis that Donald Trump pointlessly unleashed by banning all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—along with immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—and then firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she proclaimed the order illegal and instructed the Justice Department to ignore it.

For all that differentiates the Saturday Night Massacre from the Muslim ban and its aftermath, both events present a commander-in-chief with an utter, self-defeating contempt for basic rule of law and all institutional checks on his authority.  Just as Nixon believed he could sweep Watergate under the rug by canning its lead investigator, so does Trump think he can essentially wipe out an entire religion’s worth of immigrants from the United States by disappearing any Justice Department official who regards the First Amendment as constitutionally binding.

(Notice how Trump justified the firing of Yates by accusing her of “betrayal”—as if the attorney general’s loyalty to the president supersedes her loyalty to the law.)

Of course, the nice thing about the Constitution is that it exists whether or not the president believes in it (as Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t quite say).  The trouble—as the nation learned so painfully with Nixon—is that justice can take an awfully long time to catch up to the president’s many dogged attempts to dodge it—especially if he has a gang of willing collaborators in Congress.

In the end, the reason Watergate exploded into a full-blown cataclysm was that Richard Nixon was a fundamentally rotten human being—a callous, cynical, friendless sociopath whose every move was calibrated for political gain and without even a passing consideration for the public good.  For all that he spoke about standing up for the common man, when push came to shove the only person he really gave a damn about—the only person he ever lifted a finger to protect—was Richard Nixon.

Does any of this sound familiar?  You bet your sweet bippy it does.  In the frightfully short time he’s been president, Trump has shown a remarkable knack for mimicking every one of Nixon’s faults—his vindictiveness, he contempt for the press, his insecurity, his dishonesty, his propensity for surrounding himself with racists and anti-Semites—while somehow skirting any redeeming qualities that might make his presidency tolerable, despite all of the above.

Indeed, to the extent that Trump is not the absolute spitting image of America’s all-time champion of corruption, he is demonstrably worse.  After all, Nixon was historically literate, intellectually curious and, from his experience as a congressman and vice president, highly knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of Washington deal making.  He was a scoundrel, but a reasonably competent one with several major accomplishments to his name.

Can we expect Trump to achieve any sort of greatness in the teeth of his many weaknesses?  If these first two weeks are at all predictive of the next four years, I see no reason to think so.  Whereas Nixon was a gifted strategic thinker with a deep sense of history and geopolitics, Trump has over and over again professed a proud and stubborn ignorance of any matter that does not directly involve himself, and seems to derive all his information about a given subject from the last person he spoke to about it.

The Greeks had it right:  Character is destiny, and there’s just no coming back from a veritable avalanche of fatal flaws.  We can pray all we want that the president will suddenly discover the value of temperance, deliberation and any hint of public virtue, but we’d only be denying a truth that has been staring us in the face from the moment Trump announced himself as a figure of national consequence.  He is who he is, he will never get better, and our only hope is that this new national nightmare won’t last quite as long as the last one did.

Petty Crimes and Misdemeanors

Now that most of America’s grown-ups seem to have realized that impeaching President Obama would be an exceedingly stupid idea, we can more clearly reflect on the 40-year anniversary of when hounding the commander-in-chief from office made absolute perfect sense.

It was indeed on August 9, 1974 that President Richard Nixon ever-so-reluctantly bode farewell to the American public, following some two-plus years of high-level shenanigans all piled under the heading of “Watergate.”

The whole saga, from the break-in to the resignation, has been rehashed so many times in the last four decades—in books, films, TV programs, newspaper articles and the ever-expanding collection of Oval Office tape recordings—that it has become increasingly impossible to wrench any new or interesting insights from one of the more embarrassing episodes in U.S. politics.  We have acquired new facts, but no new truths.

But of course we continue yapping about it all the same, the Nixon era remaining the most potent of narcotics for political junkies—perhaps because it contains so much junk.

Watergate deeded the baby boom generation a whole dictionary of political clichés—uttered today without a smidgen of hesitation—and the event itself has become a cliché.  Having nothing fresh to teach us, but apparently incapable of dislodging itself from the country’s collective subconscious, the drama that crippled and ultimately destroyed the Nixon presidency and forever poisoned the public’s relationship with its leaders has, rather amazingly, evolved into a nagging bore.

The dirty little secret—the fact that our wall-to-wall nostalgia-fests tend to obscure—is that Watergate was not the worst crime ever committed by an American president.  Not by a long shot.  Alongside other executive malfeasance down the years, Watergate might not have been nothing, but it was a fairly minor transgression when you consider all things.  It is not worth the extraordinary attention it still garners, and the numbing effects of constantly reliving it do not make matters any better.

I’m not just talking about the break-in itself—namely, the bungled attempt by Team Nixon to get a leg up on the Democrats in anticipation of the 1972 election.  (Against George McGovern, Nixon won the contest by a score of 49 states to one.)  Most people agree that, while sleazy and illegal, the burglary was a silly little farce that hardly threatened the integrity of the republic or constituted a grave beach of White House power.

Considered in today’s environment, where everyone is secretly recording everyone else and everybody knows it, the Watergate scheme seems positively quaint.

Indeed, in the usual narrative, the whole point about the adage, “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up,” is that the Nixon administration’s single-minded obsession with suppressing any and all incriminating evidence about the burglary was, itself, the raison d’être for punishing Nixon in the first place.  Had Nixon simply allowed the investigation to take its course, some heads would still have rolled, but Nixon’s would have not, and the country would have moved on.

The real offense, as it were, was thinking that because he was president, he could control the dissemination of facts and avoid being held to account.

It was the principle of the thing, as high school principals like to say.  It’s not that President Nixon and his underlings did anything major.  Rather, it’s that they went to such elaborate lengths to evade responsibility for something minor.  In other words, they demonstrated that they were inherently untrustworthy.

In this way, we could establish that, in practice, there are two forms of presidential crimes:  actual crimes and suggestive crimes.

The former are those that directly and plainly harm the republic.  Historically, these would include the Harding administration’s exchange of no-bid contracts for bribes with oil companies, or the Reagan administration’s exchange of money and hostages for weapons with Iran.

The latter, meanwhile, are the indiscretions that are not inherently destructive, but which indicate that far worse shenanigans are on the way.  Or at least that they bloody well might be, and you’d be well-advised to prevent them while you still can.

To wit:  When President Bill Clinton was found to have committed perjury regarding whether Monica Lewinsky was more than a mere pizza delivery girl, no serious person asserted that an affair between the president and an intern was, itself, a cause for serious concern as to the well-being of the United States.

No, the refrain was always something along the lines of, “If Clinton will lie under oath about an affair, then what won’t he lie about?”  Clinton’s brush with impeachment was, in effect, an indictment of his character more than his actions.

The question with Clinton—and also with Nixon—is this:  If the act itself is not an impeachable offense, then why is lying about the act any worse?  We might agree that dishonesty is inherently bad—and that perjury is inherently very bad, indeed—but let us not suggest for a moment that all lies are created equal, or that all abuses of executive power are equally harmful to the country or the office.

Does this mean Richard Nixon should not have been subject to articles of impeachment?  Not in the least.  The bases for impeachment are deliberately broad, and Nixon’s actions regarding Watergate all-but-demanded the three charges he faced—namely, “obstruction of justice,” “abuse of power” and “contempt of Congress.”  We can argue about whether the rules are just, but Nixon most certainly broke them.

What I would argue, however, is that the Watergate affair is far overrated in our collective consciousness of the last half-century in American history.  As with the Kennedy assassination and the September 11 attacks, we have come to regard the investigation and its findings as a “loss of national innocence,” whatever that means.

What Watergate really did was confirm a few things that we already knew but apparently were not prepared to admit out loud.

Power corrupts.  Richard Nixon was a paranoid scoundrel who surrounded himself with other paranoid scoundrels.  Ambitious men, once in power, will go to extraordinary lengths to stay in power.  Follow the money.

Were any of these things actually revelations in 1974, or were they merely the end of a happy self-delusion on the part of the entire country?  Albeit with four decades for us to think it over, the answer today would seem to be self-evident.

More to the point, so long as the darker side of government is, and has always been, a simple fact of life, what exactly was so tragic and violent about being made aware of it once and for all?  Isn’t it in our best interests to know what our elected officials are up to, rather than remaining ignorant and assuming everything will turn out fine?

Indeed, Watergate may well have been one of the best things ever to happen to us.

The Boys Who Cried ‘Impeachment’

It is now official.

Certain members of the Republican Party in Washington, D.C., are prepared to draft articles of impeachment against President Barack Obama.

For what high crimes and misdemeanors might the commander-in-chief be prosecuted?

Not to worry.  We’ll figure that out later.

I jest not.  At a town hall in Oklahoma last week, Senator Tom Coburn responded to an attendee’s demand for the president’s head by assenting that, on the question of impeachment, “I think you’re getting perilously close.”

To be precise, the questioner accused the Obama administration of being “lawless,” to which Coburn replied, “I think there’s some intended violation of the law in this administration but I also think there’s a ton of incompetence.”

In any event, Senator Coburn conceded that, for the moment, he could not identify a presidential transgression that would justify impeachment proceedings, adding that he is not sufficiently versed in such matters to make an informed judgment one way or the other.

He is not alone.  The truth is that no one quite knows what an impeachable offense really is, because it’s one of those nebulous legal concepts that can be made to mean whatever one wants it to mean.

In theory, Congress’s impeachment powers are an essential component of any democratic republic—a check by the legislature on the actions of the executive, to ensure the commander-in-chief and his deputies do not abuse their authority as servants of the people.

In practice, not so much.

During the censure of President Bill Clinton, Democrats accused Republicans of using impeachment as a merely political instrument—a means of embarrassing and one-upping someone the GOP simply didn’t like.  The opposition was itching for an excuse to bring Clinton down, the theory went, and his lying about oral sex became their smoking gun.

The implication, then and now, is that the whole Monica Lewinsky episode was an unnecessary and trivial use of Congress’s power to impeach, which was intended only for the most egregious of presidential crimes.  That even if Clinton’s actions did constitute “obstruction of justice,” it was not the sort of obstruction that posed an existential threat to the American republic.

The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t make a difference.  For all that is unclear about the principle of impeachment in the United States, a rudimentary reading of history makes it perfectly plain that it can be employed at any time for any reason.

In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton characterized impeachment as retribution for “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Benjamin Franklin, in typically pithy fashion, offered that impeachment, and even removal from office, was justified whenever the president “rendered himself obnoxious.”

In other words, the “original intent” of America’s founders was not for impeachment to be particularly rare or exceptional.  Rather, it was meant to be used in any instance in which the Big Cheese got out of line, with the yardstick for what constitutes “out of line” planted wherever Congress sees fit.  Historically speaking, one could argue that Congress has broached the subject too little, rather than too much.

The problem today is twofold.

First, we live with a national legislature that is shaped by political loyalty even more so than during the Clinton years, meaning that any possible future vote to impeach President Obama will be a purely partisan exercise.  Regardless of the merits, Democrats will rally to the president’s defense, while Republicans will vote “Aye” as reflexively as they have to abolish Obamacare, which they have done 40 times thus far.

On the other hand, we also live with an executive branch that, in the last several decades, has exerted ever-greater authority over the other branches and over many aspects of American life.  Activities and programs that used to be unthinkable are now routine (wiretapping, drones, Gitmo, etc.), with executive fiat becoming the rule rather than the exception.

In short:  The America we presently inhabit would seem a prime target for the periodic article of impeachment, yet is represented by people incapable of drafting one properly.

Is this an irony of politics, or is it precisely what one might expect?  Perhaps it is both.

What I fear in any case—as Commissioner Gordon might put it—is that we have been saddled not with the government we need, but with the government we deserve.  A government that cannot seem to accomplish anything except for what it has no business accomplishing in the first place.

And if this is indeed the case, then the most heinous high crimes of all have been committed not by our elected officials, but by us.