Truth Isn’t Truth And The Weekend Of Trumpism

Ken AshfordL'Affaire Russe, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment


It’s very hard to comment on this.  What you’re thinking is what everyone is saying. Bizarre, Orwellian, insane.

But there was so much more this weekend.

Lord knows we could use some more civic education in our country, and so I’m delighted that the President has suggested we study the McCarthy era more closely. But the parallel won’t work the way he intends.

As it turns out, McCarthy and Trump shared an infamous aide, a widely reviled but nonetheless influential lawyer named Roy Cohn. In Jon Meacham’s excellent new book, “The Soul of America,” he recounts McCarthy’s advice to Cohn before one of their contentious televised hearings: “‘People aren’t going to remember the things we say on the issues here, our logic, our common sense, our facts,’ McCarthy told Cohn. ‘They’re only going to remember the impressions.'”

This is a demagogue’s calling card — a disregard for facts in favor of fear-fueled, emotional impressions, which are deployed to divide and then to conquer. And Cohn had a fascinating personal impression of McCarthy, seeing him as essentially a salesman, for whom accuracy was an obstacle to attention.

“He was impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic. He acted on impulse. He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had — in order to draw attention to the rock-bottom seriousness of the situation. He would neglect to do important homework and consequently would, on occasion, make challengeable statements… He knew that he could never hope to convince anybody by delivering a dry, general-accounting-office type of presentation. In consequence, he stepped up circumstances a notch or two,” Cohn recalled in a memoir about McCarthy.

Sound familiar? That innocuous “notch or two” is another way of explaining what Trump has described as “truthful hyperbole.” But there are far higher stakes for our republic when the goal is something greater than a real estate sale.

The tipping point for McCarthy began when a handful of centrist Republican senators — led by Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith — stood up to the bully by denouncing him from the floor of the Senate. In a legendary speech known as “The Declaration of Conscience,” Smith said: “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism: The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought…I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

This was a powerful opening shot, but the fight against McCarthy’s fear-based appeals was far from successful at the outset. It would take high-profile tangles with broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow — dramatized in the film Good Night and Good Luck — and a withering pushback from a lawyer named Joseph Welch, who denounced McCarthy’s attack on a young lawyer by famously asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Decency is a quality in short supply in our politics today. Expediency and outrage are instead our competing virtues, with too many elected Republicans afraid to stand up to Trump when they know he is wrong — lest they alienate the Republican base.Trump is presumably looking for his own Welch moment when he tweets, “So many lives have been ruined over nothing – McCarthyism at its WORST!” in reference to the Mueller investigation. Perhaps never has a self-styled strong man so enjoyed playing the victim card.

This tweet is notable because it shows that Trump is using security clearances as reward or punishment for being a Trump supporter or a critic.  It’s a game, a tease.

This isn’t the first time Trump’s reality television roots have been evidenced in his presidency. The way he’s treated his Supreme Court picks — putting out lists, whittling down the finalists, and announcing his decisions during primetime hours — has an Apprentice-like air to it as well. If national security experts are right and the president’s game right now is indeed one, the stakes are much higher than in the Trump Tower boardroom when Trump was deciding whether to fire Omarosa.


Yada yada yada.  Droning about no collusion again.  I’ll talk about White House “Councel” below.

A lot of ink and bandwidth was used up this weekend about the “bombshell” revelation that McGahn spoke for an estimated 30 hours to the Mueller team.

I didn’t think it that big a deal. McGahn is not Trump’s counsel (and, uh, WHEN will Trump learn to spell that word right?!?) — he is the Counsel to the President — to the OFFICE, not the PERSON.  

am a bit surprised that the testimony was thirty hours, and that Trump’s actual attorneys seem to have very little idea about what McGahn testified to.  Trump seems to want points for cooperating with Mueller.  Fine.  I’ll give him that.

But let’s turn to the substance of that first tweet in the series of three.

“A John Dean type ‘RAT'”?! Nowhere in the Times article did the reporters or any of the sources they interviewed mention the word “rat.” All the article said was that McGahn was cooperating with the special counsel — and with Trump’s permission. And according to sources close to McGahn, the Times wrote, McGahn was hoping to avoid a fate similar to Richard Nixon’s White House counsel at the time of Watergate: John Dean.

So why would Trump reach for such an ominous term to characterize the way (in his view) the Times piece described McGahn’s motivation? Whatever Trump’s reasons, it’s striking how effectively the word “rat” telegraphs the choices available to someone, like McGahn, who cooperates with the special counsel — even with the President’s assent, as he points out.

You are a rat, or you are loyal. Because Trump values loyalty to him above all else — including any responsibilities that civil servants like McGahn may have to the American people or White House.Indeed, this loyalty principle — and invoking the term “rat” — eerily recall the motif of crime bosses. Former Mafia kingpin John Gotti used that word “rat” to describe his former associate Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, who had testified against him.

So exactly what did Dean do that would lead Trump to cast him as a “RAT”?! Well, Dean played a crucial role in helping both Congress and Watergate prosecutors understand the full scope of the criminal conspiracy involving Nixon and his top aides surrounding the break-in to the Democratic National headquarters and the cover-up that followed.

Dean’s testimony before Congress detailed that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Dean later testified in the federal trial against former Nixon officials involved in the Watergate cover-up that led to the conviction of several, including former US Attorney General John Mitchell.

And Dean did this knowing the government would not offer him full immunity for his own wrongdoing in connection with Watergate. Consequently, Dean pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice in exchange for the government not pursuing additional charges against him. At the time of his guilty plea, Dean noted he could have escaped conviction on “legal technicalities” but remarked that would have been a “shallow victory.” Dean served four months in prison and was disbarred.

To me, and countless others, Dean is far from a rat: He is a patriot. And any president should want this behavior from any of his employees.Dean didn’t have to work with federal investigators. He could have, like other Nixon associates, stonewalled them and declared the investigation was a “witch hunt.” Yep, Nixon called the Watergate investigation a witch hunt just like Trump calls the Mueller investigation a witch hunt.

Trump suggesting the Times is casting Dean as a rat for working with the government doesn’t tell me anything new about Trump. It simply confirms that he acts and sounds like a crime boss, clarifying for all involved the lens he’s using to assess their actions.