PC Culture

Elites Value Mellifluous Illegality over Crass Lawfulness

President Obama in the White House press room in 2014; President Trump speaks to reporters in Bedminster, N.J., August 10, 2017. (Larry Downing, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Obama defies the Constitution but sounds ‘presidential.’ Trump follows it but sounds like a loudmouth from Queens.

Donald Trump blusters nonstop. He offers contrasting messages about whether, on any given day, he might fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. His tweets are certainly not presidential, at least as the adjective is usually understood.

At perpetual campaign rallies, Trump mocks his critics, caricaturing their voices and slamming them with adolescent epithets like “Cryin’ Chuckie Schumer.” He accuses House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of being an enabler of M-13 gang members after she chastised him for calling such psychopaths “animals.” Trump has defined his own uncouthness, which so incenses his opponents, as “the new presidential.”

Yet so far, after over a year of intense investigation, Special Counsel Mueller has found no evidence that Donald Trump — or even his low-level subordinates — had ever colluded with Russian government interests to hijack the 2016 election and defeat Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Mueller has shown himself desperate to indict almost anyone connected with the Trump campaign with almost any charge he can think of — other than colluding with the Russians to warp an election, his original mandate.

Call the Trump paradox “crass lawfulness.” What drives Trump’s critics nearly crazy is not any evidence that Trump has broken federal laws per se. Instead, their rub is that there are somehow no criminal statutes against a president boorishly acting “unpresidential” in his loud quest to supercharge the economy, while undoing the entire agenda of his predecessor, who was so dearly beloved by the media, universities, Hollywood, and identity-politics groups.

Certainly, President Obama’s teleprompted speeches were mellifluous. As some sort of postmodern preacher, Obama often sermonized to Americans about the predetermined “arc of history” that purportedly bent all of us inescapably toward his own just moral version of the universe.

In calm, ministerial tones, the progressive Obama sometimes slapped a puerile America’s wrists, with frequent admonitions to behave and to not act so illiberally. Or he frequently reminded us, with a frown, “that is not who we are.” Recall that Obama came into office promising that he would could lower the seas and cool the planet, with a generation of young like-minded activists who, we were lectured, were the ones we had all been waiting for. Now president emeritus Obama worries that perhaps his messianic appearance came too soon for us to fully appreciate his divinity.

Despite Obama’s recent projection that his eight-year tenure was “scandal-free,” along with the reality that the media’s biased compliance sought to make such a startling fantasy true, the Obama administration was in many respects lawless. It will eventually rank as the most scandal-ridden administration since Warren G. Harding’s.

 

The Scandals of the ‘Scandal-Free’ Obama Administration

The Fast and Furious scandal was, among other things, about deliberate government gun-running of weapons to Mexico, perhaps in a warped effort to discredit current U.S. firearms laws. The Benghazi debacle involved a cover-up of a preplanned terrorist hit on our consulate, an attack that was possible only because it was well known that the consulate’s security was lax. The Benghazi cover-up involved U.N. ambassador Susan Rice lying five times on national television in a single day, when she claimed that the terrorist operation was the result of a spontaneous riot over a video. And to justify that reelection-cycle concoction, the video maker, a foreign resident on U.S. soil, was summarily jailed on a trumped-up probation charge.

An IRS regional high official, and Obama partisan, Lois Lerner, weaponized and discredited the IRS, by hounding conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status. Lerner staged a self-serving public stunt to leak her misbehavior to friendly ears — she had a reporter ask her a planted question about targeting conservatives. At her later congressional testimony, Lerner invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination. She was never charged by the Obama State Department. Indeed, Obama himself, after expressing initial pseudo contriteness in the face of public furor, waited the public out before finally announcing that there was not a “smidgeon” of corruption in the IRS. Lerner, in effect, was rewarded for successfully neutralizing many conservative activist groups just months before the 2012 election. In October 2017, facing a lawsuit by conservative groups, the IRS admitted in court that it had unfairly targeted them during the Obama administration. It agreed to a multi-million-dollar settlement, and the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, apologized to the more than 450 conservative organizations in question.

Nadine Strossen, a liberal and the former president of the American Civil Liberty Union, conceded — but only in hindsight when both Obama and she were out of their respective offices — that Obama was one of the most hostile presidents to civil liberties in history. Perhaps she was referring to the fact that Eric Holder’s and Loretta Lynch’s Justice Department had spied on Associated Press reporters, monitored the communications of Fox reporter James Rosen, and subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen to force him to reveal his confidential sources. Holder was also the first Attorney General in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over subpoenaed documents.

We are slowly appreciating over the last year that lying under oath was an Obama-administration requisite for a high position in the intelligence community.

But it was during the 2016 election cycle that the Obama administration descended to a level of corruption not seen in a century. Right in the middle of the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server, Obama, as judge and jury, announced that candidate Clinton had violated no criminal law while secretary of state. Obama also lied when he stated that he’d known nothing about such an unlawful server, although emails prove that he himself had communicated over it on several occasions. His FBI director, James Comey, deliberately scrambled the law and exonerated Hillary Clinton from wrongdoing, not because she had not broken the law, but, according to Comey’s own invented interpretations of the statute, because she had not intended to violate the law. Comey also admitted to tailoring his circus-like investigation of Clinton around the assumption that she would soon be president.

We are slowly appreciating over the last year that lying under oath was an Obama-administration requisite for a high position in the intelligence community. FBI director Comey lied about the particular sequences of his investigation of the Clinton email scandal. He lied by omission to the president when, in his supposed Oval Office informative dissection of the Steele dossier, he failed to include the fact that it was a product of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC.

Comey’s various testimonies often cannot be reconciled with those of his deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe, who was cited by the inspector general for lying. Comey warped a FISA-court request to spy on U.S. citizens, by deliberately withholding information from the court about the Steele dossier. Comey also has not been forthcoming about the insertion of an FBI informant into the 2016 Trump campaign. Comey has often lectured about the illegality and impropriety of leaking confidential government documents, though he later bragged about his own successful leak of such documents as a successful means of getting Special Counsel Robert Mueller appointed.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan may prove to be the two most prevaricating officials in the history of any modern administration. Both have lied repeatedly while under oath to Congress, respectively, about their agencies’ surveillance of American citizens, spying on Senate staffers, the U.S. drone program, and leaking the notorious Steele dossier. In their particular cases, as current media analysts, they have become completely unhinged over the reality that a crude Donald Trump was never so crude as either of them in their attempt to undermine the constitutional principle of telling the truth to Congress while under oath.

Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and others sought transcripts of surveilled U.S. citizens in order to unmask their names, which were then subsequently leaked to the media. Rice initially lied about her role in the unmaskings. Power’s testimony that she had no idea how her name found its way onto the unmasking requests — more than 250 of them — is as surreal as it is mendacious. In 2016 alone, Power sought one unmasking on average every working day, despite the fact that the U.N. ambassador is not an intelligence official.

In addition to such unethical and often illegal behavior, the Obama administration institutionalized deception as a tool of government: hiding from the American people all the side agreements to the so-called Iran deal, itself a blatant effort to bypass the treaty-making responsibilities of the U.S. Senate; fabricating yarns to sell the disastrous Obamacare takeover of health care; using executive orders to enact immigration amnesties after warning that doing just that would be unconstitutional; lying repeatedly about the circumstances of the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

Hillary Clinton has never been able to explain why huge gifts to her family’s foundation from Russian interests coincided with the State Department’s approval of uranium sales to Russia, or why anyone would ever pay her husband $500,000 for a short speech in Moscow — and certainly would not now once her political ambitions have at last calcified.

We live in such strange times that the media ignored the most blatant examples of presidential campaign-cycle collusion in memory, while seeking to invent it where it never existed. Remember, Barack Obama on a hot mic not only got caught reiterating to a Russian leader the conditions of Putin-Obama election-cycle collusion, but he also spelled out the exact quid pro quo: promised Russian quietude abroad during Obama’s reelection campaign was in exchange for “flexibility” (i.e., cancellation) of U.S.-Eastern European missile-defense projects. Should Trump ever be caught making the same “deal” in 2020, he would probably be impeached.

 

Criminal Camelot vs. Crude Queens

Why was the Obama administration so corrupt?

Three reasons stand out. One, it was the first administration in modern history in which the media saw its role as a subordinate and accomplice rather than an auditor; the media thereby empowered corruption. Two, it exuded a moral zealousness in its promise to fundamentally transform the country and enact social justice; any means of doing so were justified by its exalted ends. Three, like the John F. Kennedy administration, Obama and his team adroitly calculated that in America’s celebrity culture, what’s hip and cool is often more highly prized than what’s competent and lawful, much less crude and effective.

No one would suggest that Donald Trump obeys the law because he has an inherent respect for the Constitution and the nation’s ethical bearings, although that perhaps could prove to be so. Rather, Trump has not broken the law the way that Obama routinely did quite simply because he cannot. The media is so hostile to his every act, the popular culture has so frequently written him off as crude, and his critics, both progressive and conservative, have become so hysterical over his person, that he lives in a singular 24/7 bubble that faults him for everything from his choice of dessert to the manner in which his daughter holds her child.

Our media and popular culture, as well as our cultural elite, value style far more than substance.

The news, both fake and real, is now all Trump, all the time. And because Trump can enjoy baiting his opponents by deliberately being uncouth and coarse, and since he has little respect for past presidential protocol, almost everything is now transparent and nothing is off-limits. Trump haters of the deep state leak. But then again, so do Trump adherents. Many of his cabinet meetings are televised, sometimes painfully. Trump can say anything to anyone anywhere at any time — on Twitter, television, or radio.

Finally, this weird juxtaposition of the vacuous and often law-breaking, but melodious, Obama administration next to boisterous and rowdy Trump presidency has taught us a lesson about our own moral blindness.

Credentials empower illegality; their mere absence is seen as almost illegal in itself. 

Both our media and popular culture, as well as our cultural elite, value style far more than substance. Adroitly breaking the law is preferable to obeying it in uncivilized fashion. Boorishly bragging nonstop about 3 percent economic growth and below-4-percent unemployment is deemed far worse than contextualizing in professorial tones a stagnant economy that in eight years never achieved 3 percent annual growth.

Credentials empower illegality; their mere absence is seen as almost illegal in itself.

Lawlessly “presidential” is a misdemeanor; lawfully unpresidential, a felony. A bankrupt agenda delivered by experts is sanctified; an effective one packaged by amateurs is heretical.

Having engaged in illegality during the Obama administration is better on a résumé than following the law in a Trump government.

And yet still, this one constant keeps reverberating throughout the hysteria: Our elite always values the messenger over the message.

The façade of Camelot exempts empty lawlessness in a way that Queens-accented boosterism seems to nullify real achievement.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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