The Corner

White House

Political Standards in the Post-Clinton and Trump Era

Michael Cohen exits the United States Courthouse after sentencing in New York City, December 12, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

In my latest column I try to tackle a peeve of mine going back at least as far as the Clinton scandals: The way issues of character, morality, and public trust get reduced down to narrow criminal questions, and once that happens, equivalencies are drawn between legal infractions.

By way of illustration, it’s sort of like debates over free-speech restrictions. College student A shouts the n-word, college student B shouts “Three Cheers for Capitalism!” If a university punished them both for their outbursts, from a civil-libertarian perspective, you could argue it’s all a free-speech issue. But it’s not just a free-speech issue. How we judge the individuals — and by extension the punishments — should be informed by the content and intent of what they said. As a legal matter you can argue that they should be treated the same, but as a moral or political matter they are very different.

This is my problem with Andy’s point about the Obama campaign-finance violation in 2008 and the Michael Cohen-Stormy Daniels payoff story. Over at FoxNews.com Andy writes:

In marked contrast, though, when it was discovered that Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was guilty of violations involving nearly $2 million – an amount that dwarfs the $280,000 in Cohen’s case – the Obama Justice Department decided not to prosecute. Instead, the matter was quietly disposed of by a $375,000 fine by the Federal Election Commission.

I take Andy’s point entirely. He is simply bringing it up as an illustration of a larger analytical point. Moreover, if you ever listen to the McCarthy Report (and you should) you’d know that he often concedes what I am saying — that a lot of things can be terrible, immoral, scandalous or offensive without being illegal or impeachable.  And while I might even agree with him that the Mueller teams paean to campaign-finance laws is overwrought, I don’t think the two infractions are comparable in ways that really matter, regardless of what the president may claim.

One way to get at the difference: Ask yourself what Melania Trump thinks of her husband’s campaign-finance violation and what Michelle Obama thinks of her husband’s infraction. I have no idea what’s going on in either woman’s head, but I would be stunned if they saw no difference between them.

That’s not a legal standard. But it is an important moral and human standard. The question is how much of a political standard it should be. And in the post-Clinton and current Trump era, it doesn’t seem to be a very important standard at all.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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