The G-File

Politics & Policy

The Benefit of the Doubt Is Gone

Invoking the Clintonian precedent as a moral justification for Team Trump’s actions is ludicrous.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and high-quality persons everywhere),

Well, I jinxed it.

On Tuesday morning, I posted this mini-screed about how nobody knows anything about the Russia-collusion story, so the best course of action is to just wait for the facts to come in.

“Trust Nothing, Defend Nothing” was my advice.

(I wanted to turn this into a Latin slogan, but when I typed “Trust Nothing, Defend Nothing” into Google’s Latin translation thingamabob I got “Nihil confido, nihil pupillo defendite viduam.” This looked fishy to me so I translated that back into English and got: “I trust there is nothing, there is nothing, for the fatherless, plead for the widow.” This seems either like World War II code for “We’re invading Belgium on Wednesday” or the sign-language subtitles from Charlie Rose’s interview of Paco, the chain-smoking existentialist gorilla).

Anyway, where was I? Right: “Trust Nothing, Defend Nothing.”

This was bipartisan advice. On the one hand, the media get lots of stuff wrong and get way ahead of the facts. So, we should give Donald Trump some benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the Trump White House lies like a randy sailor with eight hours of shore leave and not enough money for a professional “date.”

But the lying really isn’t the problem. Sometimes the Trump team tells the truth. Sometimes it buries the kernels of truth in the larger nougat of B.S. The problem is that Trump and his people can’t stay on message, whether it’s true or false. President Trump just doesn’t care if he makes his surrogates, including members of his cabinet and family, look like chumps. Allow myself to repeat myself:

If there is one thing we’ve learned from this president, it’s that going too far out on a limb brings out the saw. Poor Steve Mnuchin. He went out on Sunday and heaped praise on this joint US-Russia Cyber Fox Force Five idea that the president blurted out on Twitter. Within a few hours, Trump left Mnuchin out to dry. It happens again and again.

And again, and again, and again.

Shortly after I said, “wait and see because we don’t know anything yet,” we suddenly got some new information. Donald Trump Jr. released his e-mail chain about a meeting with a Russian lawyer. In this exchange, Rob Goldstone, who looks like he could land a great role in a Guy Ritchie remake of Boogie Nights, says:

The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.

This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.

I know everyone knows this stuff already. But I really want to make a few interrelated points.

Coerced Transparency

First, according to Team Trump, this was a bold and laudable act of “transparency.”

Um. No. This transparency “argument” is like a dye-marker to see who is intellectually serious and who is part of the great Trump Aqueduct, carrying water for the president wherever and whenever he needs it. Junior released his e-mail chain minutes before the New York Times could publish it. This is like “bravely” admitting to your wife that you cheated on her seconds before she opens the blackmailer’s envelope containing the 8×10 glossies of you at the Motel 6 with a troupe of dwarf “acrobats” using you like a pommel horse.

Heading off the Times was smarter than the alternative, just as telling your wife about your time with the cast of Le Petite Cirque du Soleil before the blackmailers get to her is better than the alternative. But after spending the better part of a year denying any contact whatsoever with the Russians and lying so baldly about this meeting, it takes a Costco pallet full of chutzpah to claim the mantle of transparency.

This, of course, is all the more true now that it’s being reported that Junior wasn’t being transparent while he was bragging about his transparency. This morning, news came out that some sketchy former Soviet counter-intelligence officer was also in the room. (What are the odds he recorded the conversation, by the way? I’d say they’re pretty high.)

The Room Where It Happened

Second, this underscores a point I’ve been shouting at the TV all week: Why the Hell are people taking the word of anyone in that meeting as proof of anything? Before this morning’s revelation, even members of the Trump-hostile press repeated that “nothing came of the meeting” or that “no information was given.” On the Trump Aqueduct, this was translated into the whole story being a “nothingburger.”

Where did the proof of this come from? From the people in the room! Jiminy Cricket, that’s stupid.

Who in that room do you think is above lying about what transpired there?

It may be true that nothing came of the meeting. Heck, I think it probably is true (more on that in a moment). Junior seems plausible when he says as much. But every single person who was in that room has a very strong incentive to say nothing nefarious happened in the room. Well, when the Soprano crew is jointing a corpse in the backroom of Satriale’s, everyone there has a vested interest in sticking to the story that they were just playing cards.

Who in that room do you think is above lying about what transpired there? Paul Manafort? Forget his deep Russian connections. The guy was a lobbyist for Mobutu Seske Seko. When he worked for the Pakistani intelligence service, he pretended to be a CNN reporter for a propaganda documentary he was making for them. The only way you could say “that man’s word is oak” is if Jell-O came out with a new oak-flavored pudding. (“Now with real bark!”)

Jared? The guy who initially “forgot” that meeting happened at all?

Don Jr.? We already know he’s capable of lying about the meeting because he’s already lied about the meeting.

Oh, maybe you’re taking the word of the sketchy Russian lawyer. That’s a great idea. It’s also kind of hilarious. Many of the people pushing back on this story are doing so by questioning Natalia Veselnitskaya’s credibility. But we should take her word that nothing happened? Cults of personality are a helluva drug.

[While I was editing the galley of this “news”letter, the Associated Press reported that the sketchy former Soviet counter-intelligence guy, Rinat Akhmetshin, who was in the room claims that Veselnitskaya did indeed hand over a file of incriminating info. I guess this is just a smudge on the window of Junior’s transparency.]

Admission as Exoneration

Which brings me to point No. 3. It doesn’t frick’n matter if — note the “if” — nothing came of the meeting. Junior can’t claim he, Manafort, and Kushner never sought to collude with the Russian government when he admits that he, Manafort, and Kushner eagerly took a meeting for the express purpose of colluding with Russia. This is like one of those episodes of Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” where some sleazebag is catfished into having a “date” with a 13-year-old girl only to show up and find Chris Hansen waiting in the kitchen with a transcript of their conversations. At least those scumbags had the “integrity” to lie and say it was all a misunderstanding and that they were just there because they really like hanging out and watching MTV and eating ice cream. “We had a lot in common! I thought we could be friends!”

I don’t recall any of them saying, “Hey, I didn’t do anything wrong because I didn’t actually get a chance to rape her.”

If you break into a bank, you can’t claim you did nothing wrong if the safe turns out to be empty any more than a terrorist can plead innocence if his bomb didn’t go off.

The Corruption of Whataboutism

Which brings me back to my first point of the week. Why on God’s good Earth would you defend any of this? Since I’ve been having this ridiculous argument all week, let me skip ahead. Yes, “Crooked Hillary,” Ted Kennedy, and a host of other liberals did bad things. Whether those bad things were analogous to this is highly debatable. But let’s just concede the point for argument’s sake. Let’s also accept the president’s grotesquely cynical and false claim that pretty much anyone in politics would have done the same thing and taken the meeting. (I for one am perfectly happy to concede that Sidney Blumenthal would happily have done equally sleazy things for his Queen-master. But I have every confidence that if some shady Russian cutouts approached, say, James Baker with a similar scheme to “incriminate” Michael Dukakis, he would become a helicopter of fists.)

Why on God’s good Earth would you defend any of this?

But here’s the thing: Who gives a dirty rat’s ass? If you spent years — like I did, by the way — insisting that the Clintons were a corrupt affront to political decency, invoking their venal actions as a moral justification for Team Trump’s actions is the rhetorical equivalent of a remake of Waterworld set entirely in the main vat of a sewage-treatment plant, i.e., the intellectual Mother of Sh*t Shows. This is a point Ben Shapiro made well earlier this week (and which I’ve been writing about for two years now). If you want to make the case that Democrats or the media are hypocrites, whataboutism is perfectly valid (and quite fun). But if you want to say that it’s fine for Trump to do things you considered legally and morally outrageous when Hillary Clinton did them, you should either concede that you believe two wrongs make a right or you should apologize for being angry about what Clinton did. And you should be prepared to have no right to complain when the next Democrat gets into power and does the same thing.

What Next?

All of this said, I don’t think we are anywhere near impeachment. The cries of “treason” are ridiculous. But I for one no longer believe that the collusion thing is mostly hype. We already know that Trump openly implored the Russians to dig up Clinton’s e-mails. We now know that Junior, Kushner, and then–campaign manager Manafort had no problem meeting with a person they believed to be an emissary of the Russian government. Moreover, not only am I unconvinced nothing damning happened in that room, I think there’s merit to Chris Hayes’s analysis that there was an important phone call before the meeting.

I also think there are many shoes to drop with regard to Cambridge Analytica and the Mercers.

Erick Erickson may be right that this meeting was a setup. Trump’s more-credible defenders certainly may be right that this is all the result of ineptitude and amateurishness. These guys are like a mix between Ron Jeremy and a yoga master in their ability to step on their own johnsons.

But my wait-and-see approach was grounded in the fact that other than Trump’s public obsession with the Russia story — including his firing of James Comey — there was no concrete evidence that the Trump campaign had any dealings with the Russians. That benefit of the doubt is gone.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Despite all the promises that the swamp would be drained, D.C. is swampier than ever. Of course, I mean that meteorologically. D.C. is a miserable place right now. It’s like a giant overheated St. Bernard has sauntered to the nation’s capital and is panting on it. The air is akin to what it would be like if the University of Alabama football team finished a double practice in the hot sun and then put their wet socks and jock straps in a pizza oven.

The dogs do not like it and neither do I. That’s why we’ve been going out earlier than usual, when the air is only as sticky as the joystick on a Ms. Pacman machine at Chuck E. Cheese’s. But just as firemen still must do their heroic duty regardless of the weather, the Dingo is still determined to punish the rabbits for their maddening hoppiness. The Spaniel remains undaunted in her dedication to her beloved tennis balls. Although she did have a very scary run-in with a turtle of undetermined Ninjaness.

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