Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Lyin' in Winter

Steve on the huge and very important distinction between lying about facts and lying about acts...

Well, it was inevitable, but nobody expected it just three weeks in. And for all the hype, when it finally happened, it wasn’t the least bit funny, meta, or entertaining.

You’re fired.”

When Donald Trump dumped shortest-ever-tenured NSC Director Michael Flynn, he took pains to explain that the reason for the termination was because Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about discussing U.S. sanctions with the Russian Ambassador.

That is to say: Trump wanted it on the record that Flynn’s sin was not committing the criminal act of negotiating with a foreign nation as a private citizen. Not even the felony of lying in an FBI investigation. It was because he lied to Mike Pence about it. Message: whether you broke the law or not is secondary to whether you were loyal to the Trump cabal.

But getting fired for lying to Donald Trump? You can find that in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Irony. 

Perhaps the President was pissed off that Flynn was trying to do Trump’s job (“I am in charge of lying around here, dammit!”).  Or maybe Trump thought Flynn wasn’t good enough at lying. After all, you may not be cut out to be leader of the National Security Council if you can’t figure out that incoming calls from private citizens to the Russian Ambassador are likely to be monitored.  I can just hear Trump berating Flynn behind closed doors: “You have humiliated us! Don’t you understand that on my team we only have the best, the most amazing, and the most awesome liars in our whole world?”

Let’s face it: getting fired by Donald Trump for lying is like a roadie getting fired by Willie Nelson for smoking dope, or some Assistant VP getting fired by Bernie Madoff for faking an expense report.  I mean, the poor guy was just trying to measure up to the impossible standards of his boss.

Yes, the week started with the humiliation of Flynn, but then very suddenly veered into a Category Five Katrina-grade shit-storm.  First, Secretary of Labor Nominee Andrew Puzder scored a rare disqualification trifecta when news of his employing an off-the-books undocumented immigrant and accusations of spousal abuse were piled on top of his record as a CEO who ran shamelessly sexually exploitive advertising to sell his cheesy burgers.

But Trump’s White House slid from merely being graded out for unprecedented incompetence to suddenly taking on whispers of impeachable offenses to the shock of a below-the-waterline iceberg impact when The New York Times reported that there had been frequent and ongoing contact between Trump’s team and Russian intelligence operators throughout the campaign.  “GEEzuz!” rumbled the internet, “the possibility of full-on collusion with Russian intelligence during the election would be WORSE than WATERGATE!”

Thursday the Exacerbator-in-Chief decided that he needed to personally step to the mic to set the record straight. In a Queeg-like monologue, Trump slipped free of the surly bonds of reality and reported -- among other gossamer fantasies -- that the White House was “running like a well-oiled machine.” Of course, that phrase also applies to dumping a full bottle of Filippo Berio Extra Virgin into your toaster.

There he was, Donald being Donald, raising the art form of lying to supersonic cruising altitude.  In a splendid exchange, the Donald claimed that his electoral victory was the “biggest electoral win since Ronald Reagan.” NBC’s Peter Alexander pointed out that Barack Obama had higher electoral vote totals in both of his elections, and Trump countered that his claim was relative to other Republican Presidents. Wrong again, Alexander retorted. George H.W. Bush had more.

The subject of lying was plastered all over the news yet again this week.  The Toronto Star took pains to publish all of the 57 instances in which they could prove that Donald Trump had lied since he had been inaugurated.  PolitiFact noted that 69% of Trump’s utterances were largely or wholly untrue, divided among “mostly false” (19%), “false” (33%), or their term reserved for the most brazen of lies, “pants on fire” (17%).

John Oliver focused his entire season opening show on Trump’s prodigious lying, and the New York Times reviewer actually admitted to feeling concerned that “two-thirds of the way into Sunday night’s show it seemed as if Mr. Oliver had nothing new to add.” Huh? The Times reviewer seemed to be setting new expectations: “Please, commentators! If you are not going to bring some new, different, and entertaining angle into your coverage of Trump’s lying, then move along."

So now we must bring something new to the discussion of Trump’s lying. Ok, I shall give it a go.

Let me begin by noting that we here at BTRTN have been on this particular case for some time. Back on March 23, 2016 we posted White Lies Matter, an essay devoted to the frequency, flagrancy, and even the structural variety of Donald Trump’s compulsive lying, much as if we were codifying varieties of seasonal flowering plants.

But that was different. That was about a candidate lying. Back then, the issue was simply that candidate Trump was an amoral bullshit howitzer who had come to realize that his audience could not discern truth from fiction and was generally far more entertained by the latter.

Today, it is about the President of the United States lying, and because he is now under that oath, everything changes.

Back in the fall, during election season, all you could do was say “buyer beware, this guy lies more often than a Sealy PosturePedic,” but now the seasons have changed.  We now behold the Lyin’ in Winter.

Specifically, we must closely examine the very important distinction between lying about facts and lying about acts.  A quick review of recent American history suggests that our citizens couldn’t care less about the former – lying about facts – but they are very concerned when there is an issue of lying about acts.

It is plain as day that Americans don’t seem upset by untruths about simple matters of historical accuracy, scientific discovery, and basic arithmetic. Donald Trump was elected President after systematically lying about matters of fact: the crime rate, the amount of violent crime perpetrated by blacks on whites, the state of the economy and unemployment, and the record and achievements of the Obama administration. Americans did not get particularly worked up over whether his facts were accurate or not; they were responding to his more emotional message of victimization and anger at institutional authority.

Now, consider Hillary Clinton’s trust issues through the same lens. Policy wonk Clinton was pristinely accurate about facts and figures, but she appeared to have been less than truthful about actions she had taken as high-ranking officer in the United States government, and she was excoriated for it. All Richard Comey had to do was re-kindle the issue days before the election, and Clinton was destroyed.

Indeed, in the past 150 years, lying about actions is the only thing that gets a President impeached. Richard Nixon was not threatened with impeachment for the Watergate break-in, but rather for the lies in told in trying to cover it up. Bill Clinton was not impeached for sexually predatory behavior with an intern, but for lying to cover it up.  Lying about an action, thus far, is the only thing that has been demonstrable proven to be a “high crime or misdemeanor,” which is the full extent of vagary that the Constitution offers as justification for the impeachment of a President.

But we needn’t limit the discussion to the extreme of impeachment. The Gipper himself – arguably the most popular President in the past half-century – took a huge dent in his fender when he was caught wobbling on Iran Contra.  George W. Bush has been excoriated by history for leading us into war in Iraq on the false pretense of have certain knowledge that Saddam possessed WMDs.  LBJ was viewed to be misleading the country about the outlook for military victory in Vietnam.

When presidents lied about the actions they had taken, Americans noticed. They cared. They acted. They condemned, vilified, and usually threw the crook out, by hook or by crook… if not by impeachment, then by the nearest election.

The reason that Donald Trump was elected despite having regularly spewed erroneous information is that he was almost always lying about facts.

But now, Mr. Trump, it is time for you to get nervous. You are now the highest-ranking officer in the United States government, and you are now responsible for a wide array of actions … a number of which have already taken place. How you communicate about those actions will make or break your presidency.

Let’s go back for a moment to Flynn. Do we believe that Mr. Trump had absolutely no idea that Flynn was going to call the Russian Ambassador and convey a little wink to Vlad the Impervious that he needn’t bother respond to those eleventh hour Obama sanctions?  If Trump had even the slightest involvement, knowledge, or inkling of the intent of that call, that is what we call an action. If Trump was in any way aware that Flynn was going to deliver that message, then a very specific legal term is applicable: unindicted co-conspirator.  Particularly if Trump’s Justice Department is instructed not to pursue criminal charges against Flynn – who, in such a situation, might gladly strike a deal to avoid the slammer by fingering his Boss.

But the buzz around Flynn absolutely pales in comparison to the issues that are raised by the Times’ allegations that Trump’s campaign was in routine dialog with Russian intelligence operatives throughout the campaign. This has triggered the “worse than Watergate” trending, as the notion that a candidate actively coordinated with a hostile foreign government to influence the outcome of the election makes one realize that Watergate was a mere constitutional crisis as opposed to a full-on, no holds-barred coup.

Trump is already knee-deep in the Big Muddy.

If Trump takes the position that he knew nothing of this coordination, and he is proven to be untruthful, he is no longer lying about facts like the size of his Electoral College win or his, uh, hands.  He would be lying about an action. He would be lying about whether he participated in collusion to subvert the electoral democracy in the United States of America. Something tells me that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind when they cooked up the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

A lawyer might take the position that the action happened before he was President, but it would not matter. The cover-up – the lie about his knowledge and/or involvement – may be unfolding as we speak, and as Donald Trump speaks as the highest ranking official in government.

As anyone who witnessed Donald Trump’s manic press conference on Thursday can attest, the man lies with a brazen and utterly unself-conscious flair that remains unruffled even in the face of being publicly and repeatedly corrected a pool reporter from NBC. 

Trump has proven is that facts are so twentieth century. You’ve got yours? Well, I’ve got my alternative ones. And if facts were so damn important, Google would have built a fact-checker into Chrome and your upgrade to Amazon Prime would come with a truthometer.

Ah, but actions.

Actions lie louder than words.

I actually think Trump understands the danger he is in. There is an eerie desperation to his lunging attacks at the “fake news” and the “dishonest media.” He refuses to even address the issues raised by the New York Times. Nobody ever said this guy was stupid – perhaps he realizes that if is never quoted about Russia, then he cannot be caught lying.

Every week, in the face of Trump’s rapidly expanding turd museum, I make an effort to leave you all on an upbeat note.  Some weeks it is harder than others.

But this week, I leave you with the most optimistic conclusion I can offer. Mark my words. The fact that the man’s default mechanism is set to “lie” is going to bring him down, as surely as it brought down Nixon and soiled the reputations of Clintons, Bushes, and even The Gipper himself.

Today, Trump will scream about fake news and disgusting reporters, but his Presidency is spinning wildly and chaotically, and things are happening – or have already happened – that he appears genuinely unaware of. His team’s knowledge of constitutional law is so wafer thin that they might break laws without even knowing it.  Their respect for constitutional law is so tiny that might break laws willfully.

This is a man who cannot stand embarrassment and who will eagerly lie to avoid it. That is a formula for lying about actions and lying to cover up embarrassing truths.

And as we speak, there is a young Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee, Cronkite, or some other rough beast slouching toward Washington, its hour come round at last.

“There's a masterpiece. He isn't flesh: he's a device. He's wheels and gears. And Johnny: Was his latest treason your idea? I've caught him lying, and I've said, 'he's young.' I've found him cheating, and I've said, 'he's just a boy.' I've watched him steal and whore and whip his servants, and he's not a child; he's the man we made him.”

--The Lion in Winter

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