Straight news reporters have to work within many important conventions. These both limit the scope of their work but are equally critical to doing that work properly and effectively. I was reminded of this when reading last night’s blockbuster report in The Washington Post.
The kernel of the Post report is a much more total and dramatic report of something we knew more tenuously in near contemporaneous reports a month ago: that President Trump had himself been involved in crafting the original statement that his son Don Jr. released in response to the original New York Times report about his June 2016 meeting with that Russia lawyer. That alone represented a stunning failure on the part of his aides. Since they implicated the President in both the knowledge of those events and whatever misstatements were included in the response to them – something with possibly severe legal implications. What the Post now reports is that not only was Trump the apparently sole author of the false statement – he apparently dictated the copy – but that he overruled his top aides and advisors to construct that false statement.
This is a fact of immense consequence.
Based around that central nugget of news are several other points which become clear on reading. One is the Kushner team’s interest in transparency. This is not credible, to put it mildly. That doesn’t mean the factual account is untrue in its narrow particulars. It may have been Kushner lawyer Abbe Lowell’s strategy with the particular evidence of this meeting or in conversations with the Post for this story. But the global message is hardly credible.
We are also told that the President’s legal team wanted to leak the story to the right wing propaganda chop-shop “Circa” with the theory that the meeting with the Russian lawyer was a Democratic set-up, meant to entrap Don Jr. and thus his father. This shows us a couple things: the Trump legal team is both corrupt and inept. Note here that this purported set-up happened a good six weeks before the first event which got people thinking of a suspicious relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Beyond the overarching nonsense of such a set up, even the chronology is preposterous on its face. Corrupt and inept.
But those points all pale in comparison to the central story: the President’s dictation of the false statement. The narrow facts and legal jeopardy are important. But they are, again, secondary. The real issue is this: The President, contrary to what many have thought, is the one person who appears to know all the key details. Kushner likely knows many of them. Kushner’s lawyers know some but likely not all since it seems unlikely he’s being fully truthful with them. Trump’s lawyers likely know some but not all the facts. Others each have their own bundle of knowledge but likely in few cases the whole picture.
Trump intervened and overruled his advisors and lawyers who wanted a more candid and complete statement because ‘transparency’ is only an effective strategy if the drip drip drip of revelations is more damaging than the story itself. The bank robber has no interest in transparency. His only interest is escape, either from custody or justice. Transparency is the one thing the bad actor must avoid at all costs. We are clearly in that kind of situation here. The truth is bad. That’s why President Trump leaned on James Comey to drop the investigation into Mike Flynn. That’s why President Trump fired James Comey. That’s why President Trump has tried to bully Attorney General Jeff Sessions into resigning. That’s why President Trump continues to threaten to fire Robert Mueller. That’s why he overruled his advisors and issued a false statement in his son’s name.
The Post story repeats President Trump’s advisors’ claims that the President knows he’s innocent and because of that certainty is oblivious to the possibility that others may interpret his actions as parts of an attempted cover up and unconcerned that he’ll commit secondary crimes in the process of managing this cover-up-by-misunderstanding.
I do not doubt that this is what the President’s advisors told the Post. Some of them probably believe that. It is also clearly not true. Or to put it more specifically, what is more likely is that the President doesn’t recognize anything he’s ever done as wrong. That’s not how his brain works. This is obvious from even a passing acquaintance with his life story.
The President feels threatened because he believes people are after him. In his moral universe, he’s right. They are after him. They are called criminal investigators and they are looking for evidence of something the President knows did happen. Look at Trump’s life history and you’ll see a clear pattern: things that Donald Trump does are right, praiseworthy. Things that hurt Donald Trump are wrong, bad. There is no consistent framework that exists outside of or prior to the actions of Donald Trump. (None of us are wholly free from a self-referential perspective on the world. In extreme, totalizing cases there is a rich clinical literature about it: narcissism and sociopathy.) So the President is doing what he’s always done: use every tool at his disposal to fight back and/or destroy the people who are ‘after him.’ Only now he’s President and he has a lot more tools. He can fire investigators, pardon allies, perhaps even pardon himself (dubious but the President seems to think he can.) The thread connecting all the most aggressive attempts to hide facts and obstruct the investigation is Donald Trump. He is the actor in every single case, often over the purported and perhaps real objections of those around him. But it is almost always those who know less than he does.
Because it is the explanation put forward by his advisors and also the less ominous explanation, we are still getting versions of ‘all these actions are just examples of the President’s naïveté and pugilism’. That is hardly credible. So many efforts to cover up, obstruct and lie only have one credible explanation. If we are honest with ourselves – which some of us are more able to do than others – we know what that explanation is.