Going low and crying wolf: How Harry Reid helped give us Donald Trump

Dear Rebecca:

You write: “Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power.”

I’ve got a story to tell, one that’s out there on the public record, but one that hasn’t been much remarked upon.

131009_harry_reid_605_ap
He lied. Did American democracy die?

It takes place during the Obama-Romney campaign of 2012. During the campaign, Mitt Romney was proving reluctant — as Donald Trump was, after him — to release some pertinent personal financial information. So Sen. Harry Reid, then the leader of Democrats in the Senate, decided to make a big deal about it.

Saying he had “no problem with somebody being really, really wealthy,” Reid sat up in his chair a bit before stirring the pot further. A month or so ago, he said, a person who had invested with Bain Capital called his office.

“Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years,” Reid recounted the person as saying.

“He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” said Reid. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?

I wrote at the time that “Reid’s allegations look and smell a lot like bullcrap.”

Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Reid is telling the truth. He’s offered no witnesses and no proof of his claims, only a “somebody told me” statement that wouldn’t get within a million miles of passing muster in a court of law. And when challenged to present his evidence, his response is that Romney can prove Reid’s allegations wrong—by releasing his tax forms.

Politically clever? Yes. Distasteful? It absolutely should be.

It turned out I was right. Reid later admitted lying, but said he had no regrets: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Fast forward to the fall of 2016. Trump versus Clinton. Her emails have been hacked; Trump has asked the Russians to release them to the media. It’s all very suspicious. And Harry Reid, serving out his final days in the Senate, makes his move. He writes an angry letter to James Comey.

In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information. I wrote to you months ago calling for this information to be released to the public. There is no danger to American interests from releasing it. And yet, you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information.

Here’s the thing: Reid was right! He was telling the truth! We found out later that Republicans had warned President Obama they’d accuse him of politicizing intelligence if he went public with this — and Obama, probably figuring Clinton would win anyway, decided to keep his mouth shut. Reid’s letter to Comey, when made public, represented one of the best possible chances to get this issue fixed firmly in the minds of the American voters.

Only … Reid’s accusation was treated like so much bullshit. Here’s the Washington Post:

Reid is saying that he has been told the FBI has evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And he’s not just saying this information came from mysterious and unnamed national security officials; he’s saying Comey himself has left him with this impression.

But there is no public evidence to support Reid’s claim of actual “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And were that to be the case, it would be a scandal of epic proportions.

Asked what evidence exists of such a connection, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson cited classified briefings.

“There have been classified briefings on this topic,” Jentleson said. “That is all I can say.”

Asked whether the letter means Comey has shared such information directly with Reid, Jentleson said, “Refer you to the language in the letter.”

This is the political equivalent of Reid lighting a match, dropping it on a dry ground and walking away.

The Post then mentioned Reid’s false allegation against Romney. And it included this old quote from Reid:

Is there a line he wouldn’t cross when it comes to political warfare?

“I don’t know what that line would be,” [Reid] said.

It was, in retrospect, a missed opportunity.

In 2012, when Reid made his first, pretty clearly bogus charges, there were no end of defenders. Why? Because, I was told, Romney hadn’t released his tax returns so who was to say Reid was wrong? And in any case, the other guys fight dirty so why shouldn’t we? We’re tired of always being the weak ones, right?

The problem being: When Reid’s credibility mattered most, when he could’ve used some “trust me” to help steer the nation on a different course, he’d spent it all on a crappy lie he probably didn’t even need to make in order for Obama to win.

Going low, politically, has its short-term rewards. It can be justified on that basis. But who wishes Americans had paid more attention to Harry Reid last fall? A lot of the same people who lauded his earlier lie.

Hey: Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s never going to be as clean as I like it. But there are costs to wallowing in the dirt, and they’re not just moral prissyness. They matter. We’re all living with how they matter now.

Yours, Joel

Why I’m Terrified by News That Hillary Clinton Used Prison Laborers as Servants

Dear Rebecca:

Have you heard that Bill and Hillary Clinton used slave labor in the Arkansas governor’s mansion? I thought it was a hoax, but it turns out not to be: The “slaves” in question were convicted prisoners on work detail. You can see how this is going to get complicated.

hillary-clinton
The evidence was in plain sight.

The evidence was in plain sight the whole time: Hillary described it in her 1996 book “It Takes A Village.”

The relevant excerpt:

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.51.47 PMScreen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.51.53 PMScreen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.52.05 PM

I admit. It was kind of breathtaking to read.

And then, on second thought, it was kind of personally horrifying. Why?

For a couple of reasons: First, it’s been 20 years since the book came out. Only now is a fuss being made. That means that a bunch of people read it and didn’t think much about the Arkansas tradition – or, in the pre-Internet age when the book came out, didn’t have the voice needed to make the fuss gather momentum.

Second: I can’t honestly say I would’ve done differently.

I think I’m a conscientious fellow. I argue against racism every chance I get. I argue against sexism the same. And yet, I know I’ve been betrayed by a blind spot now and again. It will almost certainly happen again.

It’s easy enough for me to imagine being in Hillary’s shoes: Not comfortable with a practice, but also not wanting to make a fuss about “tradition,” especially when it saves taxpayers a few bucks, and especially since they’re convicts and especially since I know I’m a conscientious person and will treat them well and … oh dear, it’s a slippery slope to being a slave master.

(There are those who will still argue that this was a good deal for convicted inmates, but there’s also a lot of evidence that the justice system is built to feed black men into prisons, too. Watch Ava Duvernay’s “13th” for a quick primer on this. I’m inclined to the latter point of view more than the first. In which case, the moral rule is this: Don’t accept service from people in shackles. Refuse to benefit from that.)

So: I think what Bill and Hillary Clinton did was wrong, and I think it was profoundly human, and that’s what terrifies me.

I’ve been thinking about the ways injustices sustain themselves — I’ll be writing about Jim Comey on a similar topic in the next few days — and one of them is that they embed themselves in custom and tradition, take on an air of authority, make it easier to accept than to challenge.

I’m pretty sure I’m not a better person than Hillary Clinton. And that terrifies me. How easily would I accept slave labor?

Do you know for certain that you would do better?

God have mercy on us.

Sincerely,

Joel

Can Donald Trump Survive the Loretta Lynch Standard?

lynch-clinton-meeting
Oops.

Rebecca:

Remember last year? Before the election? Remember the time then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton had a friendly chat on an airport tarmac? Do you remember what happened then?

This happened:

Lynch said she and Clinton talked only of grandchildren, golf, and their respective travels, but the fact that the two spoke privately at all was enough to rekindle concerns about a possible conflict of interest. Republicans have long called into question the ability of a Democratic-led Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, based inside her Chappaqua, New York, home, during her tenure as secretary of state.

David Axelrod, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, tweeted that he took Lynch and the former president “at their word” that the Justice Department’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server did not come up, “but foolish to create such optics.”

And then this happened:

The government watchdog group Judicial Watch has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Justice (DOJ) seeking all records its has on the June 27, 2016 meeting between President Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch in her airplane, a meeting that occurred while the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, a potential national security crime.

“The infamous tarmac meeting between President Clinton and AG Lynch is a vivid example of why many Americans believe the Obama administration’s criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton was rigged,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a statement released today. “Now it will be up to Attorney General Sessions at the Trump Justice Department to finally shed some light on this subversion of justice.”

And then this happened:

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, conceding that her airport meeting with former President Bill Clinton this week had cast a shadow over the federal investigation of Hillary Clinton’s personal email account, said Friday that she would accept whatever recommendations career prosecutors and the F.B.I. director made about whether to bring charges in the case.

It fell to Comey, then, to make the final decision about prosecuting Hillary Clinton. And his decision to explain the decision not to prosecute set off a chain of events that reverberates to this very day.

Now: Republicans are saying that if President Trump asked Jim Comey to take it easy on Donald Trump, that it was a joke.

But: If the mere act of two people meeting was enough to raise doubts about the fairness of justice being applied in a case, why would you as president ever raise the topic of a criminal case with the FBI director, let alone make a “joke” that would be so easily understood as maybe-not-a-joke?*

*(I have an 8-year-old boy. He tries telling me he was “joking” when he makes an out-of-line comment, too. We don’t buy it coming from him, either.)

Bill Clinton’s crossing of the line probably helped cost his wife the presidency. Republicans demanded that standards be applied. OK. Fine. Good. The question is, can Republicans live with same standards of conduct being applied to Donald Trump?

Probably not. But they’re going to have to.

—Joel