Politics

Clueless

Liberals playing detective are missing an opportunity to engage in meaningful politics.

Donald Trump.
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as he addresses a press conference at the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, New York magazine published an essay by Jonathan Chait that outlines a “plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion” between Donald Trump and his circle and the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. “As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state,” Chait writes, “than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.”

Chait’s piece is a decent summary of what is known about Trump’s ties to Russia, glued together by pure speculation about what is not. There is obligatory guessing about the so-called pee tape, which Chait believes may have been recorded on Donald Trump’s visit to Moscow in 2013. (“[T]he notion that a display of exotic sex acts lies totally outside the range of behavior Trump would enjoy,” Chait writes, “is quaint and unfounded.” If you say so!) There is, too, some prodding at the motivations of Paul Manafort, who hasn’t been cooperating fully with the Mueller investigation and who, Chait believes, may now be “afraid of being killed.” “That speculation might sound hyperbolic,” he writes, “but there is plenty of evidence to support it.” There isn’t, actually. Chait offers a claim from a Russian model currently being held in a Thai prison—”In all probability, either the FBI or Russian intelligence has gotten to her,” he writes—about overhearing Manafort’s former Russian employer talking about election interference and a reference to the fact that the Russians kill people sometimes, and wonders aloud about Manafort’s motivations for trying to coordinate his story with other witnesses. “Why would Manafort, who has a law degree from Georgetown and years of experience around white-collar crime, behave like this?” One might answer that even savvy people can do inadvisable things under pressure.

It’s an essay Chait probably didn’t imagine himself writing back when he urged liberals to “earnestly and patriotically“ support Trump’s seemingly doomed nomination for the presidency, but here we are, parsing a mix of what has been reported with what liberals have chosen to believe about a scandal Chait has said could trigger a constitutional crisis. The piece offers much to think about, but nothing new in the way of hard evidence, of any kind, directly implicating Donald Trump himself in a collusion scheme.

Even if that evidence materializes at some point, as it very well could as the Mueller investigation continues, it is unlikely that Republicans in Congress would back removing Trump from office in impeachment proceedings. They are in thrall to a base already given to disbelieving allegations about him, and many have joined the conservative press in baselessly attacking the credibility of not only Mueller’s investigation but the Justice Department and FBI themselves. Excuses would be made; many months of hard investigative work would simply be hand-waved away.

Despite this, a disquieting number of pundits seem to prefer playing detective to engaging in meaningful politics. That preference underpins not only Chait’s piece but some of the responses to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court. Soon after the retirement was announced, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, insinuated that there might be a connection between loans Deutsche Bank made to Donald Trump years ago, while Kennedy’s son Justin was the head of real estate capital markets, and Kennedy’s recent votes on the court. “Justice Kennedy’s son gave a billion dollar loan to Trump when no one would give him a dime,” she tweeted, “and Justice Kennedy has been ruling in favor of the Trump Administration position for 2 years as the Court decides 5-4 case after 5-4 case.” On Tuesday morning, she repeated the theory, with a pinch of Russian intrigue thrown in, after NBC’s Geoff Bennett reported that Kennedy had lobbied Trump to have Kavanaugh replace him. “Just a reminder,” she tweeted again, “Justice Kennedy’s son made a billion dollars in loans to Trump from the Russia infested and sanctioned Deutsche Bank.”

It is not at all obvious why Tanden believes those loans would force Kennedy to do Trump’s bidding. It seems altogether more plausible Anthony Kennedy has cast conservative votes during the Trump administration because Anthony Kennedy is a conservative Supreme Court justice. It seems likely that he is retiring under this Republican administration not because Trump owed money to a bank his son is no longer employed by, but because Kennedy, in addition to being a conservative, is also an old man. It’s clear enough that Trump and the Kennedys are close, and there really is something sinister to be gleaned from that fact. The United States may not be controlled by lizard people or the Freemasons, but it is genuinely run by a small club of elite individuals, many of whom know and fraternize with each other. Every now and then, certain members of that club are appointed for life to a secretive chamber where robes are donned, certain rituals are enacted, and arcane texts are consulted for guidance as to how we are to be ruled. The real conspiracy here is wealth and its impact on anti-democratic institutions, a conspiracy that can’t be seen clearly or fought against without systematic thinking about the way our politics work. But scandals assessed in isolation actually reinforce existing political norms. The hope, when a scandal emerges, is that partisans can set aside their differences, examine the facts of the case objectively, and render neutral judgement on the parties in question in accordance with the law or mutually agreed-upon ethical principles. A scandal handled judiciously is evidence that our institutions can work when tested, that ideology and self-interest can be transcended, for a time, in the service of the common good.

Of course, scandals are far more often exploited for political ends. The Republicans concocted as many as they could think of to rile their base during the Obama administration. Democrats are loath to do the same, but would still like to believe that Russia might drive Trump from office and save them the trouble of actually organizing and campaigning to achieve that outcome.

Few love scandals more, though, than pundits, journalists, and the media broadly speaking. The rewards for them are manifold: the opportunity to do the public a service, the awards one might win for having done the public a service, and the readers and viewers an outlet might gain for being the kind of place that wins awards for public service—or alternatively, for rendering political scandal as pure entertainment. An underrated premium is the opportunity scandals provide for some political reporters and pundits to become, temporarily, subject-matter experts. Empty suits who can’t offer informed, in-depth, and numerate analysis of, say, monetary or health care policy can for once take pride in amassing deep and obscure knowledge relevant to a topic of public concern—a mental map of special prosecutors, subpoenas, affidavits, and indictments relevant to whatever mystery theater is holding the public’s attention.

If, that is, the public is really paying attention. Many reporters were surprised to learn in May that 59 percent of Americans believe the Mueller investigation hasn’t yet uncovered evidence of criminal wrongdoing, according to a survey by Navigator Research. In fact, a number of people have already pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators, and Paul Manafort, who headed Trump’s campaign for a long stretch of 2016, has been indicted twice on various charges. In a piece for Vox, Matthew Yglesias argued that Americans have been misled or let down by insufficient reporting, weak messaging by Democrats, or the right’s misinformation campaign. But there’s potentially a much simpler explanation for the result: The Russia affair is incredibly complex—the visual centerpiece of Chait’s essay is a massive, headache-inducing flowchart of connections that wouldn’t have been out of place as a prop in a conspiracy thriller—and most Americans, too busy and distracted to follow politics closely under even normal circumstances, are having trouble making heads or tails of it.

Some of the figures confused Americans have turned to for answers have been spectacularly unhelpful. It was a little more than a year ago that British media personality Louise Mensch, who believes that the Ferguson protests of 2014 were instigated by the Russian government, was given space in the New York Times to outline an investigative strategy for the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe. Her star has since faded, as has the prominence of Eric Garland, a “major trends” analyst cheered by reporters for a post-election rant about Russian interference who regularly accuses his critics of being Russian-intelligence assets. The fever swamps people like this helped create are still active on social media, but most Democrats have decided, wisely, to let the Mueller investigation run its course or wait for reporting that justifies drawing new conclusions.

To be clear, the Democrats should impeach Trump if they take the House in November. Even if an impeachment effort isn’t likely to succeed, the damage it might do to Trump—who clearly deserves to be removed from office, regardless of what Mueller comes up with—and the Republican Party as a whole could yield lasting political dividends, particularly if impeachment were bound to a larger narrative: Major corporations and the wealthy are in cahoots with a political party advancing a kind of watered-down, soft-focus white nationalism. Their goal is to secure minority rule over our country by any means necessary, even electing an addled, racist kleptocrat to the presidency. This is the grand plot at the heart of everything, the mother of all the scandals we’ve been appalled by over the past year. Trump’s corruption and perhaps collusion with Russia, Scott Pruitt’s malfeasance at the EPA, the Republican Party’s reluctance to can Jim Jordan over his alleged refusal to report sexual abuse at Ohio State, the party’s support for Trump and Roy Moore despite credible accusations that they themselves had engaged in abuse—all are outgrowths of the right’s long effort to build power for itself and its allies, a massive scheme unlike anything we’ve ever seen. This one goes straight to the top.