Watching the Ukraine scandal unfold from Singapore, I feel like the hapless dental patient in an early George Carlin routine who, muzzled in the chair by his busily probing and poking dentist standing over him armed with sharp metal implements and wads of cotton, strains but fails to respond to the dentist’s insistent defense of Richard Nixon over his Watergate-related behavior. Maybe it’s the perspective that distance affords, but I have never in my adult life seen, heard, and read such a crock of malarkey, ignorance, and full-frontal stupidity as I have over the past few weeks and, particularly, the past few days.
The targets of my ire are many: The President and his acting chief of staff certainly, but also Joe Scarborough and other mutton-headed media types on MSNBC and, yes, CNN. Those targets also include the New York Times and just about everyone, it seems, who has failed utterly to figure out what the infamous Trump-Zelensky conversation—and the President’s understanding of it—really means.
Let me start with Mick the Knife. Did Mulvaney lie the other day about the White House having done nothing wrong? Yes of course, he lied through his teeth about everything except the one thing he is mainly being accused of lying about. Let’s take this slowly and very carefully and without hyperventilating.
Mulvaney offered three reasons for holding up lethal aid to Ukraine (and never mind for the moment whether the provision of that aid is a good idea in the first place): the country is corrupt; the European allies were not chipping in; and the Administration was properly trying to use the aid as leverage concerning what Mulvaney called an ongoing Justice Department investigation into an alleged 2016 Ukrainian attempt to influence the U.S election.
The first reason is illogical. Ukraine is corrupt, yes, although less so now than in years when no White House effort was made to hold up aid. So why this time? Obviously, this “reason” is pure invention.
The second reason is even dumber. Our European NATO allies are not providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine because, with only a few and partial exceptions, they have no such aid to provide. More obvious nonsense.
The third reason is a lot more interesting. Note that Mulvaney specifically speaks of a backward-looking investigation, back to 2016, not to what the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky conversation is clearly about—digging up Biden dirt relevant to a future issue, the 2020 election. It doesn’t even matter if the Justice Department investigation is a lark of politicized shadow-boxing with reference to a conspiracy theory. The point is that Mulvaney was using a combination of obfuscation and misdirection here to draw attention away from what the President actually asked Zelensky to do as a favor—and the room full of reporters, despite trying rather pathetically to stop him, let him get away with it. Not one of them specifically called out Mulvaney’s sleight of hand and asked him to justify it.
Now this really is rich because there is excellent reason to think that Ukrainian oligarchs did interfere in the November 2016 U.S. election, not by screwing with the DNC server but by funneling money into the Trump campaign. They certainly funneled money into the inaugural committee: Sam Patten, a lobbyist and associate of Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to this offense in August 2018, admitting that he had laundered the donations of Konstantin Kilimnik and Serhiy Lyovochkin. Lev Parnas did not pass “go” and has sat in jail, too, for similar reasons (never mind Igor Fruman, who is a national of Belarus). And who were all those Ukrainians at the Inaugural Ball, anyway—the ones a New York Times feature drew attention to back in January? Did they donate to the campaign as well as the inauguration? Well, why doesn’t someone just go and ask Paul Manafort? He’s easy to locate these days, and you have to be missing half a brain not to realize what he was doing as campaign manager for Trump at that stage of the electoral season.
Now, it was illegal for the Trump campaign to accept money from foreign nationals, let alone a foreign government. And that’s as true of certain Arab Gulf countries as it is of Ukraine and probably Russia. But this is not an impeachable offense because Trump was not yet President. The campaign likely didn’t fret overly much about this because no one really expected Trump to win the election, and of course had he lost no one would care all that much about any of this today. Someone should go to jail for this 2016 stuff, aside from the someones who are already in jail. But I’m happy to let the lawyers figure out who and when.
Now we see what the 2016 DNC/Ukraine malarkey is really all about. It’s what the Trump White House guys always do, usually with the help of Fox News, whenever they get caught doing something very wrong—of which more in a moment. They invent an equal but opposite narrative of wrongdoing to pin on the other side. Americans who were once young will recognize this right away as the schoolyard “I know you are but what am I?” strategy. Yes, it’s part of a nine-year old’s sparse strategic repertoire, but, well, there you go.
Note that it doesn’t matter if the equal-but-opposite accusation is even remotely supportable. All these guys are trying to do is blow smoke up the asses of the people who compose Trump’s core support base, to keep them from straying. They don’t have to prove anything, just say outrageous things to create a thin film of ambiguity in the minds of reality-TV mesmerized people who are disposed to ambiguous thoughts anyway. It usually works.
Of course, this strategy has the added benefit of driving people like Joe Scarborough crazy, because when he loses his cool and snarks all over the TV screen, that helps the Trump cause even more.
Note, then, what Mulvaney did not lie about. When he said—in reply to Michael McKinley’s plaint in testimony the day before that he wished politics did not interfere with U.S. foreign policymaking—that politics always plays a role in foreign policymaking so just “get over it,” he was absolutely correct. He was clearly riffing off of his imperfect memory of “McKinney’s” remark, even misremembering the name of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s former top adviser, as if his brain had suddenly skipped up one level of abstraction, probably because the remark stuck in his craw for being so naive. Here is exactly what Mulvaney said:
This speaks to an important point, because I heard this yesterday and I can never remember the gentleman who testified. Was it McKinney, the guy—was that his name? I don’t know him. He testified yesterday. And if you go — and if you believe the news reports — okay? Because we’ve not seen any transcripts of this. The only transcript I’ve seen was Sondland’s testimony this morning.
If you read the news reports and you believe them—what did McKinney say yesterday? Well, McKinney said yesterday that he was really upset with the political influence in foreign policy. That was one of the reasons he was so upset about this. And I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.
And Mulvaney went on after a short interruption:
That is going to happen. Elections have consequences. And foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.
And what you’re seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, “You know what? I don’t like President Trump’s politics, so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt that they’re undertaking on the Hill.” Elections do have consequences and they should. And your foreign policy is going to change. Obama did it in one way; we’re doing it a different way. And there’s no problem with that.
Is it not obvious that Mulvaney is talking about a general point here, not about any quid pro quo real or imagined, facing either backward toward 2016 or forward toward 2020? And yet not a single mainstream news source I have seen, certainly not the New York Times, quotes these passages or mentions McKinley, whose reported remark is the jumping off point for Mulvaney’s comment. The media did indeed rip this remark out of context, whether knowingly or just stupidly is not easy to tell.
And it was a naive plaint. At the presidential level if not also below, politics always plays a role in foreign policy decision-making, whether you or I or Mr. McKinley likes it or not. A President’s key political aides are always in the room when critical foreign policy decisions are being discussed. It’s not just about Mick Mulvaney; go ask about Karl Rove and David Axelrod and every one of those types going all the way back, at least, to FDR; or ask any participant decision-maker if political advisors were in the room when the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations were thinking through their foreign policy options. Every serious person knows they were.
Here is one example that bears on another ongoing story. Why did President Obama decide in 2015 to rely on Kurdish proxies to go after ISIS on the ground rather than use suitable U.S. forces to do the job? Because of the political optic. He wanted to show that U.S. engagement was thinning in the region, not thickening. So he made a poor decision that was always going to come to grief one way or another, because it anviled the Syrian Kurds between us and the Turks. The problem would have eventually emerged anyway had Hillary Clinton been President instead of Donald Trump when it did, though it would surely not have been handled the same way.
Mulvaney was careless not to be clearer that his “get over it” remark referred to McKinley’s more abstract point and not to contentions about a quid pro quo. But in Mulvaney’s mind it could not have referred to any quid pro quo because the tactical burden of his mendacious misdirection effort was to show that there wasn’t one.
So understand now? Yes, Mulvaney was lying because Trump committed an impeachable offense with that remark on the phone to Zelensky, and Mulvaney was trying his damnedest to deflect attention away from it. But folks, thanks to the inert response of the White House press corps, he actually got away with it! Sort of, anyway, for that then led to the press, out of a combination of wishful thinking and hermeneutical illiteracy, to pretend in near unison that he didn’t. It must therefore drive Mulvaney all the way to nuts that the obscenity he has been accused of committing is in fact a bum rap. Yet it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Now the New York Times. Some editor there got Katie Rogers to write an article under the title “Get Over It? Why Political Influence Matters in Foreign Policy.” Ms. Rogers consulted a few lawyers and came up with an answer that almost completely misses the point.
The article is not entirely worthless. It does bring us an old and useful Hamilton quote, it does identity George Mason as the author of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and it does relevantly mention a guy named William Blount from 1797. But by way of history it fails to mention the XYZ Affair or the Alien & Sedition Acts, and so manages to go “lite” on its only point: that relying on foreign governments for political favors or allowing them to mess around in American politics gives them leverage over you, so we frown on it to the point that we made it illegal from the get-go.
One of Rogers’s sources quips that she doesn’t think she really even “needed to say this,” and of course she’s right. The fact that previous administrations have rejected offers of foreign political help does not prove, however, as Rogers has it, that Mulvaney was wrong to assert that “it happens all the time.” As already demonstrated, that wasn’t the “it” Mulvaney was talking about; but like her colleagues Rogers totally misses the message.
Had Rogers a clue what she was doing, she would have consulted scholars of history, government, and politics instead of a couple of lawyers. Why? Because the essence of this whole business is—as Francis Fukuyama is at pains to point out in his two master volumes on political institutions—the problem of institutional decay. The U.S. political system has been suffering institutional decay and regression now for a while. Donald Trump has merely launched the decay process into an entirely new, outer orbit.
A modern state operates through formal institutions that, ideally, form an impenetrable wall between the authority of offices and the authority of persons holding those offices. This modern form of political authority, which works through the rule of law, gradually replaced earlier forms of patrimonial and tribal authority, which Max Weber famously associated with traditional and charismatic authority, respectively. In pre-modern patrimonial set-ups, there are no hard and fast distinctions between a ruler’s personal interests and wealth and those of the state. Need examples? I’ll quickly give you four thumbnails out of hundreds readily available.
First, look at Saudi Arabia. On paper the wealth of the Al-Saud is separate from the wealth of the state. In reality, it isn’t. On paper, too, the Egyptian military regime is not in business; but of course it is, which is why senior army types consider any money-making operation in Egypt poachable and part, essentially, of the military’s “pension fund.”
Third, look at Kenya. Kenya is a formal liberal democracy but its politics are really shaped by its tribal social structure. So it is no surprise that nearly every time there is a presidential election, the social fact that communal agency trumps individual agency leads the country to the brink of civil war. It is also no surprise, and more to the point, that the profit-making rail line that runs from the port of Kismayo to Nairobi, over which a great deal of Kenya’s foreign commerce passes, is considered personal property, in part if not as a whole, by the Kenyan elite. If $400 million a year, roughly, comes to line the pockets of Kismayo’s Mayor and the President in the capital, and funds their personal patronage networks, so what of it? That’s completely normal in patrimonial arrangements, which goes to show that corruption is a culture-specific concept, not a universal one.
And fourth, look at the kleptocracy that is Russia and, still, albeit to a lesser extent, Ukraine. The Czar used to own everything, even the people. So in a way did the Communist Party elite that replaced the Czar, and that smooth systemic dovetailing was probably no coincidence. The Russian model of autocracy was the most absolutist ever created, and its shadow has yet to disperse entirely. This matters because, as the late Charles Tilly brilliantly showed, there is a path-dependency relationship between the way that states originally arranged their funding and the regime types that grew up around those ways.
But to get back to the case at hand, what stands out as completely amazing about the President’s reaction to the reaction about his conversation with Zelensky—and also about his idea of using Doral for the G7 meeting—is how completely clueless he seems to be about what a modern law-constituted state actually is. He is the President of the most modern state in history in this regard, and he has the mentality of the Mayor of Kismayo.
What, in sum, has happened? Trump made public the smoking gun of his impeachable act by giving out the transcript of his phone call with Zelensky because he did not realize that what he had done was egregiously wrong, leaving Mulvaney with the unenviable task of trying to characterize the President’s cluelessness as something else. Ambassador William Taylor has just made crystal clear that there is no something else. He has reaffirmed Dean Acheson’s famous remark that “things are not always as they seem, but sometimes they are”—and this is one of those sometimes. Trump can be impeached for the inappropriate request, yes; but the far more compelling reason to get him out of office is the cluelessness.
Excuse me, but why hasn’t anyone deployed Max Weber, at the least, to point this out? Am I the only one to see the connection between Trump’s inability to grasp the core insight of the Enlightenment—the existence of non-zero-sum relationships—and his inability to see any blue sky between his personal interests and those of the nation?
Say it ain’t so, Mac.