There they go again.
The Obama White House, first in the person of press secretary Josh Earnest and now in the person of the president himself, is perpetrating a falsehood of some significance on the American people. It has to do with the denial by Messrs. Earnest and Obama that when the president used the dismissive phrase “jayvee team” in his interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, he didn’t have ISIS in mind.
Here’s the exchange that took place in his interview on Meet the Press:
CHUCK TODD: Long way, long way from when you described them [ISIS] as a JV team.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I–
CHUCK TODD: Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Keep– keep– keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to [ISIS]. I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11.
But as I laid out in a fair amount of detail two weeks ago, there’s simply no question that the president was referring to ISIS. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post weighed in a week later, making essentially the same case, and awarding the White House four Pinocchios for their dishonesty on this matter.
This is no small matter. Mr. Obama’s misjudgment on ISIS was extraordinarily costly. It was a complete misreading of the situation, long after others were warning about the nature of the ISIS threat. This mistake ranks among the worst errors of the Obama presidency, which is saying quite a lot. President Obama knows this, which is why he’s frantically trying to pretend he didn’t say what he so clearly said.
The problem is in this whole process the president of the United States is distorting the truth. He’s doing so willfully. But this deception will not only fail; it will further undermine his credibility, which is already at a low ebb. As Mr. Obama said in 2008, “I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”
Mr. Obama is at war with reality, and reality is winning.
Yes, Obama Was Talking About ISIS
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Did the Supreme Court and Congress rescue the Trump presidency?
On the first podcast of the week, we (that is, Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I) look at the Supreme Court’s decision to allow parts of the Trump travel ban to go through and the possibility of the passage of the health care bill in the Senate. And we ask: Does this mean that next week we’ll be saying the Trump administration has scored victories and is now far more formidable than it has thus far appeared? Also, I quote a medieval English song to the mystification of Noah and Abe. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Trump puts the commentary class in an uncomfortable position.
Conservative opinion-makers are struggling to strike the right tone in the effort to defend the specifics in the latest iteration of ObamaCare’s replacement bill.
Those on the right invested in policy outcomes, like The Federalist’s David Harsanyi and Forbes contributor Avik Roy, have observed that the bill does not repeal the ACA but it makes great strides in annulling its most onerous elements, devolves power to the states, and reforms Medicaid. Conservative pundits disinclined to tether themselves to the Senate’s ephemeral health-care sketch have argued that to vote against this bill is to scuttle the Republican agenda and sacrifice the party’s majorities to the fury of their betrayed base voters.
This is a complicated endeavor, and the stakes are high. Its participants are engaging in it in good faith. Notably absent from the barricades is the man in whose name they are ostensibly acting. President Donald Trump has not been absent from the fight to shape the public’s perception on the health-care bill; he’s been actively undermining the Republican position. In the effort to avoid tough choices at the likely expense of his political allies, Trump has put a test to his phalanx of fans in the commentary class.
Will pro-Trump voices note honestly that their party’s leader is exacerbating the headwinds the GOP faces in making good on a campaign-trail pledge to repeal and replace ObamaCare? So far, the answer to that question is “no.”
Last week, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer showed no compunction about confirming anonymously sourced reports that alleged the president told Senate Republicans that the House’s compromise version of the American Health Care Act was “mean” and that it needed “more heart.” When asked what the president meant by “heart,” Spicer let forth a word typhoon designed to distract from the fact that he had no idea.
Conservatives know exactly what Democrats mean when they say legislation lacks “heart.” It means, unfailingly, that the draft in question doesn’t include enough tax dollar-funded spending proposals. A day later, the president confirmed conservatives’ worst suspicions about what he meant by “heart.”
At a campaign-style rally before supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last Wednesday, President Trump confirmed other anonymous reports indicating that he only wanted to see “more money” in a new health-care bill.
“I hope we are going to surprise you with a really good plan,” Trump told Hawkeye State rally-goers. “I’ve been talking about a plan with heart. I said, ‘Add some money to it!’” How much and to what, you might ask?
Not only did the president fail to back off his private contention that the GOP’s work was “mean” and “lacked heart,” he appeared annoyed when Barack Obama used the same language to describe the repeal of his namesake legislative reform. “Well he used my term: mean,” Trump boasted the hosts of Fox & Friends for an interview broadcast on Sunday.
On Monday, frustrated by the lack of acquiescence from Senate Democrats, Trump floated the prospect of not holding a vote at all. “Perhaps just let OCare crash [and] burn,” read a petulant presidential tweet.
None of this helps the Senate GOP get on the same page when it comes to health-care reform. In fact, it’s actively counterproductive.
The Trump White House has made it plain that the president has no intention of absorbing any criticism over the version of health-care reform that emerges from Congress until he’s aware of how dangerous that could be for his political brand. Trump spent the 2016 campaign promising to extend insurance to all, regardless of the unfeasibility of that prospect. Even ObamaCare failed in that charge despite the mandate on all citizens to purchase insurance.
“The government’s gonna pay for it,” Trump further declared while promising to avoid reforming imperiled entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Trump took pride in taking what he called “un-Republican” positions on the expansion of federal entitlement programs. Today, Trump is both deferring to the Republican-led legislature on the specifics and heckling from the stands when those specifics don’t meet his impossible standards.
Perhaps unable to reconcile the contradictions or fearful of the conclusion that would result from an honest appraisal of Trump’s actions, his defenders in media have taken to filing dispatches from an alternate universe.
“Are Republican senators doing enough to have your back to get that health care bill through?” the president was asked by Fox & Friends host Pete Hegseth. Laura Ingraham’s online magazine Lifezette published a takedown of Democrats for calling the health-care bill “mean,” while making no mention of the fact that President Trump apparently agrees. Ann Coulter attacked the Republican Congress for abandoning the principles of market capitalism in writing their “disaster” of a health-care bill. A psychologist might call all this projection.
The congressional Republican effort to get their party’s various factions on board to repeal and replace ObamaCare is hopelessly complicated by the fact that the President of the United States does not fully share their objectives. Donald Trump wants to minimize his political risk and maximize political benefit, and he has no qualms about throwing his party overboard in the process. It is terribly revealing of conservatives in the pro-Trump commentary class that they would rather wrap themselves in cozy and familiar security blankets than grapple with a discomfiting reality: Their leader isn’t always on their side.
The perils of hype.
Imposing reporting requirements on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is like jailing activists. Criticizing journalists is like physical violence against them. Repatriating citizens of a wealthy, stable democracy is like sending them to death camps. All of the above follow logically from real statements made recently by respected people or organizations, and they reflect a pernicious modern trend that might be called “defining deviancy up.”
Take, for instance, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer’s assertion that Hungary’s legislation banning foreign donations to NGOs puts it in “the ranks of countries like Russia, China, and Israel, which obviously regard the funding of non-government organizations, of civil society efforts, by donors from abroad as a hostile or at least an unfriendly act.” His purpose was to shame both Hungary and Israel by lumping them in the same category as Russia and China in their treatment of NGOs.
But while all four countries do impose some restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs (and in Israel’s case, for good reason), in China and Russia, this is part of a systematic attempt to silence criticism of the government that includes jailing and torturing activists (China) and even killing them (Russia). In Israel, NGOs can and do criticize the government without fear. The only “restriction” they face is that if more than 50 percent of their funding comes from foreign governments, all their published material must note that fact (unlike Russia or China, Israel places no restrictions on funding from nongovernmental foreign sources).
By lumping these countries together, Schaefer didn’t merely smear Israel; he also paradoxically legitimized Russian and Chinese abuses. After all, if Russia and China are no worse than Israel, they can’t be that bad.
Moreover, such comparisons eviscerate one of the West’s main weapons against human rights abuses: the power to name and shame. By treating non-issues like NGO reporting requirements as major rights violations, Western officials are like the boy who cried wolf: Eventually, many people will simply stop listening to them.
Worst of all, however, if jailing and killing activists provoke no more outrage than imposing financial reporting requirements on NGOs, brutal dictatorships have no reason not to go straight to the torturing and killing. That provides more effective suppression for the same price in international opprobrium.
For another example of this pernicious approach, consider Freedom House’s lowering of Israel’s press freedom ranking earlier this year “due to unprecedented personal attacks by the prime minister on leading investigative journalists, which contributed to a hostile environment for the press.”
Once, press freedom was measured by objective factors like whether journalists could write what they please without fear of physical or financial consequences—a standard by which Israel does fine. As Freedom House admitted, “Israel hosts a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected … Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust … The Israeli media collectively offer a diverse range of views, and they are generally free from overt political interference.”
But today, that isn’t enough: Politicians must also serve as the media’s cheerleaders. Should they dare to criticize it–something politicians have done since the dawn of time–then, in Freedom House’s view, that’s just as bad as the overt oppression practiced by other countries on its list of “most noteworthy” declines.
India, for instance, “declined due to violent reprisals against journalists” and “government blocking of internet service and halting of printing presses” in Kashmir. Hungary “declined because independent media have been squeezed out of the market, partly through the acquisition and creation of outlets by presumed government allies.” Hong Kong “declined due to increased mainland interference in local media as well as multiple attacks on journalists during demonstrations.”
Such inane comparisons clearly undermine Freedom House’s credibility. But worse, if governments can use violence against journalists, block internet service and take over the independent press without suffering any more international criticism than they’d get for making petulant remarks about journalists, what is to deter any government unhappy with the media–i.e. every government that ever existed–from taking such forceful measures?
Finally, consider the new trend of Holocaust survivors speaking out against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies because, as one told the Michigan state legislature: “I see a lot of parallels to what is going on right now in cities like Ann Arbor and Pontiac, where ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is coming in and with the help of the local police are picking up immigrants,” and the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews during the Holocaust that resulted in most of his family being murdered at Auschwitz.
I wouldn’t presume to judge any survivor’s emotional response. But on a rational level, even opponents of Trump’s immigration policies ought to recognize that this is ludicrous. The biggest source of illegal immigration to America is Mexico–a democratic country which, by global standards, is both wealthy and stable (hence its membership in the OECD). Moreover, the migrants are Mexican citizens with full rights in Mexico. Whether or not deporting illegal immigrants makes for good policy, it’s not remotely comparable to France deporting its own citizens to a foreign country where they had no rights and which was ruled by a genocidal dictatorship.
Once again, by treating all deportations as equally unacceptable, opponents make the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. There are countries to which America shouldn’t be deporting people. But if activists treat deportations to Mexico as no less outrageous than deportations to genuinely repressive or dysfunctional countries, they’ll have no credibility left to combat the latter. Moreover, supporters of mass deportation will see no advantage to exempting certain countries from the deportation list, because doing so won’t diminish opposition to their policy.
In 1993, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase “defining deviancy down,” he was concerned that formerly unacceptable behavior had become unexceptionable. But it turns out that defining deviancy up can have the same effect: Treating behavior which should be unexceptionable as if it were unacceptable makes the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. That’s precisely why moral hierarchies are critical to any properly functioning society: If everything is equally evil, then “evil” loses all meaning.
Thus, by defining deviancy up to include even completely legitimate actions, people who genuinely seek to increase respect for human rights are instead creating a system of moral equivalence in which even the worst offenses are no longer beyond the pale.
He just can't help it
On Thursday, the president released a statement—where else?—on Twitter.
“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” the president asserted.
The carefully worded statement, complete with subordinate clauses and series commas, was probably not crafted like most of Trump’s tweets are: on a whim. The impulsive tweet that compelled the president to legally indemnify himself was, however, a perfectly characteristic Trump tweet. It was a missive that was also indicative of the president’s penchant to bluff himself into dangerous corners.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press,” Trump tweeted on May 12. The tweet, seemingly composed for no discernable reason, is now believed to have been a response to a May 11 New York Times story. That dispatch cited conversations the former FBI director had with the president, as related to reporters by Comey’s associates, in which he described Trump’s demanding “loyalty.” If Comey had not directly leaked those conversations to reporters, he got right to work covering his hide immediately after Trump issued this threatening tweet.
In testimony before Congress, Comey said that he revealed the existence of memos he took regarding his conversations with Trump explicitly because of the “tapes” tweet. Moreover, Comey said he did so in order to compel Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to overtake the Bureau’s investigations into the Trump campaign. Some have speculated that, based on Trump’s shifting explanations for Comey’s dismissal, the FBI director was relieved of duty because he would not publicly state that Trump was not personally under investigation, which he wasn’t. Because of the president’s paranoid, self-defeating behavior on Twitter, however, he is now personally under investigation.
This tale of self-destruction is not unfamiliar. It’s reasonably similar to the sequence of events that was set in motion as a result of a fit of presidential pique on social media involving the allegation that Barack Obama’s administration “had my ‘wires tapped.’”
That March 4 tweet compelled House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to jump out in front of the scandalous revelations and provide the president some political cover. Seventeen days later, Nunes traveled to the White House to meet with an administration source at a secure location to review intelligence involving the “unmasking” of Trump administration associates swept up incidentally in foreign surveillance. Nunes spent the next few weeks vaguely insinuating that Trump’s tweet was accurate, leading the president to agree that he had been “vindicated” by the House chairman.
Two days later, Nunes reversed himself and the source of his information became a scandal. Just over one month after Trump’s original tweet, Nunes was compelled as a result of ethics complaints to join Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recusing himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign. Thus, only as a result of his own imprudence and urge to seek self-gratification, Donald Trump purged himself of one of his closest and most powerful allies in the House.
Republicans in Congress already have ample reason to keep their distance from the president. His determination to keep the Senate’s health-care bill at arm’s length and allow the congressional GOP to absorb all the criticism until he’s sure it’s not politically toxic should communicate to Congress that they are on their own. It is, however, Trump’s habit of setting himself on fire in moments of paranoid agitation that should give Republicans pause.
The president is not predictable, and he has a habit of making his allies fall on grenades. For now, the president has plenty of troops to call on, but he’s going to run out.
Maybe it's not everyone else's problem.
For months, Democrats have resisted the notion that they were the problem. Despite a series of historic losses resulting in the party’s worst position in nearly a century, Democrats convinced themselves that their philosophy was shared by a majority of the country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, after all. The left dominates popular culture. An electorate made up of minorities and single women and the Democratic dominance it will yield is just over the horizon. These myths sustained Democrats through the darkest early days of the Trump era, but they’ve since lost their luster. The party’s failure in Georgia on Tuesday has had a dramatic psychological effect. Democrats have been humbled. Now, finally, the party’s notables are starting to realize that it is them—not the country nor its voters—who have to change.
“Our brand is worse than Trump,” Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan told the New York Times. This contrarian Democrat from a Trump district mounted a quixotic effort to remove Nancy Pelosi from leadership late last year, but his crusade is receiving new converts. “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” said Texas Democrat Rep. Filemon Vela, on the record, despite having supported Pelosi against Ryan. “Nancy Pelosi has been an effective bogeyman for Republicans for decades, and it just seems like it’s time for her to go,” an unnamed Hillary Clinton staffer told the New York Post. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics chief Larry Sabato told the Post he had heard from at least two “senior Democrats” telling him they want Pelosi out.
Democrats who cannot convince themselves to turn on the party’s House leader are, however, persuaded that they need to make some adjustments. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes both told the Times that Democrats need a comprehensive and specific agenda for creating jobs. After spending the last 18 months claiming, not inaccurately, that the American economy had finally recovered from the 2008 recession and with the national unemployment rate at just 4.3 percent, this will prove a discordant message. Still, it’s clear that Democrats are resolved now to do something, even if they’re not quite sure what that something is.
Even the liberal intelligentsia is coming around. Writing in The Atlantic, the liberal columnist Peter Beinart admirably conceded that a demonstrably false notion once seduced him and his fellow liberals: the idea Republicans grew more partisan over the Obama years while Democrats did not. Focusing specifically on immigration, he demonstrated how Democrats lost touch with the country on the issue, began to resent the pressures on immigrants to assimilate as a form of chauvinism, and lost touch with the American public.
Other liberals have criticized the modern left for elevating identity politics to almost religious significance. Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla called for a post-identity liberalism last November only to be attacked by the faithful for “whitesplaining” and “making white supremacy respectable again.” Republicans were genuinely nervous when the Democratic Party put former Tennessee Governor Steve Beshear—a white, Southern septuagenarian with a drawl—up against Donald Trump following the president’s February address to Congress. Talking communitarianism before a handful of virtually monochromatic Americans in a greasy spoon diner represented a real threat to the GOP in the age of Trump, but not more so than it did to the identity-obsessed left. Liberal elites on the coasts laughed Beshear out of the room, and the GOP dodged a bullet.
It is revealing that this process of reflection was inspired by a novice candidate’s loss in an overhyped special election in a GOP district. The commitment to self-delusion Democrats displayed over the eight months between the 2016 election and Georgia’s 6th District House race is a marvel that cannot be overstated. Normally, when a party loses a presidential race to a supremely unqualified and unpopular alternative, they’d engage in some soul searching. But they didn’t. Perhaps because to do so would be to examine how Barack Obama causally presided over the utter devastation of their party at almost every level.
Obama entered office with his party in control of 62 of 99 state legislative chambers. When he left office in January 2017, Republicans controlled over two-thirds of America’s legislative chambers. The GOP has veto-proof majorities in 17 states compared to the Democrats’ 3. In 2009, Democrats had 31 governorships. Today, the GOP has 33. In 25 states, Republicans have total control of every lever of government, and, in three more states, the GOP can override the Democratic governor’s veto. At the federal level, Democrats lost a net total of 61 seats in the House of Representatives over the course of eight years and ten seats in the Senate. The Obama years saw a generation of up and coming Democratic lawmakers wiped out.
These facts need restating because Democrats have been so loath to internalize them. Perhaps because Obama remained popular with the public or because he was such a towering cultural figure, Democrats perceived liberalism to be the nation’s governing ethos even standing amid the rubble of the president’s legacy.
Maybe the introspective left will turn a critical eye toward Obama amid this long-delayed display of humility. It is remarkable that it took a party as thoroughly routed as Democrats this long to even entertain the possibility that it isn’t everyone else’s problem. After all, that’s the first step toward recovery.