What a spectacular mess American politics is. First, on Tuesday night, there was outgoing President Barack Obama, back in elegant orator mode after spending far too much of his presidency in closed-off complexity, reminded most of America why it liked him in the first place. Then, on Wednesday morning, we had incoming President-elect Donald Trump's shambolic but effectively defiant first press conference in a half-year, dealing with silly-sounding sexual allegations while questions of the most profound sorts of conflict of interest floated by the board.
The sex stuff doesn't look any smarter in the aftermath. In fact, quite the contrary, with the embattled editor of the outlet that published unsubstantiated hearsay foolishly opining: "We are now in an era when you have to engage in false statements."
That is dangerous nonsense. Not to mention an attitude which creates its own backfire.
There will be plenty of time to fully assess the Obama Presidency. When he took the oath of office nearly eight years ago, my column on his inaugural, full of optimism and hopes for history, was at the top of the HuffPost front page. Suffice to say that my highest hopes were not achieved.
Still, I've never regretted Obama being president, even when I've strongly disagreed with what he was, or was not, doing. He is someone for Americans and all citizens of the world to be proud of.
If he was sometimes too quick to go along with obviously faulty Pentagon group-think (Afghanistan escalation), secret state machinations (the unexamined drone strike program and overly expansive surveillance apparat), and boardroom bailouts (the toothless refinancing of Wall Street speculation) -- or too slow on the trigger (the, ah, "jayvee team" of Isis) -- well, he sure wasn't perfect. But he played the worst hand given to a president since Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House at the height of the Great Depression pretty darn well and got quite a lot right. Especially the tone of the thing.
"The essential spirit of this country -- the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.
"It is that spirit, born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse -- the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.
"It's that spirit -- a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might -- that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression; that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles -- the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press.
"That order is now being challenged ..."
from President Barack Obama's Farewell Address
With Obama, rational discussion is paramount. Debate might not take place, but it generally does, and when it does it proceeds on mostly constructive lines. Which, er, brings us to his successor.
The unsurprisingly surprising president-elect's mind probably is not as chaotic as it often appears. He may be a mad hatter, but he is also crazy like a fox. Sometimes.
One of those times was his Wednesday morning press conference.
It's generally not a good thing to be accused of weird sexual perversions. But ... attention hyper-partisan journalistic tyros. If anybody can make that work, as anyone paying attention should already have figured out, since you were so badly shocked by his election, it's Donald Trump.
As just happened. Quick, what do you remember most about Trump's wacky stop-and-start press conference?
Anything about his big policy contradictions? His wild avoidance of any real reckoning with obvious massive conflicts of interest?
Or do you remember him shutting down CNN -- once the most respected name in global news -- as "fake news" for playing up an unconfirmed, sexed-up "dossier" compiled by an ex-Brit spy for eagerly paying Trump haters in both parties?
Rolling with that stuff helps Trump. It makes the media who play along look like sophomoric participants in an increasingly non-serious free-for-all, even though most outlets had steered clear of the the stuff for months.
As longtime readers know, I think a lot of negative things about Donald J. Trump (though I would be happy to be proved wrong), and have been warning of his know-nothing, neo-fascist tendencies ever since I realized in summer 2015 that he was, bizarrely, the coming thing in American politics.
But, no, I don't think that Trump, disturbingly erratic though he is, is either stupid enough or crazy enough to pay some Russian hookers to put on a "Golden Showers" sex show for him in a Moscow hotel. Especially since he had actually come close to running for president not long before that.
If you are going to run with crazy shit like that, you had better have it nailed. This story is about as nailed down as jello.
So instead, of course, Trump gets to play the victim, not just of the media but of the intelligence community, which passed on the private report in confidence to Obama and Trump. And all of it while there is still a serious outstanding question of why he is not just respectful of Russia, which would be appropriate, but fanboyishly enthusiastic about the extremely capable but decidedly cold-ass Vladimir Putin.
Incidentally, is the intelligence community out to get Trump? The estimable Glenn Greenwald, who makes some good if somewhat overwrought points about "the Deep State" in America and its anti-Trump views, and who deserves great credit for his work in the Snowden affair and other matters, says the intelligence community is out to get Trump. After all, he notes, Trump, more so than Hillary Clinton, opposes some key aspects of perma-war.
But, having followed this stuff and known some of these folks since the late '70s, it seems to me that there is not so much an intelligence community as there is an intelligence archipelago.
And it's not at all clear there is even one monolithic CIA. After all, the neocons were very much out to get CIA folks during the first Bush/Cheney term for being much less than enthused about their imperial designs on Iraq, Iran et al. They even tried to set up new intelligence agencies to bypass the old.
Incidentally, if you think there are only (!) 17 intelligence agencies, or that you know all the names of the agencies, you are certainly wrong in the first instance and almost certainly wrong in the second. Not only is the "intelligence community" an archipelago never quite charted, it is an acronym abyss.
Even Greenwald doesn't quite get his big-time intelligence players straight.
He calls Mike Morell, a career CIA deputy who was acting director -- a very political player of Clintonite cast after massaging the Benghazi story the wrong way -- a full-fledged former CIA director. And he has retired General Michael Hayden as George W. Bush's former CIA and NSA director when, in reality, he, too, was a Clintonite from the get-go in the campaign just past, having been plucked from two-star obscurity to become Bill Clinton's director of the National Security Agency. (Which, not incidentally, is much bigger than the CIA, not to mention more mysterious and multi-faceted.)
Of course, there is more smoke to the allegations against Trump than the salacious stuff for which there is no proof, as a BBC report makes clear.
These concern not kinky sex, that Trump would have to be very self-destructive to have indulged in under the circumstances of which all sophisticated visitors to Moscow are only too well aware, but more concrete forms of support for Trump and interference in our politics. Is it all a blend of hogwash and hyper-suspicion, stirred up by inquiries from a panoply of antithetical intel types? Or is there more to Trump's Russophilia besides a different point of view?
To be sure, Trump is in a troublesome state as he prepares to enter office.
Obama has mostly outstanding job approval ratings.
In contrast, Trump and his transition effort are historically unpopular as he prepares to take the oath of office.
But indulging in the silly sexcapades stuff, while no doubt emotionally satisfying for some frustrated by the shock of their lives that was the 2016 presidential election, actually tosses Trump a lifeline. Since the allegations are unsubstantiated, and it is not as though a lot of folks have not tried to substantiate them, and sound ridiculous to boot, it all looks like a smear of Trump.
Folks, there is so much that is factually, demonstrably problematic with the president-elect that there is no need to indulge in yet another form of wishful thinking.
When you smear Trump, with nothing to back it up, you make him look like a victim. Which is an obviously bad idea. And the news media, which is already at historic lows of credibility, looks even worse. As should be obvious.
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