BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | MAR 27, 2019
President Donald Trump must have choked on his Big Mac this week while watching his favorite Fox cartoons and reading his favorite comic book, the Washington Post.
We know from the media that Trump spends his mornings in “executive time” watching television in the residence, after he’s done tweeting. But I digress.
The headline was the one he had been waiting for.
No, not that one. This one: “Attorney Michael Avenatti arrested, charged with trying to extort Nike.”
Avenatti, a darling of the media—according to Brit Hume of Fox, he appeared on just CNN and MSNBC 108 times over two months—and a seemingly prolific “anonymous source” for most major media, is accused of extortion on one coast and wire fraud on the other.
This good news for Trump, enjoying his two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun, came shortly after his other gratifying headline: “Mueller Finds No Conspiracy.
That headline was the collusion conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 2-year long $30-million investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the role of Trump and his campaign. It was a charge incessantly pounded home by the cable talkers and major legacy media.
The Mueller report’s immediate aftermath—we have to keep reminding ourselves we haven’t seen the report yet and may never see it all—has raised some serious and curious questions about the role and architecture of Federal investigations.
Once upon a time, the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation could be counted on to conduct thorough probes into alleged wrongdoing in politics and government. People in America had reservations, but basically seemed to trust them to do the job.
If they couldn’t, committees of Congress could. When confidence was lost in them, special and joint committees were created. When that wasn’t enough, as has been the case lately, the demands rose for special counsels and independent prosecutors.
Hours after the summary of the Mueller team was made public, the Speaker of the House and the Democratic Leader of the Senate both dismissed the findings, without having seen them, presuming that the Republican Attorney General would manipulate the full report to suit the President.
So they tossed the ball back to the Committees of jurisdiction in the House, back to where it all started, but this time in committees under Democratic control, not Republican.
The point is that we are quickly exhausting our options for investigative findings that deliver the public to the doorstep of truth and justice. Can no one be trusted to exercise their responsibilities with integrity and a modicum of good ole American character? Mueller seems to have done that. What makes anyone think Barr won’t?
President Ronald Reagan often told a story that reflected his optimistic nature. A little boy upon seeing a large pile of manure, yelped with excitement, that with all of the manure there must be a pony in there somewhere.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Leader Chuck Schumer are the exact opposite. Seeing a pony in the barn, they conclude there’s got to be manure in there somewhere.
So the drama will continue and Congress, at least the House side, will stay focused on scandal rather than schools, roads, immigration, the air we breathe and the water we drink and some relief from the deadly turmoil on every continent on the globe.
And, they will find some manure. They will find something that smells.
There are too many investigations going on all around us, for their not to be something his opponents can use, either to raise their own presence or diminish his. Politicians are not prosecutors (although too many prosecutors seem to be astute politicians). They don’t need to prove anything. Their conclusions do not have to be grounded in legalities. They can paint sordid pictures, apply the lather of image-makers and story-tellers, and reach their principle target, Trump, and their secondary target, Republican candidates.
Trump, unfortunately for the country, is his own worst enemy. Lance Morrow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center describes his “theatrical personality, disdain for niceties, gift for ridicule, populist instinct, mastery of provocation.” The latter—making his enemies behave like him without their recognition—will guarantee that the ongoing investigations will be relentless, fueled by angry, volatile emotions and the desperation to drive him from office, no longer through impeachment, but through the ballot box.
This does not bode well for the country.
It puts us more months and probably years away from any hope of healing our divisions, of restoring public faith and confidence in government and each other, and it will only make our public discourse more brutal and uncivil. Already media are beating the drum of civil war between the enlightened intelligentsia and the unwashed deplorables. Civil War? As the Canadians would say, scary, eh?
The atmosphere is dangerously unstable and it won’t stabilize unless there are some dramatic shifts in behavior, not only on the part of politicians, but also the segments of the population that they deliberately incite and divide.
People of all political persuasions have been forced out of restaurants and shuttered in their homes in what were previously quiet neighborhoods. They’ve been chased down by hordes of photographers and angry protesters, assaulted at rallies, and shamed by pseudo intellectual celebrities and entertainers who see nothing in front of them but dollar signs. Family budgets have been drained by legal expenses they should never have had to incur.
The antagonists on the several sides of the equation have made a joke out of civil discourse and common decency, turning the nation’s attention away from critical concerns that have a real impact on daily lives, rearing and educating children, paying the bills, buying a home, and growing in a job. Critical problems have been ignored and our vital social and political institutions have been badly damaged.
And, we won’t be able to put all of this behind us unless another unnerving question gets answered: How did the collusion illusion happen in the first place?
Again, the Wall Street Journal: “But we also hope he (Attorney General Barr) includes in his disclosures the documents that explain how this entire Russia conspiracy story began at the FBI and inside the Obama Administration. With Mueller’s conclusions we now know that someone may have conned the FBI into one of the great dirty tricks in American political history.”
If the Congress pursues its fishing expeditions in their quest to lampoon their Moby Dick, among the seas of junk and debris left in the wake of Mueller and the many congressional investigations, more time should be devoted to the root causes of all of this. Just how did it spin out of control, consuming the press and the public and launching a free-for-all of accusations, rumor mongering, half-truths, and gross levels of speculation and mischaracterizations.
We are left with the possibility of corruption in the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation, perpetrated by agenda-driven senior people who unleashed the powers, stature, and resources of the bureau, from surveillance, midnight raids, to secret subpoenas, and a steady stream of press leaks to bring down a sitting President.
The questions go beyond the FBI, too, back up to senior people at the Justice Department and beyond them to two whose motives and honesty, once unquestioned are now deserving of a second look, former Intelligence chief James Clapper and CIA chief John Brennan, both of whom presided over periods of Russian interference, and later became the expert talking heads for CNN, newspapers, and politicians.
The ramifications of all of this inattention to what’s real do not have the impact of a bad traffic accident, a cancer diagnosis, or a house fire. The effects are more sinister, impacting us gradually like a basement full of corroding water pipes so the alarms and the pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later warnings are not heard nor heeded.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.