The Comey Debacle

by Jonah Goldberg
Rather than rationalizing and enabling the president’s behavior, conservatives need to convince Trump that he’s his own worst enemy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (including anyone hiding in the bushes),

Good times, huh?

Let’s start . . . here:

Now, I don’t think this is actually true, but I’ve been told for months now that I have to get better at taking some things seriously without taking them literally. And I think Ann has a point.

So, I’m going to ask my pro-Trump and passionately anti-anti-Trump friends to just take a step back and ask yourselves: “What does Donald Trump’s manufactured, self-inflicted, and pathological need for drama get us?”

If you’re about to answer “Neil Gorsuch,” the everlasting gobstopper of Trump rationalizations, please hold off one second. If you’re about to answer “judges,” please take a moment as well.

Because the correct answer, in policy terms, is . . . nothing. Actually, less than nothing because all this drama makes getting things done harder.

In the best possible light, all the insanity from the president of the United States is St. Elmo’s Fire, a lightshow to entertain us. It’s a Mexican soap opera without the redeeming sex and cleavage. It’s a reality-TV show without the cat fights, stiletto heels, and thrown glasses of wine.

Ask anybody — off the record, of course — on Capitol Hill about whether all this drama helps them get bills passed or judges confirmed. They will laugh at the question.

This is irrespective of any specific policy agenda. If you want a wall that can be seen from space along the southern border, if you want a Muslim ban, if you want to get rid of Obamacare, spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, or any other core goal of the original MAGA agenda, none of this helps. None of it. Trump was never destined for Mt. Rushmore, but every insane tweet is a step further away from it.

I can only imagine poor Reince Priebus freaking out like Jerry Maguire shouting at Cuba Gooding Jr. in the locker room — “Help me . . . help you . . . help me! . . . help you!” — while an air-drying-naked Donald Trump giggles at the spectacle.

The Campaign Is Over

I’ve written a lot about how people can’t let go of the campaign mindset. The best example of this is how I hear every day that whatever Trump may be doing wrong, it’s still “better than Hillary.” Of course, that’s got a lot of truth to it when it comes to things such as judicial appointments and the fact that we don’t have to put up with the Clintons’ “there’s no eating in the library” officiousness. But now that Trump is president, it’s utterly irrelevant, save to those who need to reassure themselves daily.

But there’s another form of the campaign mentality that is keeping people from thinking clearly now. Say what you will about Trump’s thyroidal tweeting and aphasic outbursts, it worked for him.

Trump’s approach was so unfathomably strange, so otherworldly in the realm of Earth logic, that his biggest fans had to believe it was all part of some grand strategy. This is a natural human response. When something or someone is so incomprehensibly strange and yet successful, we often assume there’s a genius at work that is just beyond our ability to grasp. Bernie Madoff bilked billions from people who just couldn’t bring themselves to argue with success.

I’ve always thought that some modern artists are also con artists. They create something so strange, so aesthetically alien, that insecure rich people assume it must be a work of a genius, so they’re willing to spend vast sums to convince other people that a) they can afford to indulge in it, and b) they’re members of the cognoscenti, too. The greatest example of this is probably Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista. In 1961, Manzoni literally crapped in a can — 90 tins to be exact. He printed out labels for the cans that read:

Artist’s Shit
Contents 30 gr net
Freshly preserved
Produced and tinned
in May 1961

In a touch that no novelist would dare attempt, Manzoni’s father, who actually owned a cannery, told his son: “Your work is sh**.”

It was a pas de deux of taking something both literally and seriously.

Last August, Manzoni’s canned feces sold at auction for 275,000 euros.

The Art of the Can

Much has been written about how Donald Trump became a billionaire by being, if not an outright con artist, then certainly a kind of performance artist. He sold an image, a lifestyle, a brand. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump “wrote” in The Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”

And, again, it worked for him. I don’t think Trump is as rich as he claims, but so what? He’s rich enough and he’s famous and, now, he’s president.

But what so many people can’t — or won’t — contemplate is that what worked for Trump in business, self-promotion, and even the presidential election may not transfer to the presidency itself.

This is a staggeringly obvious insight that many people are contorting themselves not to see. Sometimes skills don’t transfer. Piero Manzoni was arguably the most successful canner of feces in human history. I am happy to acknowledge that. But if I were wheeled on a gurney into an operating room, I would not take much solace from that fact if he were my heart surgeon.

Don’t worry Mr. Goldberg, I made a fortune spackling sh** into a can. You’ll be fine. Nurse, hand me that sharp thing.

Michael Jordan was a kind of artistic genius at basketball. Do I really have to belabor the point that those skills don’t necessarily translate into being a successful president?

I am shocked, daily, by the number of people who cannot let go of the idea — the article of faith, really — that Donald Trump has his opponents right where he wants them. The logical upshot of this is that he somehow meant to have historically craptacular poll numbers. I mean if he can execute his will and play ten moves ahead of the rest of us, then this must be part of his plan, right?

The rush to defend the myth of Trump is causing conservatives to abandon their principles, standards, and credibility.

On Thursday, I noted in the Corner that Donald Trump tried to convince the editors of The Economist (!) that he coined the phrase “prime the pump” to describe Keynesian economic stimulus. This is just bizarre. It’s even more bizarre when you consider that Trump claims that he invented the phrase just a few days ago — especially since he’s been using the term himself for more than a year. I asked readers what could possibly explain this objectively ridiculous statement and, sure as shinola, a common answer was, “It’s all part of his plan!” By saying something absurd, Trump is getting people to talk about how he’s going to prime the pump! Get it? Genius!

This is a very small example of a very large problem. The rush to defend the myth of Trump is causing conservatives to abandon their principles, standards, and credibility at a breathtaking pace. Forget the issue of who coined the phrase “prime the pump.” Everyone seems to have overlooked the fact that we have a Republican president defending a school of economics that conservatives have been trying to beat back for more than a century (free-market economists were anti-Keynesian before Keynes was born).

Now, I know Trump was talking about tax cuts here, and there’s a Keynesian argument for tax cuts that conservatives sometimes flirt with. But Trump also uses “prime the pump” for his infrastructure-spending ideas. More to the point, he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And yet that doesn’t stop him from calling in St. Elmo’s Fire to keep people from noticing.

The Comey Debacle

But forget about conservative dogma and doctrine. Trump made clear long ago that he doesn’t care about that stuff, and he won anyway. So, just look at basic politics. I have no problem with the argument that James Comey deserved to be fired. I’m more sympathetic to him than some of my colleagues, but that’s irrelevant. In principle, a president can fire an FBI director for any reason he wants (or for no reason at all). And there were certainly defensible reasons for Comey to go.

But come on, people. The way Comey was fired was simply malpractice on a scale on par with Barack Obama’s decision to contract out the Obamacare website to the Amish community’s finest programmers. There was no reason to rush it. There was no reason to humiliate Comey while he was in Los Angeles visiting an FBI field office. There was no reason — as in “rationality” — to any of it. No reasonable person could believe that the same guy who invited chants of “Lock her up!” and defended Comey’s “guts” for reopening the Hillary Clinton investigation in October wanted to fire Comey for his unfairness to Hillary Clinton. And yet, the president humiliated the vice president and the White House communications team by letting them go out and peddle precisely that nonsense.

Trump now defends the gelding of his vice president on the grounds that he’s just too busy to keep his most loyal surrogates from beclowning themselves: “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!….”

No one’s looking for perfect accuracy. But if the White House had waited a day, they could have avoided objective lies.

The response from the drivers of the permanent wagon circle, however, is to talk about how the media coverage of Comey’s firing is all overblown. There have been inaccuracies and hyperbole, to be sure. But serious people understand — even if they won’t say so on camera — that Trump has been throwing gasoline on a firestorm for no other reason than that’s what Trump does. I keep hearing from conservatives that the media is driven by a deranged conspiracy theory about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. Maybe it is. But I never hear the second shoe drop: Trump seems Hell-bent on convincing people that he’s obsessed with the Russia story and does almost everything he can to keep it alive. Trump’s confession to NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired Comey because of the Russia story, his ridiculous tweets, his letter claiming that Comey told him three times that he wasn’t being investigated: These are not things you do if you want the media, the Democrats, Congress, or the FBI to drop the subject.

A friend e-mailed me yesterday that the Comey firestorm is only a big deal inside the Beltway. Maybe, maybe not. But people forget that it’s inside the Beltway where laws get made.

The smart — never mind honorable — response from conservatives to all this should be the Jerry Maguire response. Rather than rationalizing and enabling this behavior, conservatives should be doing everything they can to convince Trump that he’s his own worst enemy. Mike Pence would do himself, his party, and his country a favor by telling Donald Trump, “If you humiliate me like that again, I will resign and run against you in 2020.” It may not work. But it’s a far better approach than bending over and shouting, “Thank you, sir! May I have another!?

My Baby Sent Me a Letter

My absolute favorite tidbit this week came with the news that President Trump has sent Lindsey Graham a “certified letter” to clear up the whole Russia business. From Trump’s interview with Lester Holt:

I have a certified letter, just so you understand. Uh, I’m not just saying that. I’ve given the letter, I’ve given the letter to Senator Lindsey Graham, he has the letter, and I think frankly, uh, it’s, I assume he’s gonna give the letter out but it says I am not involved in Russia.

Maybe this is a stretch, but to my ear this sounds like a classic example of the sort of flim-flammery common to condo salesmen. A certified letter just sounds so much more serious! “I’m sending you a certified letter saying you owe me the rest of the down payment! You hear me? It’s certified. So, you better pay up or get yourself a lawyer!”

If you go to the Post Office’s website, you’ll learn that a Certified Letter is actually a trademark of the United States Postal Service:

Certified Mail®

Prove you sent it. See when it was delivered or that a delivery attempt was made, and get the signature of the person who accepts the mailing when combined with Return Receipt.

In other words, a certified letter isn’t quite nothing, but it is the wispy vapor of nothing. If Lindsey Graham signs for the letter, that doesn’t oblige him to believe whatever is in the envelope.

I have to wonder if Trump saw Miracle on 34th Street one too many times. In the movie, Kris Kringle’s lawyer uses the fact that the Post Office delivered a bunch of kids’ Santa letters to his client to prove — prove! — that he is the one and only Santa Claus.

The trial court goes along with it because the judge is looking for any excuse to avoid telling a politically suicidal truth (he doesn’t want to have to declare, at Christmastime no less, that there is no Santa Claus).

We’re in a similar situation here. I don’t know if Trump colluded with the Russians, but my hunch is that if there’s any there there, it will end with Manafort, Stone, and Page. Similarly, I suspect Trump’s business ties to Russia are more than he claims, but that they are probably tangential to the campaign. That’s all beside the point, however. Trump is using an old bullsh***er’s technique to make it sound as if his letter is authoritative. And I’m sure some people believe it. “Did you hear that Marge, he’s sending a certified letter to Lindsey Graham. It must be true.”

But in reality, all Trump is doing is using the letter’s Certified® status like a tin can of his bullsh**. And, as we already know, there’s a market for that kind of thing.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Some of you may recall that my sister-in-law’s dog, Buckley, passed away recently. He was about as good an example of pure doggy goodness as I have ever known; he was also the late Great Cosmo the Wonderdog’s best friend. He can never be replaced, but he has a promising successor: Sneakers! Much like Buckley and Cosmo, Sneakers is a rich ethnic cocktail of unknown pedigree. He showed up at the rescue in a cardboard box with a bunch of other puppies, many of which look like they may have had a different father (or maybe even a different mother, who knows?). He’s only eight-weeks old now, so he can’t meet other dogs yet. Also, we are thinking through how we introduce Zoë to Sneakers (Pippa gets along with everyone). The introduction of Zoë and Pippa was incredibly stressful for all concerned. It’s vital that they get along, which means we’ll certainly do it on neutral ground and perhaps without the “parents” around at all. Meanwhile, he’s just damn cute.

In other news, the culture clash between Zoë and Pippa has reasserted itself as the bunny population has exploded. As you’ll recall, Zoë is a Carolina swamp dog who takes after Daryl from The Walking Dead. Pippa is a purebred silly-billy of the dippy daughter from Downtown Abbey variety. Zoë thinks her job is to catch and kill All Things Hoppy (not to mention anything else of even vaguely rodent quality, including crows, which she considers to be outrageous affronts to the Laws of Nature). Pippa thinks her job is to flush quarry for me to shoot at. So, whenever the Dingo sees a rabbit, she crouches like a Ranger sneaking up on a German pillbox. Meanwhile, Pippa, in her Odie-like innocence, thinks her job is to get the prey moving into my gun sights. It’s driving Zoë nuts. Every time Zoë starts creeping up on a bunny/squirrel/crow, Pippa drops her tennis ball and races to mess everything up.

ICYMI . . .

The most recent G-File (from two weeks ago).

My response to the New York Times’ love letter to Communism.

My hit on Chicago AM 560 The Answer.

My appearance on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier.

My doff of the cap to Bret Stephens’s trolling the Left on climate change.

My pushback on Jimmy Kimmel’s empathy-based policymaking.

The latest GLoP Culture podcast.

How Trump and his opponents collaborate to violate democratic norms.

Why does Trump claim he coined the phrase “prime the pump”?

Why is the Trump White House so leaky?

And now the weird stuff.

Debby’s Wednesday links

Sheep sink Russian spy ship

A machine that can create every horror-movie music cue

Virginia catnapper returns cats with shaved bellies

April’s best space images

Subject yourself to the pun-ishment of the World Pun Championships

Man forced to surrender Star Trek license plate

How are rocks moving unaided in the desert?

Man’s wallet returned after 13 years

Man flushes his friend’s ashes down ballpark toilets across the land (it’s what he wanted)

Basset hound moos, farts, gets confused

Vet sings to nervous dog before surgery

Crows like to sit atop other birds

Weasel rides woodpecker

Bloodhound puppy sworn in as a police officer

The 17th-century moon mission that never was

What would happen if you drank water from New York’s Gowanus Canal?

100 behind-the-scenes photos from the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Star Wars and sound design

Japan struggling to meet its ninja quota

Two shelter dogs rescued from euthanasia

Man designs human-sized mouse trap for some reason

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg