By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – There’s a joke bouncing through political circles these days that goes like this:
“A Democrat says to a Republican, ‘You warned me that if I voted for Hillary Clinton we’d have a president in office with questionable ties to foreign governments, a political culture consumed by one scandal after another and an administration that covers everything up and blames everyone else for its problems. I didn’t listen to you. I voted for her anyway. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.’”
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
What the jest lacks in belly laughs it makes up for with insight.
There’s a kind of karma at work in the political universe these days.
After receiving a modicum of good press for his address to Congress Tuesday night, President Donald Trump found himself knocked off message again by more damaging revelations about members of his official family.
The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met twice in recent months with the Russian ambassador, despite testifying to the Senate that he hadn’t.
This is significant for at least two reasons.
The first is that Sessions is the second member of the Trump Cabinet to have to acknowledge concealing meetings with Russian emissaries – and thus to reveal that the president’s claims that neither he nor his administration has any ties to the Russian government may be less than truthful or accurate. This will increase pressure on Trump to reveal both his tax returns and the scope of his holdings, including any financial ties he has in Russia.
The second is that, at the least, Sessions misled the Senate. At worst, he lied and could face criminal charges.
Then, just as the reverberations from the Sessions story were reaching a crescendo, The Indianapolis Star reported that Vice President Mike Pence used a private email account to conduct sensitive state business while he was governor of Indiana – and that the account once was hacked.
Given that Pence pursued Hillary Clinton for her use of private email with all the sensitivity and concern for fair play of the Javert character in “Les Miserables,” the news further eroded the tiny postage stamp of moral high ground upon which Trump advocates attempt to stand.
The Pence and Sessions revelations pushed Trump defenders into arguments as absurdly parsed as former President Bill Clinton’s infamous “it depends upon what the definition of ‘is’ is” defense.
Sessions said he hadn’t met with the Russian ambassador as a Trump supporter but as a senator. This overlooked the fact that the issue isn’t in what capacity he met with the Russians, but whether he told the truth about meeting with them at all – regardless of whether it was as part of the Trump campaign, as a senator or as a candidate to be the principal ballerina for the Bolshoi Ballet.
Pence’s mouthpieces tried to advance an argument that there is a galaxy’s worth of difference between using his poorly protected private email account and Hillary Clinton’s private server – a defense that sent IT specialists around the globe collapsing in paroxysms of laughter.
And, through it all, Republicans keep trying to reassure everyone there really is nothing to this whole Russia business. Their reassurances keep falling flat because of their increasingly desperate attempts to keep people from asking even the most basic questions about the new president’s relationship with Russia.
The Trumpistas claim all this is a witch hunt.
Maybe there is nothing to Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia, and it’s his inherently shy, retiring personality that prompts him to refuse to release his tax returns. Maybe both Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions just have really bad short-term memories.
Maybe they all would be vindicated in any sort of proceeding that followed even the laxest rules of evidence.
But we now live in a political reality in which leaks and innuendo rule – not actual proof. This is a reality in which a president’s legitimacy can be denied by lies about his birthplace. One in which another presidency can be undermined by a special prosecutor who starts out looking for illegalities in obscure real estate transactions and ends up trying to set perjury traps for otherwise legal activities.
That’s why Trump and other Republicans are fighting this so hard.
They know what’s coming.
They wrote the playbook.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.