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Follow the Mendacity

A dogged press is our best hope to check executive power

So yes: The ballyhooed Trumpian bid to Make America Great Again is, like all Trump-branded enterprises, collapsing into a morass of brazen lies, blame-shifting, and ritual public calls to execute the messenger. All it took was a few news cycles of dogged reporting from the Washington Post to establish that Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn had improperly held discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the Obama White House sanctions against Russia. Follow-up reports have established, contrary to White House statements over the past week, that the Trump administration had been warned that Flynn’s confab with Kislyak could well constitute a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids private U.S. citizens (as Flynn still was as of the December call) from interfering in American diplomatic disputes with another country. The damning exchange with Kislyak evidently could have supplied Russian operatives with material for blackmail, then acting Attorney General Sally Yates (yes, that Sally Yates) warned the Trump team.

Ironies abound here. Fire-breathing Trump campaign surrogates—Michael Flynn chief among them—had made Hillary Clinton’s allegedly bungled management of diplomatic communications, via her private email server—a rallying cry to “lock her up” on never-specified criminal charges. But it’s now clear that the Trump White House had been fully briefed on a true breach of the law—committed by their own lead guardian of national security, no less—and proceeded to do nothing about it, for weeks. Indeed, just prior to his own reportedly coerced resignation, Flynn himself was still giving belligerent interviews to sympathetic right-wing news organizations in which he painted himself the victim of illegal collusion between past and present federal intelligence agents and a complicit press. “In some of these cases, you are talking about stuff that’s taken off a classified system and given to a reporter,” Flynn told a reporting combine bearing the comically self-important sobriquet The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group. “That’s a crime . . . You call them leaks. It’s a criminal act. This is a crime.”

Congress is already greeting this brewing crisis in the executive branch with a bracing collective yawn and fistful of Ambien.

So now it’s a crime for the public to learn what the Trump White House is up to. While it’s true that government officials are at risk when they make “secret” information public, you could also call that whistleblowing. But the bigger question here is, how did it not occur to Flynn—who loves reminding anyone within earshot of his three decades worth of national security expertise—that something like this could happen? As Flynn, former head of defense intelligence in the Obama White House, well knows, it’s routine for American intelligence to listen in on the phone activities of foreign diplomats. What’s more, given Flynn’s long history of feckless dalliances with Russia and its emissaries—a weakness he shares with other past Trump campaign consorts—the FBI had interviewed Flynn in his first few days on the job in the Trump White House. (Pause for just a moment and savor this big-lie-within-the-big-lie that Flynn foisted on his obliging Koch Bro—er, pardon me, “Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group”—audience: “If I did [cross a line in the Kislyak call], believe me, the FBI would be down my throat.”). That inquiry could well form the basis of felony charges against Flynn, should he be found to have concealed his contacts with Kislyak from the FBI. Somehow “irony” is too polite a term in this context. “Truth-mauling,” perhaps?

And even apart from all these damning particulars, under the provisions of the PATRIOT Act, private U.S. citizens can be, and routinely are, surveilled in communications with foreign nationals. Welcome to the Global War on Terror, Mr. Lethal Foe of ISIS!

But that’s not the point of such jowly yelling fits—which have of course been duly echoed by Maximum Leader Trump after he was forced to show Flynn to the Oval Office door. The point is to smear the American media as a devious, untrustworthy Fifth Column of shape-shifting appeasement. It was a principal theme of Trump’s successful presidential run, and now that the press and the White House are settling into a working routine at complete cross-purposes with one another, the crypto-fascist refrain that the press is dishonest, ideology-driven, and selectively reporting the facts, is not going to let up any time soon.

The key directive for the media, now that the Post’s reporting has claimed its first White House casualty, is not to let up on its side of its battle with the Trump White House for a moment. After all, the Flynn saga shows in stark relief that the preferred operating procedure in the sanctums of Trumpian power is complete executive impunity. (And if you think that Flynn, who called Kislyak five times on that fateful December day, was somehow acting outside the authority of President Trump, well, I have a border-girding wall to sell you.) When law enforcement officials alerted the Trump administration that one of its lead national security figures might well be compromised by his Russian ties, it was the attorney general, not Flynn who was sent packing. (The rationale for Yates’s already infamous cashiering grows muddier with each fresh Flynn revelation.) 

The Flynn saga shows in stark relief that the preferred operating procedure in the sanctums of Trumpian power is complete executive impunity.

And it’s not as if the separation of powers is going to work any institutional magic here. The Trump White House’s nominal overseers in the GOP-led Congress are already greeting this brewing crisis in the executive branch with a bracing collective yawn and fistful of Ambien. Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House committee on government oversight, greeted inquiries about his panel’s interest in running down the Flynn backstory with the wan assurance that the whole mess was, thank God, “taking care of itself.” And House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes, too lazy to concoct a transparently dishonest talking point of his own, elected instead to rehash Flynn’s own spittle-flecked outrage over being spied on. (This was an especially inspired bit of inadvertent self-parody in the Flynn vein, since Nunes backed the reauthorization of the PATRIOT act in 2015, demonstrating that this fearless wielder of a Capitol Hill gavel neither understands the constitutional mandate of his own committee nor the legislation he votes for.) And yes, some GOP senators are calling to open an inquiry into the relationship between Flynn and the Russian state, but I, for one, am not holding my breath that a body so enthusiastically bailing on the basics of advise-and-consent is about to grow an investigative spine overnight.

So without invoking any Capra-esque scenario of the republic’s rescue, it’s nonetheless clear that the press has drawn the short straw in the institutional battle to hold the forty-fifth president and his truth-averse, power-mad White House to the basic terms of the constitutional oath of office. And they’d be well advised to begin by fleshing out Trump’s long, lurid history of private-sector dealings with Russia. It’s true that, absent the release of the president’s tax returns—another key issue on which Congress has recently caved—the full sweep of this compromising relationship can’t be documented. But thanks to the indispensable ground work done by investigative reporters like David Cay Johnston and the late Wayne Barrett, there’s ample material here to keep the parallel kleptocratic careers of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin front and center in the news cycle for the foreseeable future. Of course, I’m not holding my breath for that outome either. But we live, stubbornly, in hope—and in a political environment that has somehow transformed Matt Lauer into a feisty speaker of truth to power, even practiced cynics must avow that anything is possible.