Sites like Vox, the Daily Beast, and the Weekly Standard have long praised the dossiers of Robert Mueller’s legal investigative team. The essays prove mostly the same. They often employ the same superlative nomenclature: “all-stars,” “dream-team,” “army,” and “professionals.”
The hagiographies list the legal CVs of various lawyers and investigators now employed (usually on loan either from the FBI, Obama or Trump Justice Departments, or prestigious East Coast firms). The reviews often hint that such “firepower” may mean a one-sided legal bloodbath ahead. The mere names spell “very, very bad news” for the White House.
Yet the Mueller legal team’s dossiers also turn out predictably similar. We are supposed to be awed by past employment in a blue-chip Washington or New York law firm—all the better if the same as Robert Mueller’s own.
Ivy League law school degrees supposedly signal competence. Power couple bumper stickers (He is married to this judge, or she is wedded to that federal attorney) offer added insurance of excellence.
Insider baseball gossip that attorney A was a whiz in the courtroom, or attorney B prosecuted so-and-so villains are supposed to assure us in Nowheresville that Trump is in real trouble.
But lost in all the gentry hyperbole are the two criteria, at this juncture and at this age, that matter far more than post-LSAT credentialing:
- Does Mueller’s team display a diversity of legal training and experience—which would insulate it from charges of New York-Washington corridor blindness?
- Is his team also immune from charges that it appears politically slanted?
To avoid the appearance of ideological bias, Mueller could easily have applied to potential hires a few simple standards that anyone in Des Moines, Bakersfield, or Reno would have insisted upon.
In such a supposedly independent and autonomous investigation, avoid hiring those from Mueller’s law firm.
Avoid hiring any attorneys and investigators who in the past have been involved in an investigation, trial, or lawsuit involving either the Clintons or the Trumps.
Avoid hiring those who have given more than $100 to national political campaigns.
Avoid hiring those whose spouses have received money and compensation in any form (legal fees, campaign contributions, jobs) from either Clinton-affiliated or Trump-affiliated campaigns or operatives.
Avoid hiring those who in the past have represented high-profile members of the Clinton, Obama, or Trump family, political team, or their foundations.
Avoid hiring anyone involved, even in a peripheral way, with the Fusion GPS dossier or its use to obtain FISA orders.
Avoid hiring those who have voiced their dislike of the current object of their investigations.
But do hire federal attorneys or FBI career officers from outside the East Coast. Do hire investigators not trained in the Ivy League law industry. Do hire attorneys that have no known background of political activism. Do hire attorneys that were not in some way involved in the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
There are thousands of qualified attorneys nationwide. Hundreds have worked in the past at DOJ or FBI offices, who now live, operate and think in a way quite distant from the status quo in New York and Washington.
Far from being sources of reassurance, the résumés of the Mueller team are what explains its current lack of public confidence.
Oddly, after the 2016 election one would have thought all the old rubrics of excellence would have become suspect—given that the polling establishment, political grandees, and the East Coast punditocracy had little clue about how or why Donald Trump had a shot at winning the presidency.
A Trojan Horse Revelation
In an Esquire essay, journalist Sam Tanenhaus described a recent Washington book party hosted by political analyst and former Bush speechwriter David Frum. According to Tanenhaus (who, in Trojan-horse fashion, was weirdly invited in—only to write an essay full of schadenfreude), the gathering also served as an occasion for shared commiseration among NeverTrump, and often former, Republican intellectuals. Tanenhaus wants us to know that past hostility to Trump (“European-style blood-and-soil nationalist”) and an inability to even envision his supposedly absurd election victory, have orphaned (“uprooted and displaced”) some neoconservatives from power, influence and income, the touchstones of Eastern corridor elite success.
Another theme of the Tanenhaus profile is that it appears the most influential NeverTrumpers seemed to gravitate in the same East Coast social circles, share the same tastes, suffer the same outrages about a Trump presidency, and enjoy similar educational pedigrees—and thus were particularly ill-suited to see how insidiously over the last decade their brand of Republican conservatism had both alienated a large number of red-state traditional voters and failed to appeal, on matters of class interests, to key working-class Democrats, so necessary to swing the purple states of the Midwest.
We do not know to what degree Tanenhaus was fair, or wished to be fair, in his description of the Frum party (the article, echoed, in a similar moth-to-flame vein, the self-incrimination methodologies of David Rose’s 2006 Vanity Fair piece “Neo Culpa,” in which former Project for the New American Century Iraq war supporters were apparently given a liberal venue to blame others for the pre-surge Iraq quagmire).
But if Tanenhaus’s portrait is just 25 percent accurate in capturing the mood of the gathering, it may serve as a reminder of why the Republican Party on the national level does poorly (until 2016 it had lost four of the last six presidential elections, and has not achieved a 51 percent winning margin in 30 years)—even as it has scored impressive wins on the state, local, and congressional level.
The Varieties of NeverTrump
There is also a new genre of NeverTrump revisionism that goes something like the following: Supposedly less-principled NeverTrumpers now call balls and strikes, and thus wrongly end up praising Trump’s first year of governance.
In contrast, the assumed more principled NeverTrumpers insist that that Trump’s accomplishments are canceled out by his character flaws. Thus they are not sustainable, given that character is destiny. Nemesis is still waiting for the most ironic moment to pounce on Trump hubris.
Other NeverTrumpers argue Trump has done little good himself. His team, or the Republican Congress, is instead to be credited with his successes. Trump himself earned his setbacks such as his initial travel moratorium, failure to repeal in toto Obamacare, and stasis on building the wall or moving forward with a DACA resolution.
Still others sense Trump’s crudity has sparked self-introspection about the entire conservative project. Thus they are now more or less becoming, or re-calibrating themselves as, Democrats. To paraphrase Cicero, they would prefer to be wrong with Hillary Clinton than right with the Donald Trump crowd.
Trump’s efforts to reset the Iran Deal, to move the embassy to Jerusalem, to get out of the Paris climate accord, to arm the Ukrainians, to take off the gloves in Afghanistan, to hector the hypocrisies of the United Nations, or to urge Iranian dissidents to keep protesting now risk becoming reminders why these formerly good ideas were always bad and tainted.
Trump’s Culture is Our Destiny?
But are any of those accurate assumptions?
It seems unlikely that any in the 2106 Republican field would have won swing voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. A President Rubio would likely not have withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord—any more than a president Jeb Bush would have clamped down on illegal immigration. In the past, a President Romney would likely not have talked of “our” farmers and “our” miners.
Like it or not Trump’s very rambunctiousness set the tone for and gave the latitude to his subordinates to risk doing the unorthodox—whether James Mattis recalibrating U.S. policy in Syria, or H.R. McMaster crafting a new deterrent strategy toward North Korea, or Nikki Haley reprising the role of Jeane Kirkpatrick at the United Nations, or a Neil Gorsuch appointment ensuring another Antonin Scalia rather than an Anthony Kennedy.
What Trump critics seem to resent most about Trump is not his politics, agenda, or record, but his culture.
More specifically, Trump is oblivious to traditional criteria of Washington-New York merit and comportment. In Trump’s wild world of scramblers, the proper credentials do not always result in the proper results. Someone can be a “loser” who won a Pulitzer Prize, went to Stanford, or is a contributing editor of a prestigious journal. In his world, an Ivy League degree does not keep you from being fired on “The Apprentice” any more than it proves a guide to who will know the most facts or quickest recall on “Jeopardy” or “Wheel of Fortune.”
Trump has turned topsy-turvy all the usual rules of success, prestige, reputation, and esteem. He did this mostly by his victory over a candidate, who by traditional norms of education and public service, by the rules of discourse and comportment, and by the networks of the well-credentialed, was supposedly far superior and preferable, and thus the sure winner.
Trump is perfectly willing to hire the best and brightest and has, but not necessarily because they are assumed to be the best and brightest. One of the strangest experiences watching the 24/7 anti-Trump media is to take in the invective from a New York or Washington pundit, pause, and then recall something like, “Wasn’t this the very person once caught plagiarizing, inventing fables about his own reporting, fired for sexual assault or substance abuse, colluding with a political campaign, leaking or subverting a debate question, or let go for faking the news?” Journalists are not presidents, but it is hard to take moralizing from the so often immoral.
No CVs in the Arena
Saying that one now understands the Trump phenomenon, does not make it so. Most Americans do not give a hoot about where one of Mueller’s lawyers went to school. They couldn’t care less under whom an investigator once served—if he cannot avoid the simple impression of bias and unfairness. They do not equate where one lives or whom one knows with the assurance of ethical or intellectual excellence—if what they do is refuted by facts and logic and imbued with emotion or obvious prejudice.
When a director of the FBI admits he deliberately leaked to the press the contents of his own private notes, written on government time, of a confidential conversation with the President of the United States—a possible criminal offense—for the sole purpose of eliciting the appointment of a special counsel (a gambit which resulted in the selection of his friend Robert Mueller), then most Americans have no compunction about seeing FBI leadership as ethically compromised and something gone terribly wrong at the highest echelons of the once hallowed agency.
That is not “bashing the FBI,” but admitting that the current generation of leaders at the FBI and the Justice Department by their very behavior have bashed their own agencies and loyal and professional subordinates.
All the brilliantly degreed economists of the past decade could not craft policies to achieve even 3 percent growth. All the wittiest and “in the know” advisors had little clue about how to radically reduce illegal immigration. All the supposedly empathetic and moral crusaders more or less wrote off a broad swath of America as clingers, deplorables, and irredeemables—losers in a preordained global world—whose lack of the right stuff earned them deserved oblivion.
The result is that the deities of Washington and New York still do not quite know how and why Trump was elected, or why he well might be reelected—the result of half the country’s profound lack of confidence in the morality and competence of the coastal and gentry managerial classes. And to the degree our elite think they know why many Americans believe that their reputations are undeserved, it is a revelation so disturbing that they are not by background, education, and experience capable of understanding, appreciating, or responding to it.
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