President Trump benefited from a strategy of stonewalling the public. His Republican colleagues are now hoping to replicate that success.
Fraudsters don't commit crimes because they're foolish; they do it because, more often than not, they benefit from their own cons. President Trump, who has left a trail of questionable bankruptcies and settlements in his wake, understands this point better than anyone. He has mastered the art of minimizing what harm may come to him from legally suspicious and morally wicked behavior. The common thread throughout the President's adult life is that he's managed to avoid accountability when others would not, and has carefully dodged admissions of fault.
His campaign followed the same playbook to great success by stonewalling public inquiries into his tax returns and business dealings. They deftly managed to minimize press reports about these newsworthy topics simply by refusing to engage in good faith. Now, his Republican colleagues in Congress are using the same tactics to minimize the fallout from their deeply unpopular healthcare reform proposals.
For someone with a remarkable tendency toward self-destruction, President Trump possesses impressive instincts for damage control. When his businesses lost nearly a billion dollars in a single year, he exploited the tax code to avoid future liability. When he paid $25 million to settle lawsuits against his fraudulent "Trump University" business, he used the settlement as a tax write-off, passing the burden of his con onto the taxpayers. When he faced embarrassingly public divorce proceedings, he posed as his own publicist to plant (often false) stories restoring his reputation as a socialite playboy. When confronted by his opponent about his tax schemes, President Trump famously said that his behavior "makes me smart."
Unfortunately, he is not entirely wrong. Far more skillful politicians than President Trump have seen their reputations collapse for less serious or numerous offenses, as John Edwards and Tom Daschle can attest. However, they also possessed a sense of shame that the President lacks. There is a certain evil genius that allows President Trump to abandon all shame in his efforts to avoid personal accountability. His behavior is morally repulsive, but highly successful.
On the flip-side, Hillary Clinton's campaign demonstrated the potential pitfalls of transparency for politicians seeking higher office. Clinton spent hours testifying in front of Congress in an attempt to defuse a political witch hunt investigating her responsibility for the tragic deaths of American personnel in Benghazi. Faced with concerns that her family's charity could lead to conflicts of interest, she promised that the Clinton Foundation would voluntarily disclose its donors. When she (understandably) faced scrutiny for her use of a private email server while Secretary of State, Clinton personally encouraged the Department of State to make all of her emails public. In each of these scenarios, she attempted to stem controversy by engaging in transparency. Nonetheless, the consequence was months of critical media coverage that was ultimately a detriment to her candidacy. Some will say that her own actions made this possible, and that's a fair critique. Nonetheless, it's impossible to compare Clinton's controversies to those of President Trump without concluding that the latter dodged scrutiny simply by refusing to engage in good faith.
Members of Congress are a politically astute breed, and they undoubtedly watched as Clinton's expected coronation became entrenched in controversy. They've taken notes on the 2016 campaign and now appreciate the potential risks underlying any act of transparency. Congress is now actively taking steps to mitigate those risks. Congressional Republicans have gone on the offensive against the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the only nonpartisan public entity committed to estimating the impact of proposed legislation. Today, Congress moved to limit reporters' ability to interview Senators as they move about the Capitol, a public building. Most shamefully, Republicans in Congress have begun adopting the President's playbook in order to pass a healthcare reform bill that could take away healthcare coverage from 23 million Americans.
ALERT: Reporters at Capitol have been told they are not allow to film interviews with senators in hallways, contrary to years of precedent— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) June 13, 2017
It's one thing for President Trump to act without shame when his only victims are defrauded customers, ex-wives, and the IRS. Now that he's won office, the stakes are now much higher, and his potential victims more numerous by orders of magnitude. Congressional Republicans are pursuing an agenda that would deprive tens of millions of Americans of their healthcare for no other reason than to achieve a legislative "win." When the House passed their version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), neither the bill text, nor CBO report were available for scrutiny prior to the vote. Reporters were left pouring over the text as House Republicans celebrated their "victory" at a White House press conference. Now, Senate Republicans refuse to hold hearings on their version of the bill, and will not answer detailed questions about its contents.
I worry that the nation's press corps is not prepared to deal with the Republican Party's offensive against transparency. Republicans are pursuing this strategy because they believe it will be beneficial to their interests, and without substantial negative consequences. I suspect that they will be proven correct over the short-to-medium term.
The President and his partisan allies have escalated their feud against the press to a point at which good faith journalism only reinforces their cries of media bias. For example, Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte recently won election, despite having assaulted a reporter on tape, after first claiming the reporter's coverage justified his actions. Gianforte, who is headed to the House of Representatives, only later apologized when facing possible incarceration. In the aftermath, CNN's Chris Cillizza justified this strategy in a tone-deaf tweet, saying that Republicans had "bet right" that voters wouldn't care that a future Congressman assaulted one of Cillizza's colleagues.
Did you spend a second over Memorial Day weekend thinking of Greg Gianforte's choke slam?— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) May 30, 2017
Me neither. Which means Republicans bet right.
Meanwhile, news anchors Lawrence O'Donnell to Scott Pelley have been forced out of their jobs after White House officials griped to network brass about their coverage. Senate Republicans are simultaneously moving to curtail reporters' access to them, just as they are debating enormously consequential legislation in total secrecy. When asked why they would not reveal the text of their healthcare bill, one Republican congressional staffer offered only "we aren't stupid." While reporters' personal frustrations are growing increasingly conspicuous, their publications have done just what congressional Republicans hoped they would do. Critical tweets abound, but coverage of their shameful legislative strategy is missing from America's front pages.
Is there any way to reverse course, and restore an expectation of transparency to our government? Unfortunately, as a consequence of our polarized political environment, Democrats are, admittedly, not in a position to prosecute the case effectively. Instead, American civil society (non-governmental institutions that promote the public interest), especially the press, must speak out. This is understandably difficult for the press to do, because journalists risk losing sources when their employers spoil relationships with the White House and Congress. Therefore, the best interests of the press diverge from the best interests of the public in this scenario. Republicans understand this dynamic. It's why they are pursuing this strategy in the first place. Only by pushing too far (for example, by silencing the investigation into Russia's election interference) can the White House and Congress undermine the success of their attacks on transparency. Unfortunately, that means this is all likely to get worse before it can get better.