The Village Rules for Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Over the weekend, the main political topic on social media was civility. Progressives and liberals spent much of their time laying into people David Atkins characterized as “the civility police.” And there were plenty of targets. There was Washington Post columnist David Ignatius:

The Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt also weighed in, as did former top Obama strategist David Axelrod. And the battle continues today, with the Post not letting up.  The top article on their website right now has the headline Liberal hostility toward Trump aides could galvanize the GOP base and Mary Jordan has a disapproving article on The latest sign of political divide: Shaming and shunning public officials. Despite putting up a masthead in response to the Trump administration that says “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” it’s very clear that the culture of the Post is firmly opposed to the harassment or denial of services to White House officials.

I weighed in on this topic yesterday at the green place, but my focus was a little different there than it will be here. Today, I want to once again draw attention to something I harp on from time to time. And that is how the people who live in Washington, DC and serve as a kind of permanent (elite) community tend to react when someone from their social network gets into real trouble.

The best introduction to this tight-knit community remains an article Sally Quinn wrote in 1998 in which she interviewed more than one hundred “Establishment Washingtonians” (as she termed them) to get their reactions to the revelation that President Bill Clinton had conducted a series of furtive trysts with a White House intern and then lied about it under oath. Needless to say, they were completely appalled.

THIS IS THEIR HOME. This is where they spend their lives, raise their families, participate in community activities, take pride in their surroundings. They feel Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president.

“It’s much more personal here,” says pollster Geoff Garin. “This is an affront to their world. It affects the dignity of the place where they live and work. . . . Clinton’s behavior is unacceptable. If they did this at the local Elks Club hall in some other community it would be a big cause for concern.”

“He came in here and he trashed the place,” says Washington Post columnist David Broder, “and it’s not his place.”

…”This is our town,” says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democrat to forcefully condemn the president’s behavior. “We spend our lives involved in talking about, dealing with, working in government. It has reminded everybody what matters to them. You are embarrassed about what Bill Clinton’s behavior says about the White House, the presidency, the government in general.”

In the piece, Ms. Quinn acknowledged that there was a disconnect between how the broader country felt about the scandal and how Establishment Washingtonians felt. Polls indicated that the public was displeased but inclined to move on. Within the Village, however, there was an unrelenting and bipartisan thirst for punishment. Clearly, Bill Clinton had transgressed their moral code and in the process had sullied their own reputations and community.

But this is not how they reacted when members of their community committed more serious crimes during the Iran-Contra scandal and the subsequent obstruction of the investigation. I first wrote about this way back in 2007 in a piece called Richard Cohen and White-Collar Crime. Mr. Cohen was responding to the 1992 Christmas Eve massacre when lame duck president George H.W. Bush “granted full pardons to six former officials in Ronald Reagan’s Administration, including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger,” who had been indicted by independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh. Here’s how the New York Times reported it at the time:

Decapitated Walsh Efforts

But in a single stroke, Mr. Bush swept away one conviction, three guilty pleas and two pending cases, virtually decapitating what was left of Mr. Walsh’s effort, which began in 1986. Mr. Bush’s decision was announced by the White House in a printed statement after the President left for Camp David, where he will spend the Christmas holiday.

Mr. Walsh bitterly condemned the President’s action, charging that “the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.”

Mr. Walsh directed his heaviest fire at Mr. Bush over the pardon of Mr. Weinberger, whose trial would have given the prosecutor a last chance to explore the role in the affair of senior Reagan officials, including Mr. Bush’s actions as Vice President.

As noted in the last sentence there, the president was clearly using the pardon power to protect himself, which is something we may see repeated in coming days. This did not concern Richard Cohen in the least.

…when Weinberger was indicted by Lawrence E. Walsh, the special Iran-contra prosecutor, I despaired.

…Back when Caspar Weinberger was secretary of defense, he and I used to meet all the time. Our “meetings” — I choose to call them that — took place in the Georgetown Safeway, the one on Wisconsin Avenue, where I would go to shop and Cap would too. My clear recollection is that once — was it before Thanksgiving? — he bought a turkey.

I tell you this about the man President Bush just pardoned because it always influenced my opinion of Weinberger…

Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me. As for the other five, they are not crooks in the conventional sense but Cold Warriors who, confident in the justice of their cause, were contemptuous of Congress. Because they thought they were right, they did not think they had to be accountable. This is the damage the Cold War did to our democracy…

But [Bush] is wrong in asserting that a mere difference of opinion constituted the charges against the pardoned six. They were accused of lying to Congress. In a political context, that might not warrant jail time, but it’s something short of noble.

Cohen would give us a repeat performance fifteen years later, when he argued that Scooter Libby shouldn’t be prosecuted for obstructing the Valerie Plame investigation because, although “government officials should not lie to grand juries, …neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics.”

There was no shortage of Villagers, including Clinton’s top MonicaGate defender James Carville, who made the same arguments on Scooter Libby’s behalf. His sentence should be commuted (at it was by Dubya) or he should receive a full pardon (as he was recently granted by Trump) because he had not been convicted of the underlying crime of leaking Valerie Plame’s identity.

Many of the same voices have spoken up in similar terms to defend Michael Flynn (who copped a plea) and Paul Manafort who just went to prison. Neither of them has confessed to colluding with the Russians, so their perjury or obstruction of justice should be overlooked.

We do not hear these same kinds of arguments for ordinary citizens of the United States who lie to the FBI or Congress. But when a member of the Washington Establishment runs afoul of the law, they seem to always get a pass.  Maybe Flynn and Manafort were working with a hostile foreign power to help win a presidential election or maybe they were just “practicing the dark art of politics.”

One can’t help but notice the discomfort in DC with the sudden attention being paid to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and it’s obvious why this is concerning. The scrutiny has already taken down Tony Podesta’s lobbying shop, and it threatens many more powerful lobbyists who serve unsavory foreign clients. It’s a clear example of a “the law is for thee and not for me” mentality.

If you or I lie to federal investigators, or we obstruct an investigation, or we don’t register as lobbyists, then we should not expect any mercy or any editorials urging leniency in our case.

And this is the lens through which I interpret the reaction to Sarah Huckabee Sanders not being allowed to eat at a small Virginia restaurant. If she can be denied service for political reasons, then any member of the Village can be denied service for political reasons. Protecting her rights and privileges is a way of protecting their own rights and privileges.

But this is the wrong way of looking at this issue. As I pointed out in my weekend piece, a very large and growing segment of the left no longer considers this a political argument. It has become a moral imperative not to treat Trump and his staff as normal in any way. These are not mere disagreements, but human rights violations.

We also feel that the actions of the president have embarrassed and sullied our communities and that he must be held accountable. But our values are different. We take lying about trading arms for hostages more seriously than lying about an extramarital dalliance. And we don’t accept the transgressions of the Trump administration as mere “dark arts,” that should be tolerated or forgiven.

I understand that Establishment Washingtonians have difficulty seeing things from our point of view, but they are going to have to accept that for many people the Trump administration has crossed an invisible line and no longer can treated as just the opposing political party. When they obstruct the Russia investigation we don’t care where they bought their Thanksgiving turkey, they must pay the same price we would pay. And when they take people’s children away and lose track of them, we don’t care how that “plays” politically because it’s an atrocity.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.