Political Animal

Personal Reflections on the Passing of Billy Graham

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Billy Graham. It’s not simply that my family and church had the same commitment to evangelism. My grandfather played a major role in helping launch Graham’s career. When he died in 1969, the entire team took part in my grandfather’s funeral (Graham himself would have preached, but he was overseas at the time). Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, attended the university my grandparents founded—until he got kicked out for sowing his wild oats. One of my fondest childhood memories was listening to Ethel Waters sing “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” at Graham rallies.

Compared to several other nationally known evangelists, Billy Graham lived a life that was deserving of respect. Regardless of how you feel about his religious beliefs, he always demonstrated personal and financial integrity. But in 2011, during an interview with Christianity Today, the evangelist said that, in addition to wishing he’d spent more time with his family, he had one other regret.

I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes cros­sed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.

Personally, I’d love to hear more about that. It leaves me wondering exactly how Graham would define “crossing the line.”

Long before there was a Moral Majority or religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, Billy Graham became a trusted spiritual advisor to politicians. Most prominently, that included a close relationship with Richard Nixon. It was there, as Nixon made his appeal to the so-called “silent majority,” that the two men initiated an alliance between the Republican Party and white evangelicals.

In the circles I grew up in, Graham’s name was hallowed. That is why it is disturbing to read about the fact that he engaged in this kind of conversation with Nixon:

In 2002, some audio recordings of Nixon and Graham in the White House surfaced. The tapes were made in 1972 without Graham’s knowledge and re­veal him expressing anti-Semitic views.

Graham and Nixon were discus­sing the president’s reelection effort. When Graham mentioned he had a meeting coming up with the editors of Time, Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, who was also in the room, interjected, “You meet with all their editors, you better take your Jewish beanie.”

Graham, laughing, asked, “Is that right? I don’t know any of them now.”

Nixon then launched into an anti-Semitic tirade, saying, “Newsweek is totally, it’s all run by Jews and dominated by them in their editorial pages. The New York Times, The Washington Post, totally Jewish, too.”

To this Graham replied, “The stranglehold has got to be broken, or the country’s going to go down the drain.”

Nixon is heard asking, “You believe that?”

“Yes, sir,” Graham said, to which Nixon replied, “Oh boy, so do I. I can’t ever say that, but I believe it.”

Responded Graham, “No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something.”

That kind of blatant anti-semitism would not have been acceptable in my household. It is shocking to learn that it was embraced by Graham—who eventually apologized for those remarks in 2002. Perhaps that is one of the lines he talked about crossing.

Whatever those lines were, Billy Graham certainly didn’t convince his son Franklin to hold back on involvement in politics. Because he runs the non-profit Samaritan’s Purse, Franklin cannot publicly endorse a political candidate during an election. But that didn’t stop him from spreading vicious lies about Barack Obama and he hasn’t held back in promoting and defending the presidency of Donald Trump. He has even gone so far as to say this:

Evangelist Franklin Graham told thousands in attendance at Donald Trump’s final “thank you” rally on Saturday that he believed president-elect won the election last month as a result of Christians’ prayers for America.

“I don’t have any scientific information. I don’t have a stack of emails to read to you. But I have an opinion: I believe it was God. God showed up. He answered the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people across this land who had been praying for this country,” Graham told the crowd in Mobile, Ala.

It is clear that Franklin didn’t learn anything from his father’s errors. I find these views as abhorrent as Billy’s anti-semitism.

Because of my family’s involvement in all of this, I have a hard time not taking all of this personally. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. So if/when I zero in on my anger at the latest outrage from Franklin Graham, perhaps you’ll understand.

GOP Congressman Ryan Costello Is Really Losing It

My congressman, Ryan Costello, is well-respected in my community. He’s a local boy who did good. He knows he represents a district that voted for Obama once and for Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t throw bombs and keeps away from right-wing media. He casts an occasional dissenting vote. He tries to sound reasonable about immigration policy. He opted out of attending Trump’s convention in Cleveland because of concerns about Trump’s behavior and rhetoric. It’s all sensible behavior for someone who most definitely represents a swing district. His predecessor, Jim Gerlach, survived some rough election cycles using the same basic playbook.

But Costello has been acting weird lately. He was supposed to be at the softball practice where his colleague Steve Scalise was shot and almost killed, but he missed his ride. After that, he became less accessible. He refused to attend a town hall meeting in Phoenixville, offering the implausible explanation that the sponsors’ inadequate security had created a death trap. Then he collapsed at the local gym when he read the headlines about it in the local newspaper.

Then, in January, he totally freaked out when a couple of canvassers came to his house and talked to his wife. He accused his likely opponent in the next election, Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, of sending the canvassers to his house in order to intimidate his family.

During the weekend, Costello wrote on Facebook that a “disturbing” political incident had taken place at his house. He claimed that two “associates” of Houlahan had gone onto his property on Saturday, snapped pictures of his home, and intimidated his wife. “Families should always be off limits,” he said. “We were able to get some footage of the incident and hope these individuals will be apprehended.”

It turned out that they hadn’t taken any pictures or mistreated his wife. They were just out doing normal canvassing work for Planned Parenthood.

I’ve tried to be at least a little sympathetic to Costello, understanding that his near-death experience might have traumatized him. But he’s kind of gone around the bend now that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has redrawn his district to include two heavily Democratic cities (West Chester and Reading), which puts his political future very much in doubt. He’s actually calling on the Republican-controlled state legislature to impeach members of the Supreme Court:

“It was a politically corrupted process instituted by a highly partisan state Supreme Court which has now put itself squarely in line for a very valid impeachment,” said U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, a Chester County Republican whose district suddenly includes Reading and some surrounding suburbs…

… Costello said the state Supreme Court’s Democratic majority acted in blatantly partisan fashion.

“They did this to elect more Democrats,” Costello said. “There is nothing fair or impartial about this. It was just ruthless politics.”

He encouraged the state legislators to impeach the Supreme Court.

“If they (overstep) now, they will do it on other matters,” Costello said.

In a piece I wrote on Valentine’s Day, I basically agreed with Costello that this was a blatantly partisan move that invented the idea that gerrymandered districts violate the Pennsylvania Constitution. But I also pointed out this is the type of thing the Republicans have been doing all over the country without the slightest sign of moral misgivings or remorse.

Pennsylvania elects its supreme court judges, which has turned the court into a kind of legislature. In this day and age, even appointed judges act in a highly partisan way. And the state’s supreme court gets to decide what is constitutional and what is not. I guess they thought that gerrymandering has gotten too proficient in the computer age, which is in their right to conclude. I know they wouldn’t have come to the same conclusion if doing so would have benefitted the Republicans, which is why the court just diminished itself and lost respect and deference from half the state. The U.S. Supreme Court decided the same trade-off was worth it in Bush v. Gore. But it’s not an impeachable offense to throw away your reputation for impartiality and invite people to deny you the deference they gave you in the past.

Costello had already seemed to be coming unhinged, but this is the first time he’s sounded flat-out crazy. And, while this case may be confined to Pennsylvania, the way the Republicans have pushed the envelope with gerrymandering has invited a nationwide backlash which is now winding its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The conservatives have a majority on that court, but they may not side with the Republicans this time. If they don’t, it will be because even they can’t deny what the Pennsylvania court concluded, which is that the GOP has gone too far.

Trump Doesn’t Know Fact From Fiction

Asha Rangappa is a former FBI counterintelligence officer who now lectures at Yale University. She’s written a piece for Politico that explores some fairly obvious points about the damage that can be done to our governmental institutions when we elect someone without good moral character. Her main point is that it’s a very bad thing when, due to the president’s personal flaws, the courts have to get involved in defining and limiting his or her power. A secondary point is that when a president is aggressively investigated by his or her own executive branch’s prosecutors, it divides the country. The president’s supporters lose faith in federal law enforcement.

Not to be mean, but there’s not much more content than this to Rangappa’s piece, which is unfortunate considering the relevancy of her background. The main problem is that she tiptoes around the central problem in our current situation. It’s fine to lament that the nation elected a man with poor moral character which has now produced predictably bad results for the nation––results that are likely to get worse and worse with each passing day. But this is where we are, and the question of whether Donald Trump will willingly submit to an interview from Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel’s office doesn’t hinge on anything too complicated.

The president cannot do an interview with Robert Mueller because he isn’t sane.

I don’t need to sit down with Trump and do a psychological evaluation to know that he has highly peculiar traits, among which is an inability to cleanly divide fact from fiction.  Perhaps he knew that he was peddling bullshit all along when he hyped the birth certificate “controversy” with President Obama. Perhaps he knows that he’s gaslighting people when he says that he’s been tougher on Russia that Obama ever was.  Or maybe one part of his brain knows this, at least initially, and then that part of his brain becomes subsumed by another part of his brain that believe its own lies. What does Trump think about the size of his inaugural crowd? Has he convinced himself that he really, truly never once expressed doubt that the Russians interfered in our election?

If he were more cunning and in control of his own thoughts, it might be possible for him to talk to prosecutors and stick to the truth. This would be highly embarrassing for him because he’d have to admit to telling hundreds of lies that pertain to the Russia investigation. For just one example, he’d have to argue that he of course crafted a  completely dishonest account of the purpose of the Trump Tower meeting his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had with the Russians, but that it’s his right to lie to the people. He’d have to argue that he knew that this would eventually be exposed as a lie when the relevant emails and telephone records were turned over, and that even though he discussed the prospects of keeping those records hidden from the Special Counsel’s office, that became irrelevant when the documents were procured by other means.

Trump’s not capable of walking that kind of tightrope. He’s too reluctant to admit his own dishonesty. He’s too insecure to allow himself to be humbled this way. And he comes to believe many things that simply aren’t true, which makes it impossible to keep his balance when he’s trying to quarantine his political lies off from his legal vulnerabilities.

He’s bet everything on the hope that Robert Mueller cannot demonstrate the kind of coordination between his campaign and the Russians’ hacking and influence campaign that would warrant impeachment and removal from office. In the process, he’s already created a very threatening obstruction of justice case. If he’s going to survive, he can’t make things worse for himself by committing a hundred acts of perjury.

Like anyone else, the president cannot be compelled to incriminate himself. He won’t want to take the Fifth Amendment, since that would imply he is admitting to wrongdoing. That means that he’ll probably fight a grand jury subpoena in court even though he’s unlikely to win that case in the end. If he ever has to fall back on the Fifth Amendment, he’ll say that his tormentors are so hell-bent on proving something incriminating that they can’t be trusted. More likely, he’ll simply defy the Supreme Court and dare Congress to do anything about it.

In one sense, Trump will do these things because he doesn’t have respect for our institutions and actually benefits when the country is divided and distrusting of our institutions.  But in a much clearer sense, Trump will do these things because he simply cannot tell the truth even when he’s under oath and facing legal consequences if he lies. His lawyers know this and have effectively admitted as much. That’s why they want Mueller to submit written questions. With written questions, the lawyers can write the answers instead of the president.

Even that would be unlikely to work because Trump would never let his lawyers provide answers that are truthful admissions of all the lies he’s told.  This is all the more true because Trump actually has obstructed justice, and an honest account would make that clear.

Rangpappa says:

Electing someone to the presidency with bad moral character isn’t just a 4-year embarrassment. It’s also a constitutional risk, since there’s a good chance these individuals will have little regard for how their actions impact the legacy of the office they hold—especially if they find themselves in the crosshairs of an investigation, like Trump does now.

There’s no reason to dispute any of that, but Trump’s malfunctioning brain is a more immediate and consequential problem than his bad moral character. If Trump has any defense at all, it’s that he simply can’t distinguish between fact and fiction. At a root level, he’s so unconcerned about the distinction that he doesn’t know how to act as if it matters.

Trump and His Supporters Prop up His Ego in Light of the Mueller Indictments

For well over a year now, Donald Trump has tried to sow doubt about whether or not Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. Contrary to what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, the president hasn’t clearly acknowledged that fact prior to the recent Mueller indictments.

Perhaps the most glaring examples of when the president denied Russian interference came following meetings with Vladimir Putin.

“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ ” Trump said. “And I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”

In typical Trump fashion, he often contradicted himself.

In a December 2016 interview with Time, Trump said two things: He didn’t think Russia meddled, and that it might have.

“I don’t believe they interfered,” Trump said. “That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say ‘oh, Russia interfered.’”

But a moment later he said, “I believe that it could have been Russia and it could have been any one of many other people. Sources or even individuals.”

While taking an in-depth look at how the president has responded (or failed to respond) to Russian interference, the Washington Post identified the reason why Trump refused to acknowledge the facts.

In the final days before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, members of his inner circle pleaded with him to acknowledge publicly what U.S. intelligence agencies had already concluded — that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was real…

But as aides persisted, Trump became agitated. He railed that the intelligence couldn’t be trusted and scoffed at the suggestion that his candidacy had been propelled by forces other than his own strategy, message and charisma.

It basically comes down to that whole narcissism thing. Admitting that Russia was involved tarnishes his own view of himself as the “great one.”

With the release of the Mueller indictments against the Russians who were involved in informational warfare, Trump has finally had to admit that they interfered. Now the president has to come up with other excuses to prop up his ego. Both he and his supporters have been busy trying to do that over the last few days. Let’s take a look at what they’ve come up with.

“I was tougher than Obama”

As Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker point out, this is one of Trump’s favorite moves whenever he feels threatened.

To hear President Trump tell it, he is tougher than former president Barack Obama. He is smarter than Obama — more shrewd, more effective, more respected. The 45th president is, by his own accounting, superlative to the 44th in almost every way.

In private and in public, while devising policies and while crafting messages, Trump frequently draws flattering comparisons with his predecessor — and he does not let the truth intrude, as was the case Tuesday.

“I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts,” Trump tweeted.

Others have attempted to make this argument as well, like Jonah Goldberg and Devin Nunes. But all of that is completely negated by the facts. Obama was briefed on Russian activities in August 2016 and ordered further investigation. He attempted to persuade congressional leaders to release a bipartisan statement on the issue in September, only to be told by Majority Leader McConnell that they would accuse the president of partisan interference in the election if he went public with the intelligence. Nevertheless, the administration released a statement about Russia’s activities on October 7th. After the election, Obama expelled 35 Russians from the U.S., closed two Russian compounds and imposed sanctions on the people involved.

In contrast, the only thing Trump has done is to refuse the implementation of additional Russian sanctions that were approved by congress.

Russia’s real goal was disruption, not to help Trump

Having been forced to admit that Russia interfered, it becomes important for Trump and his supporters to claim that it had nothing to do with helping him get elected. The White House talking points about how this all started in 2014, before he announced his candidacy, are part of that argument. So are the claims that Russian interference didn’t change the outcome of the election. The folks at Investor’s Business Daily took this one a step further.

…if you read the indictments, look at the Facebook ads, the Trump “dossier” and other evidence, it becomes clear that the goal of this meddling wasn’t to elect Trump, but to create anger, hostility, bitterness, and discord in the U.S.

They are right that the goal was to create anger and discord in the U.S. But it is also true that the Russians attempted to accomplish that by both supporting Trump (and Sanders) as well as disparaging Clinton. It is the combination of those goals that is most revealing: creating discord could best be accomplished via support for Trump.

Russian’s didn’t spend much money and their efforts weren’t very effective

Ari Fleisher came up with a response that is quintessentially Republican.

The assumption is that only the expenditure of large sums of money is meaningful. To the extent he really believes that, he is woefully ignorant about social media.

This is essentially the same argument made by Byron York. It is worth noting that his article is titled: “A non-alarmist reading of the Mueller Russia indictment.” In other words, he just told you that if you don’t completely dismiss what the Russians attempted to do, you are an “alarmist.”

None of these arguments have anything to do with the real question that is on the table about whether the Trump campaign was involved with Russian efforts to influence the election. They are all attempts by Trump and his supporters to prop up his ego now that they have had to admit to the facts.