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Trump’s Weekend of Scandal Was Hiding in Plain Sight

It's going on right now and no one can see it because of the chaff.
May 18, 2020
Trump’s Weekend of Scandal Was Hiding in Plain Sight
(Collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The Washington Post published a picture of Stacey Abrams wearing a cape this weekend.

You may have seen it, since in certain corners of the conservative news media, this fawning coverage of the becaped former state representative and vice-presidential hopeful was the single most noteworthy piece of news from the weekend.

And I’d like to preface the impending rant by saying, for the record, that in the narrowest possible sense, these conservative media critics have a sliver of a point. It is true that the number of glowing profiles given over to a failed gubernatorial candidate and long-shot vice presidential contender is absurd. And yes, it is impossible to imagine a losing Republican candidate being given this sort of treatment.

And yes, it’s telling that the biggest media outlets are unable to have even a modicum of self-awareness in situations like this. I wish they would stop. (See also: Cuomo, Andrew).

But while the professional media critics, anti-anti-Trumpers, and assorted both-siders were obsessing over the Stacey Abrams Caped Crusader feature, there were some other things happening in the actual real world.

Here are some of them:

(1) The president of the United States quote-tweeted an avowed alt-right account that flirts with Holocaust denial,

(2) The president also texted supporters false allegations that he had been illegally spied on by the previous vice president.

(3) The president also fired another independent inspector general without providing cause.

(4) The official American death toll from COVID-19 inched close to 90,000 souls while the president spent his time live tweeting cable TV.

(5) One of the president’s large adult sons grotesquely suggested that Joe Biden is a “pedophile.”

(6) Another of his large adult sons claimed that the virus was a hoax perpetrated by the left and the media and that it will disappear after the election.

(7) The President sent a tweet encouraging protesters who aggressively shouted down and chased after a random local news reporter with calls of “you are the virus,” “traitor,” and “enemy of the people.” (Note: This was entry number seven because I even forgot about it until after writing the article because Trump does so much insane stuff every day)

But who could find the time to care about any of this when the Washington Post publishes a picture of Stacey Abrams in a cape. #Capegate. What an outrage.

Three and a half years into the Trump experiment, the president is still using chaff to prevent people from zeroing in on any one of his actions. He veers from incident to incident—at any point in U.S. history, any of the above seven items would have been an all-encompassing scandal, a few could’ve been career enders. Meanwhile, Trump’s defenders run content farms of counter “scandals” which they litigate and re-litigate and then litigate some more. Which has the effect of paralyzing the mainstream media, which has produced a great deal of good journalism, but has been unable to change its fundamental priorities, which create recency bias, kabuki balance, and an evolutionary imperative for clicks.

The current conservative content farm “scandal” is “Obamagate,” in which Trump has fabricated an espionage claim against both his predecessor and general election opponent. This “scandal” has been a public-private partnership, created both with the tools of the federal government as well as Trump’s campaign and its proxies in conservative media.

The very creation of this fake “scandal” is, as I wrote last week, being largely treated as a sideshow by those who either think it too stupid to be taken seriously or don’t understand how the Department of Justice and director of National Intelligence are leveraging government assets in order to aid the president’s reelection campaign.

For those who have not followed it, the tl;dr of what the government is doing is this:

The Department of Justice has deputized U.S. Attorney John Durham to oversee a team of investigators aimed at looking into whether the Russia investigation was actually a Deep State plot. Durham has access to a grand jury and the resources to scour the globe. Meanwhile the acting director of National Intelligence, someone whose main experience for the job was pleasing President Trump with his aggressive trolling of reporters on Twitter, is selectively leaking innocuous intelligence gathering efforts in order to advance this conspiratorial narrative.

These leaks, in turn, are being driven by the Trump campaign. On Saturday the president used the leads from the director of National Intelligence to advance an elaborate lie that accuses his opponent of committing illegal espionage against him.

Just read that sentence again.

The president used the leads from the director of National Intelligence to advance an elaborate lie that accuses his opponent of committing illegal espionage against him. 

This is the most outrageous and pernicious lie that a president has levied against his opponent in my lifetime.

And despite the president himself elevating this lie on Saturday, it was not discussed on front pages across the country. Forget front pages, it’s hard to find any article at all addressing the President’s insane charges.

Most coverage of the issue is framed around discussing whether or not Obama and Biden did anything wrong—there is literally no evidence to suggest that they did—rather than focusing on how the Trump administration is guilty of weaponizing American intelligence agencies for political ends by perpetrating this falsehood.

Drawing historical analogies to Trump’s behavior is more or less impossible—there is no true analog. The best I can do is this: Imagine if, in 2012, President Obama had deputized a U.S. attorney to investigate claims that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the Bush family, while asserting that the GOP engaged in illegal espionage against his campaign because the government was investigating the Tony Rezko scandal. And that he somehow tied Mitt Romney to the fiction, too.

Set aside the fact that this would be Wuhan batshit level crazy that would have caused people to wonder if Obama was even mentally fit for office. There is a 100 percent chance that these actions would have become the all-encompassing scandal for the rest of Obama’s administration.

Trump’s actions combine the politicization of intelligence, the misuse of tax dollars, and the creation of a phony investigation using the Department of Justice in order to advance the president’s reelection campaign. And that’s just the nuts-and-bolts, the stuff you can probe with your hands. The president has also created a propaganda campaign that will lead millions to believe that one party actively spied on the other, further tearing the fabric of our country in ways that won’t be repaired for a generation. Or maybe ever.

And if that isn’t giving you cause for concern, the president has systematically fired the independent inspectors general overseeing the departments most intertwined with his COVID-19 response and his “Obamagate” abuses. The fired IGs include the State and Defense Departments, the pandemic response, and the intelligence community. The only person in the Republican Senate majority who seems to give a damn about this is Mitt Romney.

And for good measure the president elevated an avowed white nationalist and Holocaust denier who proceeded to brag about how Trump is helping him get around deplatforming.

Put all this together with beyond the pale defamation and the COVID lies and the Trump family went exponentially further than any previous president in eroding our norms rhetorical, political, and legal — and that was just one weekend.

But hey, don’t forget that cape pic.


Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Stacey Abrams is a former state senator, she is a former state representative.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.