We live in a time rife with alleged scandals — and the clearheaded among us know why. A desperate president and the right-wing nonsense machine are propelling wild-eyed allegations into the public space like so many burning barrels rolled from the back of a getaway van.
As I sometimes note to Trump-supporting correspondents who provide me with a steady stream of links to wild-eyed “blockbusters” about the latest imaginary outrage, at this time four years ago they were certain Hillary Clinton had committed great and nefarious e-mail crimes while secretary of state and would soon be imprisoned. Alas, that wry reminder has little effect, usually because they have adopted a convenient conspiracy theory to explain why that didn’t occur.
Which means my efforts to encourage critical reasoning may be lost on the intended audience. Still, because hope springs eternal, herewith are a few guidelines on how to spot hyperpartisan hokum masquerading as a scandal.
First, an ostensible scandal isn’t one if someone can’t define what’s scandalous about it.
A case in point: President Trump desperately wants to conjure from the vasty deep a scandal to taint his predecessor. He’s even got a name at the ready — Obamagate — and vague insinuations of insidious intent. But when asked recently what Obamagate was actually about, he couldn’t say.
“You know what the crime is; the crime is very obvious to everybody,” he said. (In fairness to the president, if he had said “the crime is very obvious to everybody in my head,” that statement might well have been accurate.) But if you can’t explain, you can’t defame.
So let’s call Obamagate what it is: a smear that dares not speak its claim.
Second, something isn’t a scandal if there’s a legitimate and corroborated explanation.
For months now, Republican outrage-mongers have tried to pump helium into the notion that former vice president Joe Biden demanded Ukraine fire prosecutor general Viktor Shokin in order to somehow protect Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine energy company. Taking that board post was bad judgment on Hunter Biden’s part. But pushing for the do-little prosecutor to be fired was the position of not just the US government, but also the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. So: no scandal.
Third, a scandal isn’t a scandal if repeated probes have found nothing scandalous.
Clinton’s e-mails serve as an instructive example here. That matter has now been looked at three times, first by the FBI, then by the Justice Department’s inspector general, which did an exhaustive overview of the FBI probe, and by the State Department itself. Some sloppiness? Yes. A crime? Hardly.
Fourth, a supposed scandal doesn’t pass muster if it ignores scandal-contradicting behavior.
Let’s examine the notion that a shadowy Deep State has been hard at work from mid-2016 onward trying to undermine Trump. Then-FBI director James Comey was a supposed leader in this clandestine effort. If so, he must rank up there with history’s most dimwitted schemers. After all, the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign. If Comey and his conjured-up cabal had wanted to torpedo Trump’s candidacy, all they had to do was make sure several major media outlets knew about that probe. They didn’t.
But when Comey reopened the FBI investigation of Clinton’s e-mails in the campaign’s closing weeks, he did inform Congress, virtually guaranteeing it would become news. No, that doesn’t mean he was trying to engineer Clinton’s defeat; that, too, is conspiratorialism. But: His was not the conduct of a Deep State cabalist determined to hurt Trump. The FBI probe of Trump’s campaign has been thoroughly reviewed by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (and is being reviewed again). Although highly critical of the FBI’s FISA-court wiretap applications, Horowitz concluded the bureau “had an authorized purpose” for opening the probe.
That is, there was no hydra-headed Deep State conspiracy against Donald Trump.
Still, don’t expect any of these allegations to end. After all, faux scandals never die. Nor, sadly, do they even seem to fade away.