Before Donald J. Trump took the oath of office (which seems like two years ago at this point), there was another U.S. President who was addicted to lying as policy—Richard M. Nixon. There are many similarities between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Both are thoroughly dishonest; both are contemptuous of their enemies (which group consists of anyone not showing unquestioned loyalty), and both think they are much smarter than they really are. But there are important differences. While not as smart as he though he was, Richard Nixon was vastly smarter than Donald Trump. And while they both surrounded themselves with men who were bad for the country, Nixon’s men only wanted to enrich his friends a little bit, not bankrupt the country so that they could roll around naked in money, which seems to be Trump’s singular goal. And while their regard for the truth was probably equally nonexistent, Nixon at least understood that other people had some, maybe even a lot of, regard for the truth. It’s uncertain whether Trump’s chronic narcissism allows him to believe that other people exist, let alone concern himself with what they think.
The difference manifests itself in how they go about deceiving the public. Nixon was smart enough to know how things work. Trump’s one bit of knowledge is that he has fallen into bucket-loads of problems all his life and by lying he has always gotten himself out and with a couple of showers he almost didn’t smell bad. So he leads his life believing in his unceasing luck. Nixon on the other hand knew that luck had to be prodded, and he spent his life plotting his deceptions. He was smart enough to surround himself with men who liked plotting grand deceptions, and on March 22, 1973, two months after his second inauguration and less than a year after the Watergate break-ins, his inner circle was plotting what deception would fly that would extricate them from the tightening noose. With Nixon were Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Counsel John Dean, and two of the most loyal hatchetmen ever to act as White House yes-men. They were plotting The Cover-Up. And the theoretical question came up, How much deception was necessary? They borrowed a concept from the world of spooks, “the limited hangout.” The phrase involves a spy whose cover has been blown. His backup plan is the “limited hangout”: where he admits some minor inculpatory information while hiding the major crimes. The theory of it is that the opponent will jump on the limited information and forego the more damaging rest.
The Nixon people decided that they were going to give a little bit of information to the Senate Watergate Committee that might look politically bad, but deny the truth, saying that none of them were involved in any crime. Nixon hesitated, concerned about what bad stuff they were giving up. Dean tells him that it is really limited. Haldeman jumps in and describes it as a “limited hangout.” Dean agrees. But to mollify the President Ehrlichman tells him, “It’s a modified, limited hangout” because it is really only going to go to the committee, not the public. And hence the most psychodelic phrase of this square but delusional administration was born.
The Flynn case has birthed another modified limited hangout. But this time it was created by a group who really are not skilled at the game, headed by a leader who doesn’t play well with others anyway. Now the chronology that we know is this: Flynn lied about what he spoke about to the Russian ambassador on the day that Obama ordered sanctions in retaliation for Russian interference in the U.S. elections in favor of Donald Trump. (Once you state the issue like this, the question is: Why go on? Shouldn’t this be the end of the Trump administration, without more?) A little more than 3 weeks ago Flynn lied to Vice President Pence about what was discussed. Almost immediately thereafter, the Justice Department advised the White House that Flynn has been compromised, because he discussed the sanctions, contrary to his statement to Pence (would he would continue to insist upon publicly thereafter). the discussions were potentially in violation of the Logan Act and possibly evidenced other felonies. For three weeks the President did nothing. Indeed, Flynn was given access to all national security material in the interim and as late as Monday White House Counsellor (the John Dean equivalent) Kellyanne Conway was telling the press that Flynn had the full confidence of the President. That evening Flynn resigned.
Today White House spokesman Sean Spicer, a man who really is in over his head and maybe (I know you will balk when you read this) even less articulate and intellectually on-the-ball than Donald Trump, was tasked with explaining how the president could have allowed Flynn to remain in his sensitive position given what the Justice Department told him three weeks ago. Here’s the story that came out: The president didn’t know anything about what Flynn discussed with the Russians. But “instinctively” (a word he used five times in the press conference) Trump knew that whatever Flynn talked about (namely, that the sanctions would be re-visited once Trump, the candidate the Russians helped to win the election) was not illegal. And Spicer maintains vehemently that nothing illegal happened. But because over the three weeks the president’s trust in Flynn eroded, he was forced, against his will, to ask Flynn to leave.
Now, given that they had 3 weeks to concoct a story (and that’s if you believe that Trump and Pence first heard of the talks three weeks ago), this would be a pretty flimsy cover-up. What does instinct have to do with it? Why didn’t the President listen to Justice? Why was there no further investigation? The answer might be that these guys are so sure of their ability to come out sweet-smelling from any muck they pour on themselves, that they thought it would go away. Especially since Trump fired the acting Attorney General. (This shows a tragic flaw in narcissism—not understanding that making an enemy unnecessarily will cost you.) So when the New York Times disclosed what Trump knew (at the latest three weeks ago), they finally saw the noose tightening. And they had to come up with a story. Instead of a limited hangout (like: Trump just couldn’t believe the intel because of other signs of honesty by Flynn; it was clearly a mistake) they reached too far. They wanted to make Trump look good coming out of it (intuitively knowing that what Flynn did was legal, even though he did not know what Flynn did) and avoiding any further scrutiny.
The fact is they modified this limited hang-out so much, that it doesn’t work. No one can rightly believe this story. Especially, since the acting Attorney General, the messenger, was fired.
But there is one little thread that might unravel the whole story if it’s given a little tug. The conversation between Flynn and the Russians took place on December 29. We can speculate that he advised the Russians not to retaliate against expulsion of their diplomats and other sanctions in like manner, because Trump would undo them. In fact, the Russians did not retaliate. The very next day, the compulsive Twitter-in-Chief pushed the send button on this message to Twitterdom:
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
Richard Nixon was undone after careful, long and intense scrutiny by dozens of lawyers in several branches of government and relentless investigative journalists turning over every rock. He was never dumb enough to create his own incriminating evidence.