Donald Trump and his always enabling press secretary Sarah Sanders charged there was a “double standard" when a television network apologized for a racist comment made about a top aide to Barack Obama but didn’t apologize to the current president for its critical remarks about him.
This was sheer narcissism. There was no cause for an apology to Trump. But a double standard does exist in the political dialogue and media coverage. Sometimes it works against Trump. But more often, it works to his advantage.
Hypothetically, after the 2012 attack in Benghazi where the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed, suppose that Obama, amid conflicting reports on what happened, called the ambassador’s family and said, “This is what he signed up for." That’s what Trump did last year when four American special-forces soldiers were killed in Niger by terrorists. He initially denied making the comment, which then was confirmed by one soldier’s widow and by a congresswoman who was on the call. Trump also falsely charged that Obama never contacted families of slain veterans.
The events in Benghazi and Niger had clear similarities: Four Americans were killed by Islamic terrorists; there was initial confusion and misinformation; security and procedural lapses were subsequently revealed, caused by officials below top Washington commanders. The difference: Niger was quickly forgotten, while congressional Republicans spent $7 million and two years trying to tar Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Benghazi tragedy; they failed.
Let’s use a hypothetical case to make another analogy. Suppose that weeks before the 1996 presidential election, a fixer for Bill Clinton pays $130,000 to buy silence from one of his former sex partners and then lies about it. Quickly, there would have been cries for impeachment on the grounds the election was fraudulent.
In reality, Clinton lied in 1998, under oath, about sexual relations he had with Monica Lewinsky. Republican senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said at the time that these actions marked “the collapse of the president’s moral authority", and “eroded the public’s faith in the office." Now, the 84-year-old Grassley, as the Trump-friendly chair of the senate judiciary committee, seems to have lost his sense of moral outrage.
In the case of Clinton, of course, there were no pay-offs. The women who accused him were contacted by the FBI during the special prosecutor’s investigation. Should the larger number of Trump accusers be similarly interviewed ? Richard Land, then a prominent Christian evangelical leader, said he was “disgusted" by Clinton’s behaviour. Today, he’s on Trump’s evangelical advisory council.
How about financial conflicts? Let’s imagine that Obama, with a small windfall from his book, invested in a green-energy start-up, and, in the first year of his administration, Chinese and Saudi investors put money into this company. Right-wing Republicans like Jim Jordan or Trey Gowdy would be ginning up an open-ended inquiry.
Yet there’s little noise from Congress today about a Chinese company funding an Indonesian project featuring Trump-branded properties. Or about how Beijing has granted trademarks to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, for her apparel lines, while her father exempts consumer goods like hers from the tariffs he’s slapping on other Chinese products. Both Trump and his daughter, who’s on the White House staff, have refused to divest their business holdings, and the president’s Washington hotel is a favoured venue of foreign entities and domestic special interests.
During the Whitewater investigation, Bill Clinton was estranged from his attorney general, Janet Reno, and grew to despise the FBI director, Louis Freeh. But, unlike Trump, he never fired Freeh or tried to pressure Reno to sabotage investigations into possible illegal acts committed by the president.
That is a double standard.
The Clinton White House forced out agriculture secretary Mike Espy for accepting small gifts, including free sports tickets. He was later charged by a special prosecutor and acquitted of all charges. Obama pushed out a chief of the general accounting office, along with two top deputies, for abusing taxpayer money at a lavish Las Vegas outing for employees.
Ultimately, this may look like chump change compared with the misuse of taxpayer money by Scott Pruitt, the administrator of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. He has taken a cut-rate apartment deal from a lobbyist’s wife; spent $43,000 on a secure phone booth in his office, and spent more than double his predecessors on first-class air travel and security, often for purposes that have no discernible connection to his job.
Critics used to call Clinton “slick Willie". Imagine the reaction if he had accused the New York Times of fabricating a story about a fictional White House. That’s what Trump did last week, though, as he surely knew, the story was based on a briefing for hundreds of reporters by White House aide Matthew Pottinger. Or suppose Obama had gone to the US Naval Academy and claimed he had given the military its first pay raise in 10 years. That was Trump’s boast at Annapolis last week, although the military has gotten pay raises every year since 1983.
It doesn’t matter if Trump’s lying is pathological or if it’s all calculated. The thousands of untruths and misdeeds—the abuse of power and possible illegalities—would not have been countenanced before. Bloomberg View
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
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