We don’t know the reality underlying recent reporting about Jared Kushner’s meetings this past December with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and the head of Russia’s government-owned development bank. The only two plausible explanations seem to be that Kushner was involved in something supremely sketchy, or that he’s extraordinarily naïve and incompetent.
What we do know for certain is that if the Washington Post and New York Times had run similar stories about the top-level son-in-law aide to a Democratic president, that son-in-law would have been out the White House door before the dead-tree versions of the newspapers hit doorsteps the next morning.
Or not. It’s more than likely that, if a Democratic president attempted to put their son-in-law in a comparable position of power, the intense outcry would have prevented it from happening at all. Try to imagine Hillary Clinton proposing that Chelsea’s husband Marc Mezvinsky – like Kushner, a rich New Yorker with a convict father and no relevant experience — should be in charge of reinventing government, solving the opioid epidemic, reforming the criminal justice system, and negotiating peace in the Middle East.
Even speculating about such a thing, however, is irrelevant, because a Democratic president who’d bragged that she’d fired the director of the FBI in order to relieve the “pressure” of a counterintelligence investigation would already have been impeached 37 times. In the run up to the 2016 election, prominent Republicans were calling for Clinton impeachment hearings to start on her inauguration day, or even before she took office.
All of this is a symptom of the extraordinary rightward tilt of the U.S. political system — one that goes deeper than even most Democrats and progressives understand — and which makes it unlikely that we’ll ever get the full story about President Trump and Russia, nefarious or not.
To take a particularly salient example, there hasn’t been a significant investigation headed by a Democratic special prosecutor or independent counsel since the Nixon administration. The last one was Archibald Cox, who’d been solicitor general during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and then was the first special prosecutor appointed to look into Watergate.
After Richard Nixon ordered the Justice Department to fire Cox in 1973, the next special prosecutor was Leon Jaworski. Nominally a Democrat, Jaworski voted for Nixon in 1960 and again in 1968. After Watergate, he went on to support George H.W. Bush in the 1980 presidential primaries and then, after Bush lost, founded “Democrats for Reagan.”
And that’s essentially it. In the subsequent four decades it became accepted D.C. wisdom that a special prosecutor investigating a Republican administration can’t be a Democrat, whereas one investigating a Democratic administration must be a Republican.
So Lawrence Walsh, who ran the Iran-Contra inquiry beginning in 1986, was a member of the GOP. For his troubles he was mercilessly attacked by his fellow Republicans.
The first independent counsel to investigate Whitewater during Bill Clinton’s presidency was Robert Fiske, a Republican. When he found that White House aide Vince Foster had in fact killed himself rather than being murdered by the Clinton octopus, columnists and GOP politicians predictably declared that this raised “questions about Fiske.” So he was replaced by Kenneth Starr, another Republican, whose inquiry went so far afield from Whitewater that he ended up looking into Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, leading to Clinton’s impeachment. Whitewater was finally wound down in 2003 by Robert Ray, a third Republican.
Next up was John Danforth, a special counsel for an investigation of the FBI’s siege of Waco, Texas, and, of course, a Republican.
Patrick Fitzgerald, who was appointed in 2003 by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey to look into the Valerie Plame affair, broke the pattern, sort of. Fitzgerald wasn’t a Republican, but he wasn’t a Democrat either; he was a self-declared independent.
Things have returned to normal, however, with the appointment of Robert Mueller to head the investigation into whatever happened with Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016: Mueller is a Republican.
A similar phenomenon exists with two key D.C. power positions, director of the FBI and secretary of defense.
Since the ultra-conservative J. Edgar Hoover, there have been six FBI directors, three appointed by Democratic presidents and three appointed by Republicans. All six directors have been Republicans, although James Comey recently changed his longtime GOP registration.
Not all defense secretaries have been Republicans. But three of the seven chosen by Democratic presidents since Jimmy Carter have been — and in fact President Obama simply kept George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, who served under Obama longer than he did under Bush. Meanwhile, six of the seven defense secretaries appointed by Republican presidents post-Nixon have been Republicans, while James Mattis does not have a declared political allegiance.
An in-depth New York Times examination of why Comey broke with FBI policy to publicly discuss the FBI’s 2016 investigation of Clinton — while following the rules and keeping that of the Trump campaign under wraps — was headlined “Comey Tried to Shield the FBI From Politics. Then He Shaped an Election.” But what the Times article reveals is that the “politics” Comey feared was solely attacks from Republicans. Michael Steinbach, the FBI’s former top national security official, is quoted saying that if Comey had not revealed the Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer and Clinton went on to win, Republicans’ fury would have been so intense that he didn’t “think the organization” — the FBI — “would have survived.” None of the people around Comey had any comparable apprehension that keeping the Trump investigation secret could lead to Democrats destroying the bureau.
Similar D.C. stories are legion. In 2009, right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe released misleadingly edited videos about the 40-year-old Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which did critical work registering poor voters. Within weeks, congressional Democrats, then with large majorities in both chambers, killed federal funding for ACORN. Five separate investigations later found that ACORN personnel had not broken any laws or misspent government money. Nonetheless, within a year, ACORN collapsed.
Then in 2010, Andrew Breitbart posted an excerpt from a video of a speech by Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture official, falsely presented to make it appear that Sherrod held bigoted views toward white people. It quickly spread throughout the rest of the right-wing media ecosystem. Predictably, the Obama administration immediately folded, asking Sherrod for her resignation the same day. Even prominent progressive Benjamin Jealous, then head of the NAACP, criticized her. Sherrod later sued Breitbart for defamation, settling the case in 2015 with undisclosed terms.
And now, as the Trump administration gets going, government staff reportedly fear being personally targeted by right-wing media attacks more than ever before.
In the end, what’s most remarkable about this phenomenon is that both parties and the journalists who cover them have accepted it as the natural state of American politics. No one in D.C. seems even to perceive anything could be any different. Republicans and their conservative media apparatus are engaged in a continuous war against Democrats — or any Republican who moves an inch out of lock step. Democrats exist in a permanent defensive crouch, willing to throw any part of their coalition to the wolves at a moment’s notice and failing to even articulate this dynamic, let alone fight it. For their part, many Washington journalists allow Republicans to set the agenda by credulously covering even the flimsiest of attacks as legitimate scandals.
So don’t fear for Jared Kushner or Donald Trump. As Bruce Bartlett, a GOP apostate and former staffer for Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, glumly put it, if Watergate happened today, “Nixon would have finished his term.”