“Biographies describe a man intent on making his fortune and not afraid of skating near the edge to do so. At one point, according to Politico, federal investigators found that Frederick used various accounting measures to collect an extra $15 million in rent (in today’s dollars) from a government housing program, on top of paying himself a large “architect’s fee.” He was hauled before investigating committees on at least two occasions, apparently was arrested at a K.K.K. rally in Queens (though it’s not clear he was a member), got involved in a slush fund scandal with Robert Wagner and faced discrimination allegations.”
—New York Times columnist David Brooks arguing that Donald Trump, Jr.’s conduct in holding the controversial meeting with some Russians and Russian-Americans to acquire useful negative information about Hillary Clinton for his father’s campaign came about because his family is just no damn good, as shown by the conduct of Fred Trump, the President’s storied father.
Unlike some commentators, I have no ethical problem with Brooks’ basic thesis. Culture molds ethics, children are influenced by the conduct and values modeled by their parents, and I have pointed out too many times to count that Donald Trump doesn’t know ethics from a merry-go-round, and appears to have no conventionally functioning ethics alarms at all. It makes perfect sense that Donald Jr. would grow up similarly handicapped.
However, Brooks’ evidence that Trump family patriarch Fred Trump was corrupt and without scruples is all innuendo and supposition, and thus dishonest, incompetent, and unfair. Let’s examine the components of Brooks’ attack:
- “federal investigators found that Frederick used various accounting measures to collect an extra $15 million in rent (in today’s dollars) from a government housing program, “
Were the accounting measures illegal? Apparently not. Was the “architect’s fee”? I guess not: Fred wasn’t indicted or prosecuted. Being investigated by the feds does not prove or indicate wrongdoing. Maybe Fred was cheating; I wouldn’t be surprised. But Brooks has no facts to support that assumption, just a pejorative characterizations.
- “He was hauled before investigating committees on at least two occasions…”
I love the “hauled.” Being asked to testify isn’t evidence of wrongdoing either.
- “apparently was arrested at a K.K.K. rally in Queens (though it’s not clear he was a member),”
This one shows how desperate Brooks is to definitively slur Fred Trump, and how little he has to work with. Even his linked source, a hard-left anti-Trump site, admits that it has no idea why Fred Trump was arrested, why he was at the rally, and whether he was a member of the Klan—you know, like SCOTUS icon Hugo Black and revered Democratic Senator Robert Byrd—at the time, which was 1927, when Fred Trump was 21. I was nearly arrested at an SDS demonstration that turned into a riot when I was in college, and I detested the Students for Democratic Action.
- “got involved in a slush fund scandal with Robert Wagner”
Here is an allegation so vague that I couldn’t Google it. Mayor Robert Wagner was one of New York’s more successful, most respected and least corrupt mayors. Brooks’ own paper wrote about him when he died (in 1991),
“His contention that he had cleaned up city government was largely true. In his 12 years in office there were no major scandals, and the minor ones never came close to impugning Mr. Wagner’s personal honesty. He was also credited by associates, friends and opponents as having generally raised the caliber of people he appointed to such high-level offices as commissioners.”
If there was a “slush fund scandal” involving Wagner, there wasn’t much of one, and “involved in” is just slimy journalism. If Brooks is going to take a swipe at the President’s father like this, he is absolutely obligated to be specific. He’s accusing Fred Trump and his line of “moral obliviousness,” as Brooks writes later, and yet all he can offer is rumors, guilt by association, and in this case, not even a clear innuendo. What’ does “involved” mean? it could mean anything, and Brooks uses that word because a) he’s got nothing and b) he knows that his readers are predisposed to believe the worst.
- “and faced discrimination allegations.”
Allegations! Well, that proves that Fred Trump was a vile bigot, then. This is embarrassing, or should be.Only a columnist who knows that he is protected by agenda-driven editors and hyper-partisan readers would dare using this to make a case against Fred Trump. It is, however, similar to the litany of episodes typically given by the President’s critics to “prove” he’s a racist when asked by someone like me to back up their rhetoric.
To summarize, it is unethical to impugn any public figure alive or dead as Brooks has, which is as substantive and fair as writing “everyone knows that he was a crook.” If Brooks had real evidence, he was obligated to present it; if he didn’t, then he shouldn’t have written the column.
I didn’t designate Brooks’ column for Ethics Alarms infamy because it is another example of the mainstream media’s double standard, but it is another example of the mainstream media’s double standard, using a method to attack the Trumps that the Times never used to impugn liberal Democratic icons, the Kennedys being the most obvious example. Papa Joe Kennedy was an objectively corrupt and morally bankrupt man who thought that the U.S. should support Nazi Germany and trained his sons to be misogynists. Paul Meringoff writes,
[T]here is no reason to believe that Brooks would apply his family tree theory to FDR, JFK, or Obama. He probably believes that, when it comes to liberal Democrats, immorality skips generations.
CORRECTION: In the original post, I referred to Joseph P. Kennedy’s much-rumored background as a bootlegger. Charles Green properly points out that this is exactly the kind of unsubstantiated rumor that Brooks used against Fred Trump. I shouldn’t have included that: It’s an example of confirmation bias on my part. Being from Boston, I learned to detest JFK’s father and family. His bootlegging reputation was the least of it; I could have chosen from a wide range of other despicable conduct that has been well and thoroughly documented.