Another White House Closed-Door “Gotcha,” Another Chunk Gouged Out Of Our Liberties

The icky ethics category of private or limited audience statements that get unethically publicized by malign third-parties to embarrass and harm the speaker has been explored here many times, notably in the case of Donald Sterling, the NBA owner and billionaire who lost his franchise, millions of dollars and his reputation over a remark he made in his own bedroom that was surreptitiously recorded and released by a treacherous girlfriend.. The position of Ethics Alarms on these incidents, which also includes spurned lovers sharing private emails to the world in order to humiliate a correspondent, the Democratic Senators who leaked the President’s course rhetoric about “shithole” countries that took place during a meeting that was supposed to be private and confidential, and Donald Trump’s infamous “pussy-grabbing” statements, is simple. Once the embarrassing words have unethically made public, they can’t be ignored. Neither should the circumstances of their making, or the unethical nature of their subsequent use was weapons of personal destruction.

 

There is not a human being alive who has not made statements in private meetings or conversations, whether  those statements be jokes, insults, rueful observations or deliberate hyperbole, that would be horribly inappropriate as public utterances. Thus the feigned horror at such statements by others is the rankest kind of Golden Rule hypocrisy. In addition, the opprobrium and public disgrace brought down on the heads of those whose mean/ugly/politically incorrect/vulgar/ nasty/insulting words are made public by a treacherous friend, associate or colleague erodes every American’s freedom of thought, association and expression, as well as their privacy.

The most recent example of this unethical sequence occurred after Kelly Sadler, a White House special assistant, stated in a closed-door policy meeting that Senator John McCain’s opposition to Trump’s nominee for CIA director “doesn’t matter” because “he’s dying anyway.” Some saboteur in the meeting, determined to harm both Sadler and her boss, leaked this small moment in a private meeting, in which participants reasonably assumed they did not have to be politically correct, nice, kind, civil or careful because everyone in the meeting had tacitly agreed that the meeting was confidential. That, and only that, is the ethical breach here. (Nah, there’s no “deep state”…there are just nefarious moles in the White House who coordinate with the news media to undermine the President. That’s all!).

The news media and Democrats, as well as McCain’s family, which has approximately the same desire to strike back at Trump as the Bush family, immediately treated the comments as if Sadler was endorsing of genocide or a pledging fealty to Vladimir Putin. A., the statement was true. Blunt, but true. B. McCain has essentially acknowledged the gist of her comment himself, telling associates that his impending demise had freed him from the usual restrictions of caution, political discretion, and accountability. In other words,  what he says now doesn’t matter because he’s dying anyway.  C. The statement was not intended for public dissemination, and it is unfair and dishonest to treat it as if it was.

Yet one pundit after another reported on her comment as if there wereno difference. Got that? A mean-spirited joke you make to your spouse is indistinguishable ethically from the same comment published on social media, or in a blog, or on NPR, or on ABC. This is punishing people for what they think, or rather what people choose to think they think. This is how freedom dies, as free expression of opinions is replaced by fear. How is this process, where a trusted associate runs to the news media to destroy you with your own words, different from Soviet children informing on their own parents for disloyal sentiments in the kitchen?

It isn’t.

This “gotcha” feeding frenzy again demonstrates–-boy, I am sick of writing this—the gutter level that the news media has descended to in its determination to scuttle the Trump administration. A leaked off-hand comment by an aide most people never heard of was the number one story of the day, as everyone from news anchors to celebrity Trump-haters like Whoopie Goldberg—who respected McCain so much that when he was running for President she suggested that he might support a return to slavery—were shocked–shocked!—that McCain’s petty and vindictive vendetta against the President might prompt a teeny bit of resentment and animus in the White House.

I’m certain far worse comments about McCain have been uttered by Trump and his staff, and the Senator has earned them all. He has made it clear that striking back at Trump for his gratuitous insults during the 2016 campaign takes precedence now over the best interests of the country as McCain has assessed them in the past. (For example, though he opposed the Affordable Care Act, he cast the decisive vote killing the GOP bill to dismember it as a pointed “up yours!” to the President.) McCain has, to be blunt, been behaving like a petulant asshole. Because he is dying, nobody can say that in private, much less in public? Such are the restrictions on speech and thought that the “gotcha!” mob would impose on us.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday said that there would be no apologies coming from the White House: “I’m not going to validate a leak one way or the other out of an internal staff meeting. I’m not going to get into a back and forth because, you know, people want to create issues of leaked staff meetings.”

Good. That is exactly the correct response….that, and finding out who is leaking behind-closed-doors statements in White House meetings, undermining the ability of staffers to speak their mind, brainstorm, and be candid without fear of being made into a national pariahs.

I think I’ll give MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace the prize for the most revolting and yet enlightening coverage of this story.  Asking White House correspondent Kristen Welker about Sanders’ response to all the “gotcha!” inquiries in her daily briefing, Wallace asked, “How do you resist the temptation to run up and wring her neck? Why can’t she just say if a staffer said that, we’re going to get to the bottom of it and she’ll be fired?”

Attacking the White House spokesperson is such a thoroughly unprofessional impulse, and Wallace has endorsed it on cable TV, not in a private meeting.  Insisting that a staffer be fired for a single comment that was not intended for public dissemination and was unethically publicized reveals a fatal deficit of proportion, fairness, judgment and ethics.

If anyone deserves to be fired, it’s Wallace…and whoever betrayed Kelly Sadler.

44 Comments

Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Ethics Train Wrecks, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Rights, Workplace

44 responses to “Another White House Closed-Door “Gotcha,” Another Chunk Gouged Out Of Our Liberties

  1. valkygrrl

    in which participants reasonably assumed they did not have to be politically correct, nice, kind, civil or careful because everyone in the meeting had tacitly agreed that the meeting was confidential.

    I wasn’t aware confidentiality removed any obligation to be civil or kind or nice. I had no idea it offered free reign to be careless.

    • Chris

      Yes, that sentence is one giant rationalization. I wonder if it’s on the list.

      • Boy, you don’t know what a rationalization is, either! Or civility. Let’s go back to the basics: what’s a CAT?

        It is not uncivil to say un-nice things about someone who is not present. Here’s an example even the desperately biased like you and VK should be able to grasp: in a litigation meeting, I say to my co-counsel that we have an advantage: the opposing counsel is a dummy, and the judge is over-due for retirement. That is neither rude, nor uncivil, nor unprofessional in the context of the meeting. If we said those things to the lawyer of the judge, THEN it would be uncivil. Stating a fact is not a rationalization.

    • Glenn Logan

      It absolutely does remove any obligation to civility. The purpose of civility is to avoid angering others to the point that a reasonable conversation cannot be had. There is no moral imperative to it, it is a mechanism by which we avoid conflict for the purpose of engaging in debate. If everyone were uncivil to one another, meaningful communication would not be possible. When I speak with a civil tongue to people I loathe, I don’t do so because I care if they like me or not, but rather because communication of something else is more important than speaking my mind.

      This happens every day in business and personal life, and who among us has not spoken not just uncivilly, but downright nastily about a foe or other irritating person to our spouse, friend, or other confidant we trust not to reveal our raw opinion to the object thereof? Would you say “That little Johnny is a brat!” to his mom? Nope, but you’d say it to your husband or sister.

      In a confidential meeting, the purpose of the confidentiality is to ensure both frankness for purposes of policy that might, in isolation, be disfavorably viewed by the public. Presumably, these are like-minded people who are civil between each other, but need not grant that same civility to those not present.

      Most people feel a Golden Rule desire not to speak ill of those not present “behind their back,” as it were, but simple bluntness that would appear uncivil in public is not even rationally described as uncivil in a confidential meeting. I would not say to McCain’s face “Your opinion doesn’t matter because you’re not long for this world,” but I not only think it, it is manifestly true. The fact that such a statement might offend McCain and his family is irrelevant; it wasn’t meant for their consumption, and the intended recipients are the reason the remark is constructed as it is.

    • Ugh: Moronic comment. See, the duty of civility does not extend to those who are NOT PRESENT TO HEAR THE STATEMENT. Confidentiality extends to parties to the meeting.

      I know you are smarter than that comment would suggest, so I am left with only malice to explain its intellectual dishonesty.

      • valkygrrl

        See, the duty of civility does not extend to those who are NOT PRESENT TO HEAR THE STATEMENT.

        Aaron Burr would disagree.

        I know you are smarter than that comment would suggest,

        Am not.

        • As with many things, Aaron Burr was wrong about this, too. One is not uncivil when one’s comment is relayed without permission or intent to the party to which it would have been uncivil to address it. This is pretty obvious. If I say things that would be uncivil if delivered in public to my wife about a public figure, I am not being uncivil. Public standards of civility and private standards are different, and materially so. Formal affairs and casual affairs, open meeting and closed…all different standards. I really find the technique of redefining reality and distorting definitions and standards which everyone has understood forever to be a pretty desperate and despicable debate technique.

          • Chris

            . One is not uncivil when one’s comment is relayed without permission or intent to the party to which it would have been uncivil to address it.

            If someone says the N word around me and there are no black people around, I still find that uncivil, even though I am not their intended target. Obviously the person who leaked this found Sadler’s comment uncivil, and for good reason—you didn’t answer whether or not you would say something like this about a colleague during a meeting. You wouldn’t, because doing so would be uncivil.

            • Ah, you goal-post shifting master, you! “Nigger” is not an acceptable word in polite society. There were no such words in the aide’s statement. Nice try.

              • Chris

                It isn’t goal-post moving. There are uncivil words, and uncivil things to say. This is obvious.

                • Words, you nut-case, are uncivil whoever hears them. Opinions,m comments and ideas are not. This is the essence of Lefist speech control. I can express any idea I want, in the proper context, and it is not uncivil. Wrong, impolitic, unkind, but not uncivil.

                  • Hmm What determines the proper context? If one of them said “They should have hung Obama from a tree”. Would that be ok and not uncivil, so long as everyone there was fine with it in a private conversation? I would think there are ideas that society finds uncivil, not just specific words.

                    • OK? Maybe not, but if it comported with the sensibilities and habits of those in the room, it’s not incivility. The earlier post about the TV ad with “Fuck the NRA” makes the point as well as anything. That’s uncivil, because it is in public discourse. I have, in private, expressed a sentiment of contempt using that word for many, many people, places and things, but only in private, and only with those I would not offend. If they then take my remarks and publicize them, THEY are being uncivil, not me.

                    • Chris

                      OK? Maybe not, but if it comported with the sensibilities and habits of those in the room, it’s not incivility.

                      And this obviously didn’t comport with those sensibilities…or it wouldn’t have been leaked.

                    • joed68

                      “Hmm What determines the proper context? If one of them said “They should have hung Obama from a tree”. Would that be ok and not uncivil, so long as everyone there was fine with it in a private conversation?”
                      Just taking the words at face value, “He’s going to die soon anyway”, and “….hang him from a tree” are Worlds apart. It would still be uncivil, not only for the sentiment, but because of the assumption that everyone present would be comfortable with that kind of overt racism.

                    • joed68

                      “And this obviously didn’t comport with those sensibilities…or it wouldn’t have been leaked.”
                      C’mon, man! It would be unrealistic to assume that the people in that room would be okay with the “hang from a tree” remark, but the comment about McCain isn’t even NEARLY in the same category. The first one is patently offensive and racist, and the second one is blunt, maybe a little crass, but true. I could see saying that with the intent of pointing out a pertinent fact.

                    • Chris

                      C’mon, man! It would be unrealistic to assume that the people in that room would be okay with the “hang from a tree” remark, but the comment about McCain isn’t even NEARLY in the same category. The first one is patently offensive and racist, and the second one is blunt, maybe a little crass, but true. I could see saying that with the intent of pointing out a pertinent fact.

                      I agree that Langton’s hypothetical is much worse than Sadler’s statement, but if I understand his comment correctly, his point was to contradict Jack’s bizarre notion that ideas expressed without slurs can never be uncivil. I think he was successful at that. Whether Sadler’s statements were uncivil is subject to debate, IMO, but to say that they could not have been uncivil because there were no bad words in it is just silly.

                • This conversation is absurd, but since Chris, aka CST (Chris the StupidTroll), is involved the conversation devolving into absurdity is not welcome but it has come to be expected.

                  What is said in closed meetings is said in confidence and should not be shared beyond the doors of the meeting by anyone to anyone outside the meeting – period. This in confidence is to encourage absolute candor in the meeting regardless of what that candor inspires someone to say. The business of making policy is messy; candor and in confidence is not only necessary but absolutely required. Short of planning illegal activity or actually engaging in illegal activity in the meeting, what happens in these meetings is the equivalent of being secret and those that share meeting details without expressed permission to do so should be fired and/or prosecuted if possible. The unethical leaks need to stop.

                  QUESTION: Isn’t it within the power of the President of the United States to label anything that President chooses as SECRET or TOP SECRET? If the meetings were deemed TOP SECRET up front then anyone that shared anything from the meeting could be prosecuted, of course that would limit the attendees to only those with TOP SECRET clearance. Since the things leaked are specifically done to smear individuals and hamper the ability of the President of the United States and his staff to do the job the citizens of the United States put them there to do thus directly and indirectly affecting the United States as a whole, maybe TOP SECRET is warranted. Yes I know that’s a stretch but think about it beyond your first reaction.

                  The problem with this new Progressive norm is that the phrase in confidence has absolutely no meaning or value to them what-so-ever if what is said in confidence can be twisted into usable ammunition to smear someone or something they oppose. This is 100% ends justifies the means, it’s cowardly attacking the messenger that does not address the relevant facts of the message in an effort to smear the message itself. These people are blatant hypocrites breathing double standards as if they are necessary to sustain life. Moral bankruptcy is so normal for Progressives that they are too institutionalized stupid to recognize it.

                  FYI CST; yes you are moving the goal post again and you not understanding or acknowledging that fact (either way) is evidence that you’re a dip-stick. Chris aka CST has earned himself a trophy for his valued participation…

                  P.S. Chris – please don’t reply to any more of my comments, all you do is dig yourself deeper in your hole. When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

    • joed68

      “I wasn’t aware confidentiality removed any obligation to be civil or kind or nice. ”
      Welcome to the real World.

    • joed68

      I think you all might be confusing class or tact with civility. You could say it’s impolite or petty or something like that, to speak ill of the un-present or un-dead or whatever, or you could say that it’s un-classy to utter slander without the subject being present to defend him/ herself, but to call it un-civil is a real stretch, at best.

  2. Chris

    He has made it clear that striking back at Trump for his gratuitous insults during the 2016 campaign takes precedence now over the best interests of the country as McCain has assessed them in the past. (For example, though he opposed the Affordable Care Act, he cast the decisive vote killing the GOP bill to dismember it as a pointed “up yours!” to the President.)

    This doesn’t track at all.

    There is no contradiction between voting against the ACA in 2010 and voting against repealing it with no workable replacement at the ready in 2017. Plenty of conservatives who were against the ACA still voiced their opposition to the 2017 repeal precisely because they believed it would create greater chaos; you can’t possibly have missed them. To assume that McCain did not vote for these well articulated reasons but simply out of vengeance is unfair, and betrays your own bias.

    As for the main thrust of the article…I cannot take seriously the notion that a meeting of some of the most powerful people in the world is subject to the same expectations of respect for privacy as a conversation between a husband and wife. I can’t even take seriously that any meeting between professionals is subject to that expectation. I would never say what Sadler said about a dying colleague in a meeting of collleagues; would you? I wouldn’t say it because 1) it’s unethical, and 2) I’d be afraid it would be repeated back to the dying colleague or toward others who respect them. If I did find myself saying it and word got out, I might be mad at the person who told. But the ultimate responsibility would be on me, as a professional, behaving unprofessionally during a meeting and getting caught on it.

    • Chris

      As an addition: if I knew the leader of my group had lost control and respect to such a degree that leaking was happening on a weekly basis, I would bear even *more* responsibility for saying something dumb and crude in a meeting, as I would already be well aware of the possibility for leaks.

    • Except that everyone on the Hill knew exactly why McCain voted as he did. The fact that one can concoct plausible theories why a less vindictive, less petty, less angry, less nasty politico with a famously bad temper might have made the same vote for legitimate reasons is irrelevant to why McCain did it.

      • Glenn Logan

        We can say the same thing about Trump’s utterances. Well, some of them, anyway.

        But who is willing to construct plausibly reasonable scenarios to explain the statements of a loud-mouth real estate magnate with a poor command of the language, a pathetic sense of decorum and a penchant for attacking anyone who opposes him in the least?

      • Chris

        Ah.

        So no evidence, then.

        Just “everybody knows.”

        Using the same mind-reading skills you abhor when they’re applied to Trump.

        Excellent.

        • The evidence is McCain’s open hatred of the President and the fact that he had previously expressed support for the provisions in the bill. What do you mean, no evidence? the man has been behaving like an asshole regarding everything Trump has supported since 2016, and his conduct obviously can be assessed in that context. You’re hilarious: you argue that a legal executive order should be struck down because of what the signer has said in the past, but take this position to support McCain.

          • Chris

            You’re hilarious: you argue that a legal executive order should be struck down because of what the signer has said in the past,

            That is not my argument, and I do not believe the executive order is legal for reasons other than what Trump has said in the past. But you knew that already, so I’m not sure why you’re pretending otherwise.

            Here is McCain’s explanation for why he did not vote for repeal:

            http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/351931-mccain-to-vote-no-on-obamacare-repeal

            Trump had very little to do with the bill. Is your argument that McCain hates all the other Republicans who helped draft it? Is your argument that the other six Republicans and McCain are all lying about their reasons for voting no on repeal, and only did it because they hate Trump? This makes no sense, Jack.

            The fact remains that there were good reasons for Republicans to vote no on repeal, and that McCain did so is not at all evidence that he is putting hatred of Trump above what’s best for the country. Since that’s the one example you chose to prove that McCain is putting hatred for Trump above what’s best for the country, it stands to reason that you have zero evidence that McCain is doing that.

    • joed68

      “I cannot take seriously the notion that a meeting of some of the most powerful people in the world is subject to the same expectations of respect for privacy as a conversation between a husband and wife.”

      This wasn’t a diplomat’s dinner meeting at the U.N. These were people who should have been able to assume that they were all on the same team. I’ve seen a few high-level meetings before; not that high, but high enough, and I was a little surprised at some of the locker room-level talk.

      • It is ASTOUNDING that Chris, or anyone sentient, would seriously challenge the proposition that what occurs in a private meeting cannot ethically be made public without the consent of all present. This is Trust 101, Workplace Ethics 101, Common Sense 101, Fairness 101. Good Grief.

        • joed68

          I could be wrong, but I believe if the cast of characters were different, this would change.

        • Chris

          Now who’s moving the goalposts? I’ve said nothing about whether the leaker’s actions were ethical. I’m saying that they were expected, that the underlying comments were wrong, and that anyone dumb enough to say what Sadler said in a room full of members of one of the leakiest administrations in American history can’t then pretend that she had no reasonable expectation of the comments being leaked.

  3. JP

    I read somewhere that 9/10 problems people have with each other is communication. I assume that in high-level business meetings (maybe in low-level ones) bluntness is preferred. Perhaps this is one of those cases where people need to be crass. Without context, we won’t know that. Perhaps Sadler is a jerk given who her employer is. Perhaps they were spending too much time on a point and Sadler was trying to move forward after other attempts have failed. Either way, we are not going to know.

  4. Steve-O-in-NJ

    A tour de force, Jack. Unfortunately, it should come as no surprise that, just as the difference between being well-read and being pedantic often depends on whether the listener agrees with the speaker politically, the difference between a courageous whistle-blower and a slimy traitor often depends on whether the person making the judgment agrees or disagrees politically with the person whose confidences are compromised. The same lefty who would excoriate Whittaker Chambers as a dumpy, disgruntled traitor for revealing the Pumpkin Papers would hail Mark Felt for giving Woodward and Bernstein what they needed to break Watergate. What’s the difference? The left loved Alger Hiss and what he stood for, and loathed Nixon and what he stood for.

    Betrayal is generally just not a good thing. Leaving aside historical cases of career criminals turning on each other (i.e. Bob Ford shooting Jesse James to sell him out for the reward money) on the principal that “there is no honor among thieves,” it’s really hard to come up with betrayals that were objectively the right thing. The first and most obvious case that pops up is probably Count Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. If anyone knew what a monster Hitler was, it was one of his own officers, who knew he was ruling as a tyrant and murderer and was going to take the country down (the plot was about six weeks after D-Day, when it was becoming obvious blitzkrieg was about to boomerang). The second, which I had to do some digging to come up with, was probably James Armistead, a slave who pretended to be a British spy, but was in fact a double agent for the Continental Army and provided critical intelligence that made the victory at Yorktown possible. Maybe a certain amount of justification can be allowed for Brutus’ turning on Julius Caesar, who was probably never going to allow a return to the Republic, but even that was questionable, since it was as much about the elite of the Roman Senate wanting to maintain their power as about keeping the republic in place.

    On the other hand, you look at the list of historical betrayals and you’ll find a long list of dishonorable mentions: Paul Cole, British officer who played a big part in building the French Resistance…only to sell it out to the Germans; Benedict Arnold, who turned on the Continental Army because he thought Washington didn’t appreciate him enough; Kim Philby, who passed classified information to the Soviets because he was somehow persuaded Communism was better than the western way, Philip Agee, who sold out his country and had the gall to cloak it in conscience when it boiled down to the fact that he was a drunk, a lecher, and a spendthrift; the Rosenbergs, Robert Hanssen, John Walker, and need I go on? There’s not an honorable one in the lot – it all boils down to bad ideology and greed.

    If you can’t tell the difference between the very few times a nation was in existential danger that justified betrayal and now, then you’re either an idiot or an anti-Trump hysteric, and no one can help you. The leaker needs to be identified, fired, and stripped of any security clearance he or she may hold, and possibly prosecuted. Government can’t govern if it has to worry about treachery from within as well as unprincipled opposition without, any more than anyone can handle his affairs if he can’t trust anyone to exercise discretion and not keep private things private. On the other hand, to the left private only means private if it’s about a reporter keeping a source of embarrassing information secret or a woman killing her unborn child, the rest of the time it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

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