Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/13/2018: Trump And Strzok

Good Morning, London!

1. Trump Trump Trump. You know, I was on a political Facebook page in 2016 where an idiot kept posting “Trump Trump Trump” despite everyone, including the moderator, telling him to cut it out. Eventually he was banned from the site. Unfortunately, there is no similarly simple solution to this problem when a combination of the Trump-hostile news media and the President himself forces a variety of ethics issues on me, when I would rather be musing about baseball, old sitcoms, and guys in lobster hats.

  • The pardons. President Trump  pardoned Dwight L. Hammond, now 76, and his son, Steven D. Hammond, 49, a pair of Oregon cattle ranchers who had been serving out five-year sentences for arson on federal land, which had sparked the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in 2016. Naturally these pardons were attacked, because anything Trump does will be attacked. The resulting conflict brought widespread attention to anger over federal land management in the Western United States,and that’s a good thing. How can the federal government justify owning almost half of Western land?

As for the pardons, both men have served most of their sentences already, and not only were the sentences unusually harsh for their offenses, the cases had the whiff of political prosecutions about them. They were perfectly legitimate objects for Presidential pardons, but then so are hundreds of thousands of other cases. Presidents should issue as many pardons as possible, which means eliminating a lot of the red tape. So far, Trump has sucked the tape by cherry-picking beneficiaries in his own, eccentric, biased way, using his unique, unassailable Constitution-based power to court supporters, celebrities and particular constituencies—not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as other deserving citizens also get pardoned, and really, all but the most unrepentant, vile and dangerous felons deserve mercy and compassion eventually. Unless the pardon power is used broadly and constantly, its blessings too often depend on who you know. In the case of the ranchers, for example, a large donor to Vice-President Pence lobbied for the pardons. Again, that doesn’t mean the pardons can’t be justified. It does mean the process is skewed by factors not related to justice or fairness.

I found this to be the most ethically intriguing paragraph in the Times story about Pence pal, tycoon Forrest Lucas, and his likely influence on the pardons:

“While other presidents have also gone ahead of Justice officials to pardon apparent allies, they have often waited until their final days in office to do so. Mr. Trump, by comparison, has issued high-profile pardons early and comparatively often — seemingly unconcerned by the appearance of leaning his ears toward those at the top.”

So is Trump being unethical in a more ethical fashion than his predecessors?

  • Bad host, worse guest. The President’s derogatory comments about the British Prime Minister were indefensible, of course. We know how he thinks: Great Britain, as he has said, with justification, has made him feel unwelcome—that insulting “Trump baby” blimp over London is a real diplomatic low—and thus, in Trump’s rudimentary ethics system, akin to that of a lizard, the proper response is tit-for-tat. None of this is unexpected, and nobody who voted for Trump can say that they didn’t give him license to behave this way by electing him.

I do wonder now why I ever thought that he would react to being elected by moderating the very conduct that, in his mind and probably in reality, got him where he is today. My role model for him was President Arthur, who was about as different in character and background from Donald Trump as a human being could be.

I’m an idiot.

  • NATO. Here, Trump is being subjected to double standards again. His complaints about NATO members ducking their financial obligations are fair, and President Obama made essentially the same complaint, except 1) he was a bit less blunt about it and 2) nobody believed for a second that Obama would actually do anything to address it. On this President Trump is correct: the United States has been played for patsies by the United Nations and NATO, and “not alienating our allies” is an unconvincing argument for letting the exploitation continue.

2. The Strzok hearing. Observations:

  • The most damning aspect of the hearing was that Democrats actively sought to obstruct the inquiry—stall, prevent answers, use parliamentary tricks. I don’t understand this at all. They should be exactly as troubled by this key agent’s apparent bias and unprofessional conduct as Republicans are. Why were Democrats trying to protect and defend him?

Their duty was to get to the truth, not to help Strzok spin, duck, and cover.

“In a written statement offered before he testified before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, Strzok pointedly noted that there was no effort on his part to keep Trump from winning the White House — and, further, that he was one of only a few people who could have potentially leaked details from the investigation in an effort to block Trump’s victory.

‘In the summer of 2016,” Strzok wrote, “I was one of a handful of people who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with members of the Trump campaign. This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.’

This is a nearly impossible point to rebut.”

Nonsense. It is incredibly easy to rebut. Stzok’s argument is that because he didn’t engage in Unethical Conduct A, it proves that he didn’t engage in Unethical Conduct B. Who knows how he may have used his influence and role within the Clinton and Russia investigations to try to defeat Trump? We know he deliberately delayed revealing the Weiner laptop emails, which ended up backfiring and harming Clinton, but that doesn’t mean his intent wasn’t to help her. “Possible connections”? “Possible connections” was the smoking gun we should applaud this guy for not illegally leaking?

So Stzok chose to try to block Trump by means that were not flat-out illegal and that might have landed him in prison. If he was among a “handful” of people who had information that was leaked, he would have been is serious jeopardy. Who does Bump think he’s fooling with this kind of phony “proof”?

  • At one point, Strzok decided to wrap himself in the FBI flag, saying that the accusations against him “deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive.” Some in the hearing room applauded, and their names should be taken down. His cynical complaint can be translated as “How dare anyone question the integrity, objectivity and fairness of investigations operated by FBI agents who demonstrated strong bias against or for the potential targets of the investigation!”

What is deeply corrosive is the FBI and Justice Department giving power to a law enforcement official who is so unprofessional and untrustworthy.

  • Rep. Louis Gomert (R-Tx) provoked a furious eruption from Democrats when he suggested that Strzok’s adultery and affair with fellow Justice Department employee Lisa Page called his honesty before the Committee into doubt. It was a rude and personal point, but a valid one. Is it reasonable to think that a man who would lie repeatedly to his spouse would lie to Congress? Sure it is.

Though Democrats love to claim otherwise, there is no clear division between personal ethics and professional ethics. Unethical people are unethical.

  • On the other side, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a fair Democratic comp for Gohmert as both are hyper-partisan jerks who sully Congress by being members of it,  actually said: “Mr. Strzok, if I could give you a Purple Heart, I would.”

Strzok was removed from the Mueller investigation and condemned by an inspector general. His conduct has permanently undermined the Mueller inquiry, and scarred the FBI. Yet to Cohen he is a hero.  Nice.

Strzok’s defense is that we should trust him because he is a professional, despite such statements in his texts as saying that “we” will stop Trump from being President. The problem is that real, trustworthy professionals don’t behave as he did. His judgment and honesty are in question, and his comments evidenced bias by definition. Maybe he acted on that bias, and maybe he didn’t: it doesn’t matter. His involvement polluted the process, and the damage he did to the Mueller investigation is permanent and irreparable.

Two analogies are in order. When Mark Fuhrman was shown to have lied about his prior use of the word “nigger,” the Simpson murder investigation was immediately compromised. Fuhrman could have, and has, made the same claim Strzok made, and with equal believably: ‘What I say in personal conversations does not reflect my professional values.’  Maybe, maybe not. But the content of personal conversations that reveal bias undermine trust and credibility, and should.

Now let’s imagine that text messages were found in which Brett Kavanaugh wrote to a conservative friend, “Don’t worry. Once I get on the Supreme Court, we’ll take care of Roe v. Wade.” How would those Democrats now trying to protect Strzok interpret that?

20 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/13/2018: Trump And Strzok

  1. Sorry, when I saw Strzok’s testimony, I stood up, clapped, and shouted ‘Oscar!, Oscar!’. I don’t know if he is a world class actor or he is such a true believer in his cause of the ruling class over the people of the United States that he believes that all his actions and lies are justified.

  2. #2 I have seen a clip of the Gomert question and it is just hilarious to hear the “how dare you”. I think it was a valid question, because Strzok wasn’t with just some random mistress, but a work colleague with whom he exchanged these egregious, but totally not biased in anyway whatsoever, texts. If I recall correctly, he used his work phone for these texts so he could be hidden from his affair being uncovered by his wife. Really comes into question his competence. As a career agent and federal employee, he probably has heard the phrase “Freedom of information act”. Either he is a fool, or he had reason to believe he wound not be accountable.

    With the Kavanaugh hypothetical, the Dems would just say he is the Spawn of Lucifer, case closed. (They are saying that already, but even more so with this hypothetical)

  3. On point 1. I don’t think we can expect any president to wade through thousands of potential pardonable persons. Usually, if not always the individual is known or brought to the attention of the president. I would have lobbied for the ranchers but I have other priorities on a daily basis. Being a large donor is not a disqualifier unless one can prove that the pardon stopped another from being pardoned. Nothing stops anyone petioning the president to pardon another. It just takes the initiative to ask.

    I clicked on the link about the “derogatory” comments and read the Sun article. I found nothing derogatory at all. As for PM May, he stated he offered advice, she went a different direction, and “that’s fine” on Brexit. He simply positioned the US in a manner he felt justified with respect to a future trade deal. She wants to involve the EU and he doesn’t. His statement simply makes known that such decisions involve costs.

    The Sun article calls him very sensitive because he chose not to go to London. He said why go where they don’t want me.

    Yes he criticized Mayor Khan but so what. The mayor grandstands about how awful Trump is and how great that massive influx of immigrants is but then claims he doesn’t make immigration policy at the city council.

    I think I have figured out what diplomacy is. Telling an official that all is good while developing a plan to undermine the other with a smile. His comments are blunt but you know where he stands even when he makes a mid course correction.

  4. Re: The Strzok ‘testimony’ yesterday. My first response was to, and pardon the language, here, the shit-eating-grin, to coin an Army term, he wore throughout his testimony. To me this just says “I’m smarter than you (he probably is) and I can lie to you with impunity (he probably can)”. I have seen this arrogant grin numerous times on liberal commentators of Fox News. It irked me then, too.

    • Someone captured some bizarre photos of him yesterday. Obviously, in the world of digital photography where you are limited only by the size of your memory card, you can always capture very unfavorable images.

      Some of these photos make Jack Nicholson in the Shining look absolutely angelic.

      • I would agree, Chris. At my age, I think my reaction time is too slow to capture those moments for posterity, but positively DEMONIC, sometimes.

        • Orin,

          Photoshopping an image to create a false image is deception. My point was that if you can capture thousands of images on one SD card then it is likely that you will capture some very unflattering images.

          If the images of Strozk are Photoshopped the quality of the work may be outstanding but it is not real. These do not look Photoshopped. It’s one thing to erase a zit, narrow a waistline or blend another head one a body but creating facial expressions is quite another.

  5. We must have a language problem. You say re Peter Strzok :

    “The problem is that real, trustworthy professionals don’t behave as he did. His judgment and honesty are in question, and his comments evidenced bias by definition. Maybe he acted on that bias, and maybe he didn’t: it doesn’t matter.”

    No, it does matter. The actions are crucial.

    In my ‘English’, we are all biased concerning subjects or parties where we have any knowledge or experience. We are biased by that experience and should realise we don’t have all possible experience or knowledge : others will be biased differently by their different experience.

    In the real world most of us as ‘adults’ find ourselves needing to act impartially and set aside our bias. You are right to point out the need to avoid the ‘appearance of bias’. But where expertise is required this generally relies on the professional setting aside such bias rather than being able to find someone totally ignorant and without any relevant experience.

    If you want to recruit intelligent, capable people to career public service, you need to accept that they are going to have experience and opinions, probably quite passionately held. They need to understand and accept that in public service they will frequently need to set aside such ‘bias’. Decent mature public services work hard to enforce this by example and training. You don’t express opinions as to the rightness or wrongness of your political masters. But you aren’t expected to excise your private opinions or discard your right to vote.

    It would be good to think the public could appreciate and support their hard working and dedicated public servants. It was to my mind quite unfair and unkind to weaponise against Peter Strzok what he must have intended to be a private conversation.

    And horrors of horrors, how dreadful to hear Strzok’s marital infidelity being used against him, to blacken him as ‘untrustworthy’ in his public role. I don’t know what ethical rule applies here, but such attacks are simply disgusting. Very simply, Peter Strzok deserves better.

    • Andrew,
      Jack never said Strzok should not hold opinions no matter passionately they are held. What he said was that you shouldn’t put them on display when you are involved in investigating the person you despise. In his words it “pollutes the investigation”

      You really have to be kidding about private conversations. The text messages were on company equipment. Moreover, they were withheld from the inspector general and were only found with dod capabilities. It may be rude or disgusting to bring up his personal infidelities but when one claims to be a paragon of honesty such claims are ripe for impeachment when the person’s actual behavior is known and suggests his fidelity to the truth is questionable. Where was all the disgust when Stormy Daniels was in the news or the concern over those that played repeatedly that hot mike “private conversation” Trump had with Billy Bush. Strzok can undermine our electoral process just as much as any Russian troll. In my opinion Strzok had greater capabilities to create electoral problems than Putin possibly could.

    • Quite simply: no, he doesn’t. His conduct calls into question the objectivity of the investigation. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t have been removed from it, now would he? Deal with the two analogies at the end of the post. You can’t.

      Trump’s “pussy” video was a private conversation. The leaked DNC e-mails were supposed to be private. Fuhrman’s “nigger” fest was private. When private statements become public, how they became public no longer matters. It’s evidence. In Stzok’s case, it was evidence of dishonesty. bad judgment,bias, and lack of discretion and professionalism. There is no other possible way to interpret it.

  6. “So is Trump being unethical in a more ethical fashion than his predecessors?”

    After much consideration – às much as a County Sheriff who uses his discretion to only arrest Black offenders for littering, when the majority of them are White – rather than arresting few of any race for that offence.

    But it was a very good question, whose answer required some of thought,, and reasonable people can disagree on it. I’d be interested to hear rebuttal, especially in light of the Arpaiho pardon.

    In the ranchers case, commutation of sentence is arguably more appropriate, and a political donor sending a private jet to ferry them around is not a good look.

    • So you literally used no consideration whatsoever since the hypothetical we are to judge your consideration by doesn’t exist. When you say “‘mucb consideration” you actually mean none at all.

      Well done.

  7. So the Trump protest ‘blimp’, advertised by the mainstream media as Hindenberg in proportion turns out to be closer to birthday balloon in size cost it’s creators something like $65k.

    That’s a lot of hungry people that could have been charitably fed.

    But instead, a balloon slightly larger than what I tie around my 3 year old’s wrist is what the MSM has been broadcasting for two weeks now?

    What a waste.

  8. As you know Peter Strzok maintains that ‘we’ of ‘will stop Trump’ was ‘we’ of ‘we the people’ not ‘we’ the FBI. I know that is not convenient for those so determined to demonise the guy but it sounds very reasonable to me. Given his 22 years of loyal and apparently pretty successful public service why won’t you give him the benefit of the doubt?

    In your challenge Jack related to the prospective Supreme Court judge hypothetically stating ‘when I get on the Supreme Court we will take care of Roe v Wade etc.’ there is in contrast little room for any misunderstanding. At least he might be being honest, as this would be quite consistent with President Trump’s promise (only to appoint ‘pro life’ justices.). It would however be highly depressing for those who expect justices to listen to the arguments made before them before making up their minds, particularly before overturning established law.

    There is an enormous difference between the issues relating to elections and to employment. Voters are entitled to ‘dig the dirt’ on candidates and exercise any prejudice and unfairness they want. They can decide what attitude to take to professed ‘pussy grabbers’. Candidates who don’t want such scrutiny and judgment shouldn’t stand for office. Strzok in contrast is an employee of ‘we the people’ and deserves to be treated fairly.

    Yes, I agree Jack. Strzok’s tweets once discovered were always likely to draw into question the objectivity of the Mueller investigation. Strzok was from that point always likely to be a distraction. It is good he only served in the Mueller team for a few weeks. It is not fair however to suggest as you do Jack that his removal proves he was acting in bad faith.

    • Have you read the timeline of his actions along with the entire series of tweets? It’s hard to imagine he meant “we the people.” The posturing as a hero on a mission and the idea that he/they were going to protect Hillary and stop Trump are all there.

      Besides which, “we’ll stop it” is not how anyone says “he won’t win” in the context of the conversation. It’s possible, but it doesn’t pass the smell test. Most likely he thought he was being cryptic enough, and probably rightly so.

  9. On the pardon point, it is virtually impossible for the President to exercise the pardon power broadly and consistently. He is one person, with lots of other things to do. Even if he has staff people to do the legwork, I don’t see how he can exercise independent judgment on every individual who may or may not deserve a federal pardon without having this dominate every other function.

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