WASHINGTON – Two minutes after the United flight landed at Ronald Reagan airport, the smartphone began to beep. The flight was uneventful. No passenger had been abused beyond the norm by U.S. airlines’ standards. The abuse wreaked was by President Donald Trump, against the law enforcement authorities. My plan to devote my U.S. visit to examining the thriving ties between big business and big money in the Trump era would have to wait. Everything was about fired FBI Director James Comey.
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Politics in the Trump era is finally competing with television’s best shows. The fifth season of “House of Cards” will drop at the end of the month, but it’s hard to discern any anticipation, unlike the previous seasons in which Kevin Spacey taught Americans the principles of 21st-century Machiavellian politics. In the insane era of Trump, “House of Cards” looks more like “The West Wing” – that 1999-2006 series in which the president is a responsible figure who gives a damn about politics, not just intrigues, assassinations, murders and spin.
Some “House of Cards” aficionados have found succor in the Showtime series “Billions,” and it has become clear that “Billions” is more connected to current events than “House of Cards.” It portrays the power struggles between a U.S. district attorney and a Wall Street hedge-fund manager. Viewers see not only the real way hedge funds operate – a lot of inside information – but mainly the way the district attorney works. Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti) manipulates his investigations against billionaires and bank managers for his political needs, and when he decides to run for governor of New York, happily allows another local billionaire to run the show behind the scenes for him.
The utter cynicism with which the U.S. law and justice system is presented in “Billions” suddenly seems like a documentary, especially after Trump fired the head of the FBI when he began to expand the investigation into the Trump team’s ties with Russia.
As the fight began against Trump, Washington Post Editor Marty Baron decided to add a battle slogan beneath the masthead, which has been in place for several months: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The subtext: Trump is a threat to democracy and only sunlight will save us; only a fighting press will prevent the collapse of American democracy.
The Washington Post, the newspaper that once controlled this city and American politics, has in recent years lost some of its special status, thanks to websites such as Politico. But in the past year it has boomed anew, thanks to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ takeover of the newspaper, and Donald Trump’s takeover of the White House.
I’m not convinced sunlight will be enough. Not because Comey was fired on a particularly sunny spring day; nor because no demonstrations or protests were observed in front of the White House, at Dupont Circle or in the capital’s prestigious neighborhoods. No, it’s mainly because Trump is doing everything openly – and a quarter of Americans are cheering him on. He’s their guy and nothing else matters.
If you read Haaretz, the New York Times, the Washington Post or watch CNN, Comey’s dismissal is another step in the destruction of American democracy. The similarities extend to the days of President Richard Nixon. But if you watch Fox Network, or read the Wall Street Journal editorial, you think the story is much simpler: Comey was a lousy manager, he botched Hillary Clinton’s investigation, he became political and delivered a biased report to the Senate.
Amusingly, until last week that was the prevailing opinion among most of the Democratic establishment. If Clinton had won the presidential election, she would probably have sent Comey packing, too. But Trump won, and Comey decided to investigate the suspicions about a Trump conspiracy with the Russians on the eve of the election – and so Trump was the one to ax him.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jesse Eisinger from ProPublica took 2016 off to write a book describing what happened to the American law enforcement system over the last 20 years. He didn’t focus on hot issues like the Supreme Court, the Constitution or the police, but an issue few want to touch: Why the Justice Department lost interest, or the ability, to prosecute the real bosses in the United States – the CEOs of the giant corporations.
Back from his vacation, Eisinger planned to devote his time to exploring how U.S. giants were gaining control of regulation and academia. But then Trump was elected, diverting his attention to the new president, the investigations of his business and the unending conflicts of interest.
I asked Eisinger – who studied the politics and incentives of the justice system under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama – how the legal community, the newspapers and intellectuals in general felt the day after Comey was fired. He said that for years, they sold and we bought the story that the holiest principle in the United States is the rule of law. “We recite it all the time. It’s a great story.” Now they’re sobering up, he says.
The first stage in the disillusionment Eisinger describes was when more and more Americans realized the idea of the rule of law, and its connection to democracy, meant nothing when the laws were written by those with power and money. They not only write them, they also interpret them and harness them.
Working for the billionaires
We saw this in the last U.S. election, when both the left and right screamed their slogans against the rich and Wall Street, which stood accused of “snatching” democracy from the people. Bernie Sanders was eventually defeated, but for a while he was seen as the most popular politician in the United States. Most Americans, even on the right side of the political spectrum, believe him when he says Congress is working for the billionaires.
By the way, it’s not just Sanders. Listen to Richard Posner, a conservative judge, one of the most influential in the United States over the past 30 years. He was considered a genius in the law of economics and a thorn in the side of many liberals. “You are a slave to the donors. They own you. That’s [the] real corruption, the ownership of Congress by the rich,” Posner wrote in March.
Eisinger describes the second stage in the collapse of the American myth of the rule of law. Many Americans, rational ignoramuses as are we all, were flabbergasted when Trump fired Comey by letter. What? Can he do that? Fire the head of the FBI when he himself is under investigation? Where are Congress, the Senate, the judicial system?
Indeed, there is nothing to stop the president from firing the head of the FBI by letter. There is also nothing to stop the president from disclosing his tax returns, as all presidents did before him, and nothing to stop the president from appointing his children to senior positions in the White House while they continue to conduct his international business affairs. There is no impediment in law to prevent the president from deciding not to publish the list of visitors to the White House. There is no legal impediment to the president opening a second “White House” in his private golf club.
What stopped the previous presidents? Norms, of course. There are things the president does and does not do; there are things that are not done; there are things that look bad.
Democracy is neither a constitution nor laws. Democracy is culture and norms. Take the U.S. Constitution, with its laws and thousands of regulations, and transplant them to Russia or somewhere in Africa, and what exactly will you get? Nothing. The most important principles in democracy and economics are the informal ones – culture, norms, values, social capital. They are far more elusive, complex and fluid than the law, but these are what make the deepest differences.
Eisinger says Americans are learning that the Constitution and laws are not worth much with someone who is willing to ignore the accepted norms; we have learned that nearly everything is political. Now we understand – if we hadn’t already – that the FBI is political, too.
Some might dismiss Eisinger’s remarks as sour grapes by a liberal journalist. But anyone who reads his excellent book “The Chickenshit Club” (published this July) will find that much of his criticism of the White House’s continuing failure to prosecute white-collar criminals was devoted to the eight years of Obama – the president who, after the greatest financial crisis since 1929, appointed prosecutors who filed not a single indictment against a big banker or other corporate giant.
When Trump fired New York district attorney Preet Bharara in March, the whole Democratic establishment shouted that Bharara was a model lawman, fearless and unbiased, which is why Trump fired him, Eisinger chuckles: But Bharara did everything in his power not to confront the big money people. He achieved all his publicity on the basis of indicting hedge fund managers, whose political clout is nothing compared to the CEOs of the banks and giant corporations.
In his upcoming book, Eisinger describes the collapse of America’s law enforcement systems in the context of chasing the Big Money Club.
Is there a connection between Trump’s presidency and what happened in corporate America and the law enforcement agencies in the decade before Trump’s rise? Yes. Trust in institutions has collapsed, says Eisinger. The DA offices lost faith in themselves in the last decade, in their ability to pursue charges and achieve convictions. People were afraid to go against the big money, against the giant companies. People did not believe in the institutions they were in charge of. That loss of trust within the institutions leads to a loss of public trust in the institutions themselves. The public no longer believes in them.
Is Trump really at war with the media?
“Fake news” and “war on the media” have become constant refrains in the U.S. media over the last year. Politicians and journalists on both the left and right embraced the story of how much fake news is changing the media and politics. But research by media experts, using qualitative and quantitative tools, show that the story is overhyped. Fake news had little influence on voters or on the outcome of the election.
What about Trump’s war on the media? Some compare it with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war on the media. Whether the comparisons are valid or not, the real story is different from the headlines, in both Israel and the United States.
According to a recent Politico investigation into the relationship between Trump and the media, Trump loves journalists. He and his people constantly feed them, including the left-leaning press, and make deals with them. In fact, Trump loves the media more than Obama did.
So why does Trump cultivate the story of the war with the media? Because his army of supporters lap it up. They hate elites, hate the leftist media, and the more Trump attacks the media, the happier they are. Why would the media cooperate? Because it, too, isn’t free from interests – mainly economic ones. The heroic struggle between the media and Trump suits most media outlets down to the ground, especially since most have thrived since Trump started his presidential run.
Liberal CNN commentators may wail about Trump, but their bosses are delighted with the ratings. The talking heads have become ridiculous. When “left-wing” pundits are multimillionaires with lavish contracts tied to ratings, they need a heroic antiestablishment narrative against Trump and the demise of democracy.
Ever heard of Sinclair?
“Sinclair will make Trump president,” a leading technology executive and Republican supporter told me a year ago. I hadn’t heard of Sinclair, which turned out to be a relatively small media company, owning local TV and radio stations around the United States. Trump had made a deal with Sinclair and it promised to push him through its outlets.
A year ago, I thought: so what? The world is about big media companies, not piddling ones. But outside the big cities, there are other radio and TV stations, and it was the people listening and watching in these “flyover states” who voted for Trump.
The day after the election, Sinclair stock shot up, for no obvious economic reason. Then Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, mentioned the Sinclair deal; the Washington Post investigated and found a clear bias toward Trump in Sinclair’s broadcasts. And one of Trump’s first appointments, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, announced regulatory changes to enable TV and radio networks, like Sinclair, to buy rivals – even if that turned them into monopolies.
There’s good reason Sinclair stock shot up. From the election to date, its stock has gained 38%, while the benchmark S&P 500 Index gained 11%, increasing Sinclair’s market value by some $700 million. Last week, as the world press watched Comey and North Korea, Sinclair bought Tribune Media for $3.9 billion.
That doesn’t smack of Trump being at war with the media, or it with him. That’s business. The art of the deal, he called it. But with all due respect to Trump and Sinclair, Netanyahu and the owners of Israel’s media could teach them a thing or two. Before Trump dreamed of running for president, Sheldon Adelson was financing a newspaper for Netanyahu. And before anyone had heard of Kushner, Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes were meeting in Jerusalem and planning a power grab: “I’ll keep you in the premier’s seat and you give me comfy regulation.”
Democracies do not die in the dark but in broad daylight, when we become inured to the gradual erosion of norms, to the wheeling and dealing – until we don’t even see the rot any more.