Democracy & Government

Trump Hides Behind the Storm

As Hurricane Harvey raged, the president tried to use the disaster as cover. It may have worked.

Trump Hides Behind the Storm

Rescue workers and volunteers help residents make their way out of a flooded neighborhood after it was inundated with rain water following Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 29, 2017 in Houston. This is what Texans were bracing for when Trump announced the military transgender ban and the Arpaio pardon four days earlier. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On 9/11, as the World Trade Center collapsed and the Pentagon was in flames, Jo Moore, an adviser to one of British prime minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet members, sent a short email to her boss’ press office: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?”

This stunningly crass and cynical move — she was suggesting the use of a global tragedy to divert media attention from a minor story about pensions for local officials — ultimately forced Moore’s resignation.

But it comes from a long tradition of politicians and public officials trying to hide news behind other events or releasing it at inconvenient times when you hope few people will notice.

(In the days before he became president, John F. Kennedy, aware that many would object to the naming of his brother as attorney general, joked, “I think I’ll open the door of the Georgetown house some morning about 2 a.m., look up and down the street, and if there’s no one there, I’ll whisper, ‘It’s Bobby.’”)

Friday nights at the start of the weekend have become Washington’s golden hour for dumping bad news. Donald Trump’s White House already was using this timeless trick barely days after the Bible on which he was sworn in had a chance to cool off.

You’ll recall that he tried to rush his immigration ban executive order over the goal line on Friday, Jan. 27, hoping the crowd and the refs would have their collective backs turned away from the line of scrimmage. No such luck — on Saturday night, angry demonstrators thronged the airports and a federal judge quickly blocked Trump’s decree.

Even though the constant bombardment of the 24/7 news cycle may have diminished its effectiveness, the ploy has been hauled out several times since, including the Friday night they released the financial disclosure forms of some 180 presidential staffers, which revealed that in combination they were worth billions. So much for The People’s President.

But the latest news dump was the most brazen, a triple whammy, for not only did it fall on a Friday night, it happened in the face of a Category 4 hurricane that was just about to hit the Texas coast with a still-to-be-determined, massive loss of property and life. And we got not just one but two stories released as the storm’s destruction loomed — the signing of a ban on transgender members of the armed services and the pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the scourge of Arizona law enforcement.

No matter what he says about why he did what he did, in the face of a major natural disaster and lost lives, it’s a statement of monumental, breathtaking insensitivity.

(There also was the resignation of failed Bond-villain-wannabe Sebastian Gorka, but he released the news, not the president. Then the White House said he was fired. Hilarity ensued.)

In any case, full points for callous opportunism, Mr. Trump.

Arpaio, whose conviction for contempt of court is the least of his multitude of sins (which include racial profiling, prisoner abuse, bogus prosecutions, failure to investigate sex crimes, misuse of funds, promoting “birtherism” and believe it or not, a fake assassination plot), had not even been sentenced yet. But Trump loves his buddy “Sheriff Joe” and will do anything, even trample the rule of law, to help a pal and slake the bloodthirst of the Trump base.

In the face of criticism, on Monday afternoon, at a White House press session with Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, Trump once again pulled his patented, childlike “I meant to do that” routine and declared that he made the Arpaio pardon while the public was focused on Hurricane Harvey not to hide it but because, “Actually, in the middle of the hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”

Ratings? No matter what he says about why he did what he did, in the face of a major natural disaster and lost lives, it’s a statement of monumental, breathtaking insensitivity.

Trump then proceeded to rattle off from a prepared page a list of pardons made by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama that he deemed more reprehensible, justifying his own bad pardon by citing the arguably bad pardons of predecessors, and Democrats at that. Historian and former GOP presidential adviser Bruce Bartlett described it as “The Trump doctrine — if any other president has done something wrong, he is permitted to do it too.” Yet somehow Trump failed to mention the pardons granted by Republicans Reagan, Bushes 41 and 43 and, most notoriously, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon.

What’s awful is that Trump actually may have pulled it off — this storm is so overwhelming and terrifying that it’s hard to think of anything else and maybe his moves against transgender members of the military and in support of Arpaio will fade into that brand-new Oval Office wallpaper.

The storm also may succeed in taking the bite out of other news Trump may not have been expecting — the latest developments around his suspicious relationship with Russia. The Washington Post, The New York Times and Bloomberg News all have just reported on aspects of a business negotiation that took place while Trump’s presidential campaign was in full swing — a proposed deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. (Keep in mind that Trump has often said that he has no holdings or interests in Russia — but apparently not for lack of trying.)

Emails show Felix Sater, Trump’s shady Russian-American business associate, boasting to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen about the Trump Tower plan: “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

As delusional as Sater sounds (among other things, he hoped to be named ambassador to the Bahamas), Trump signed a nonbinding letter of intent for the project and Cohen says he and Trump spoke about the deal on three occasions. Eventually it fell through. “Nevertheless,” The Post reports:

[T]he details of the deal, which have not previously been disclosed, provide evidence that Trump’s business was actively pursuing significant commercial interests in Russia at the same time he was campaigning to be president — and in a position to determine US-Russia relations.

The emails “also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid.”

Meanwhile, on Monday, more than a quarter of the members of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council resigned, citing the president’s behavior around the fatal violence in Charlottesville and his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, but also noting, “You have given insufficient attention to the growing threats to the cybersecurity of the critical systems upon which all Americans depend, including those impacting the systems supporting our democratic election process.”

The president’s attempts to obfuscate and to divert from the truth are why the Mueller and congressional probes of Trump and Russian interference with the 2016 election remain so important (and why an independent nonpartisan commission investigating Russia is still a good idea). Like the old Post Office motto, neither the hurricane’s winds nor rains will stay the investigators from their appointed rounds.

There’s no doubt that Trump is still scheming how he will stop them. The Arpaio pardon may foreshadow what he intends to do, providing get-out-of-jail-free cards to all involved.

I wonder: What unknown, upcoming news event will he try to hide behind to snuff out the work of his accusers?

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.

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