Katy Burns: How did we get here anyway?

  • Despite lacking the proper academic credentials, Sam Clovis of Iowa was nominated to be the chief scientist for the Agriculture Department. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/5/2017 12:25:07 AM

How on earth did we come to this state of affairs with the affairs of state?

We all knew we were in for a few rough weeks on the political front when Donald Trump – the president of the United States and the putative leader of the free world – essentially called a Gold Star widow a liar.

The newly bereaved Myeshia Johnson, the mother of two young children, was pregnant with her third when her soldier husband, La David, was brutally killed while on a mysterious mission in Niger. She was in a car going to an airport where she was to receive his remains when – she and her family said – Trump called her and said, among other things, that her “guy” knew what he’d signed up for.

The president may have meant well, trying to paraphrase words that his chief of staff, a retired general, said had comforted him when his own son was killed in battle. But surely someone should tell Trump – whose facility with the language seems sharply impaired – that he simply doesn’t feign empathy well and should never, ever try it.

Enraged that he had been so misunderstood, he insisted that in fact he’d done no such thing, that he and the widow had had a lovely, warm conversation. And he seemed determined to keep returning to the subject until the widow – showing more dignity than the president – was asked if there was anything she wanted to say to Trump.

“No,” she replied. “I have nothing to say to him.”

Oh, that same chief of staff stirred the pot further when he gratuitously slandered a respected Florida congresswoman – a close friend of the family who had known the young couple since they were in grade school – who said she’d been in the car and affirmed that Trump had, indeed, used such thoughtless words.

“It stuns me,” said John Kelly, that someone else would listen to the “sacred” call to the widow, seemingly oblivious to the fact, as he made evident, that he – and half the White House, from the sound of it – had also been listening. And then he proceeded to slander the congresswoman by calling her an “empty barrel” and grossly mischaracterizing a speech he’d once heard her give.

Even when videotape of the entire speech showed that Kelly had lied, he steadfastly refused to apologize and instead doubled down on his calumny.

Shortly thereafter, he decided – God knows why – that he had to publicly defend Gen. Robert E. Lee as “an honorable man” who deserves to be memorialized throughout the South by grandiose statues.

Yeah, you heard right. The same traitorous general who trashed his pledge to protect and defend this country and instead led a mutinous army in a brutal, bloody attempt to destroy the United States in defense of the vile institution of human slavery. Honorable? Not to the people he himself kept in bondage, I suspect.

And so it goes in the Trumpian Washington world.

More recently we’ve been dealing with the story of recently indicted Paul Manafort, a longtime Republican operative who was for a while Trump’s campaign chairman and confidante. A large man, Manafort memorably sports 1980s-era broad-shouldered power suits and a healthy head of perfectly groomed hair, save for a rebellious little tendril (deliberately?) reminiscent of Dean Martin. One acquaintance described the effect: “When he comes toward you, you expect him either to try to kill you or to sell you something.”

A big reason Trump appointed him to run the campaign is that he volunteered to work for nothing. “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” Trump once boasted. But he’s also very cheap. Which Manafort no doubt knew.

And now, thanks to the detailed indictment by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, we know why he could afford such a generous gesture. It appears that he somehow “earned” many millions of dollars working in shadier parts of Europe, notably Ukraine (where he allied himself with a Vladimir Putin-supported president), and he and his deputy managed to launder much of it through various fronts before bringing it back to this country to support their lavish lifestyles.

Manafort isn’t the only Trump aide making news these days, though. There’s George Papadopoulos – “an excellent guy,” as Trump told the Washington Post back in the good old campaign days – who worked hard to set up a meeting for Trump (or at least Trump aides) with Russian officials. Even as Trump now dismisses him as a lowly volunteer he barely knew – belied to a certain extent by video of Trump meeting with Papadopoulos – the same lowly volunteer copped a plea to lying to the FBI and seemingly is chatting with Mueller’s people.

There’s also the small matter of Sam Clovis, a one-time Iowa talk show host and national co-chairman of Trump’s campaign team who often appeared speaking for Trump on cable news shows. (He is also – although not an actual rooster – startlingly reminiscent of Looney Tunes favorite Foghorn J. Leghorn.)

Clovis was recently nominated as “chief scientist” to the Agriculture Department. The nomination, despite his clear lack of qualifications, is not in itself remarkable.

This is an administration which, among other appointments, named a former cabana attendant as a “confidential assistant” to the Agriculture Department. A former bar manager is in charge of HUD congressional relations. And, memorably, a Meineke Car Care branch manager from Seabrook became an assistant to the secretary of energy (who is, remember, Rick Perry) – at least until he was fired for “offensive tweets.”

What made Clovis’s nomination stand out is that the “chief scientist” is in fact required by statute to have “academic credentials” in either science or agriculture. Which Clovis didn’t. Amazingly, Clovis admitted that fact in a letter to Congress.

And now Clovis is out, stepping aside himself. A bit of honor exerting itself? Nah.

Clovis himself argued that his lack of credentials shouldn’t really matter because as an Iowa talk show guy and a failed candidate for state office, he had absorbed all he needed to know to be an agriculture scientist.

Clovis actually took himself out because, as a campaign official, he approved and encouraged Papadopoulos’s negotiating with the Russians for a meeting.

You know, that totally and utterly fictional and imaginary Russian fake news thing again. Except that no one could make this stuff up. No point, either, asking how we got here. We, sadly, know how. And so it goes . . .

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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