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As you surely know, the stars of Donald Trump’s recent press conference were what looked like hundreds of file folders full of papers, which both Trump and his lawyer, Sherri Dillon of Morgan Lewis, said were “just some” of the paperwork involved in turning over Trump’s stuff to his sons to solve conflict-of-interest problems.
I don’t want to address here whether the legal plan they have described actually would solve conflict-of-interest problems, except that to the extent I understand what that plan is, I find the claim that it might solve those problems hilarious. But what I want to address is the equally burning question, to me, of whether there was actually anything in those folders other than blank paper.
There was not.
Again, both Trump and Dillon said there was. According to the transcript:
Trump: “these papers are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed turning over complete and total control to my sons” (that’s the hilarious part).
Dillon: “Here is just some of the paperwork that’s taking care of those actions.”
Trump again, at the end: “So this is all—just so you understand, these papers—because I’m not sure that was explained properly. But these papers are all just a piece of the many, many companies that are being put into trust to be run by my two sons….”
Again, hilarious! But on to the mysterious papers.
Other than the statements above, to my knowledge there is no direct evidence as to what those folders contained. That is, we can see they contained sheets of paper, but the question is whether anything was printed on the paper. That we do not know, because despite the folders having center stage at the press conference—literally; the podium was off to the side a bit—no one outside the Trump team was allowed even a glance inside them. In the absence of direct evidence, or an admission, the claim that the papers were blank remains “unproven,” as Snopes.com says in its report on this. So there’s that.
But while “circumstantial” is sometimes used as a synonym for “weak,” the fact is that people are convicted all the time based on circumstantial evidence. Sometimes those people are even guilty. And here, as far as I’m concerned the circumstantial evidence only allows one conclusion.
First: they didn’t let anybody see inside the folders. You would not expect them to display anything privileged, of course, but the implication was that these were documents Trump signed for business purposes, and presumably at least some would be for public filing and so not privileged. Even if every document were privileged, it wouldn’t breach the privilege to hold up a document and riffle through it just to show skeptical reporters it had some writing on it. (You couldn’t hold it still or some jackass like me would take a screenshot.) The complete refusal to allow even a glance at any document is therefore very suspicious.
Second, as many have pointed out, none of the visible folders have a label or any sort of mark on them, not even a Post-It or other sticky note, and in fact they look quite pristine. As a practicing lawyer, I can tell you that we do not keep documents in unmarked manila folders, at least if dealing with more than a few. It seems highly unlikely that Morgan Lewis has large stacks of manila folders sitting around in its offices, and if somebody needs a particular document the only way to find it is for somebody to go through the whole stack until they get lucky.
Third, no writing or any other sort of mark can be seen on any of the papers themselves. I did not think this was conclusive, though, because as far as I know no more than a fraction of any page was visible. Maybe they just use really big margins. Also, one report speculated that these were unlikely to be legal documents because they clearly aren’t on legal-sized paper. But there’s no rule saying you have to use legal-sized paper for anything. I haven’t used it willingly ever, and I hate it, because it’s stupid. Why is it longer? If long paper is somehow better, why aren’t we still using scrolls? But anyway, this is not conclusive either.
Fourth, here’s what is conclusive, to me: none of the pages, so far as I can tell, have been stapled together. Many individual pages are individually aligned. This makes it impossible that a lawyer or anyone else at a law firm has been using these documents. They are unstapled.
Even if you did use the stacks-of-unlabeled-file-folders system of organization, and you don’t, there is no way in hell any lawyer would fail to bind together the pages of even a written draft, let alone a final document your client is supposedly going to sign in order to make major business changes. You don’t just print out all the pages of multiple documents and stick them in a binder, or leave them in a stack. Nor would you use a mere binder clip (a few of those are visible) for final documents. Never. These things are not done.
[Update: someone has just reminded me that a stack of any significant number of legal documents will virtually always exhibit “stack tilt” because of the cumulative effect of page fasteners. That is, the upper-left corner of such a stack is always higher. This is further evidence that Trump’s “legal documents” were unstapled, which, again, is compelling evidence they were all blank. I should also say that Sherri Dillon so far has not responded to my email asking for comment on the alleged blankness of the pages, although that is not at all surprising.]
In short, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that somebody on the Trump team created fake stacks of documents to which the president-elect could point when talking about his conflict-of-interest plan. (And it was an amateur—an expert would do a much, much better job.) This doesn’t mean there are no such documents, of course. Probably are, somewhere. But they weren’t in those folders.
No, this is what they want us to do now. Complaints about the circus of fake documents distract from the original question: what does Trump plan to do about questions of conflict of interest? All the jokes and detailed analyses about blank pages simply distracts from that. It's not even good sleight of hand.
To a large extent I agree and tend to look at a story like this as a break from the unrelenting sadness I feel that a guy with decades of known ties to Russian mobsters--among many other flaws--is apparently going to sail right into the Oval Office. Sadly, I think fighting is required at many levels. He does produce quite the blizzard of chaff.
I certainly don't have any good answers for how to deal with all of this. I do think that we need to find better ways to take the circus out of all of this, but I don't know how to do that without a very hard reboot of our media (news, social, entertainment, all of it) and I have little hope that that is even possible. I'm trying to do what I can to distance myself from the circuses (and yeah, that means missing out on "breaks" from the darker questions), but I don't yet know how to help other people to do that, other than be the cynical, grizzled figure in the background of a terrible film constantly repeating dumb variations on "Don't focus on that! The real bad guy is getting away."
I guess it's settling down a bit, but I still see a lot of people expressing the desire/belief that This One Big Thing will stop Donald Trump from being president. I assume after that This One Big Thing will lead to impeachment, etc. It doesn't matter if there's a Russian orgy video or tapes of Trump being racist. It will not stop him from taking office and will not cause him to leave office.
Certainly not against people pointing out that Trump will likely have committed impeachable offenses the day he takes office and every day after that. But impeachment is a political act requiring the party controlling the House to act to even begin the process. Republicans aren't going to do it because you could prove Donald Trump did Benghazi and they wouldn't care.. The press isn't going to demand it, because only Democrats do naughty things that don't require us to look forward, not backward.
At this point there is no doubt that Donald Trump is the single worst major party presidential candidate in living memory, almost certainly the worst since the Civil War, and arguably the worst in the history of this nation. He is boastful and ignorant and petty, disdainful of the Constitution, a racist and a sexist, the enabler of the worst elements of society, either the willing tool of, or the useful idiot for, Vladimir Putin, an admirer of despots, an insecure braggart, a sexual assaulter, a man who refuses to honor contracts, and a bore.
He is, in sum, just about the biggest asshole in all of the United States of America. He’s lucky that Syrian dictator Bashar Hafez al-Assad is out there keeping him from taking the global title, not that he wouldn’t try for that, too, should be become president. It’s appalling that he is the standard bearer for one of the two major political parties in the United States. It’s appalling that he is a candidate for the presidency at all.
But note well:Donald Trump is not a black swan, an unforeseen event erupting upon an unsuspecting Republican Party. He is the end result of conscious and deliberate choices by the GOP, going back decades, to demonize its opponents, to polarize and obstruct, to pursue policies that enfeeble the political weal and to yoke the bigot and the ignorant to their wagon and to drive them by dangling carrots that they only ever intended to feed to the rich. Trump’s road to the candidacy was laid down and paved by the Southern Strategy, by Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, by Fox News and the Tea Party, and by the smirking cynicism of three generations of GOP operatives, who have been fracking a white middle and working class whose fortunes their social and economic policies have been crushing for years, never imagining it wouldn’t cause an earthquake.
Well, surprise! Here’s Donald Trump. He is the actual and physical embodiment of every single thing the GOP has trained its base to want and to be over the last forty years — ignorant, bigoted and money-grubbing, disdainful of facts and frightened of everything because of it, an angry drunk buzzed off of wood-grain patriotism, threatening brown people and leering at women. He was planned. He was intended. He was expected. He was wanted.
But not, I think, in the exact form of Donald Trump. The GOP were busily genetically engineering the perfect host for their message, someone smooth and telegenic and possibly just ethnic enough to make people hesitant to point out the latent but real racism inherent in its social policies, while making the GOP’s white base feel like they were making a progressive choice, and with that person installed, further pursuing its agenda of slouching toward oligarchy, with just enough anti-abortion and pro-gun glitter tossed into the sky to distract the religious and the paranoid. Someone the GOP made. Someone they could control.
But they don’t control Trump, which they are currently learning to their great misery. And the reason the GOP doesn’t control Trump is that they no longer control their base. The GOP trained their base election cycle after election cycle to be disdainful of government and to mistrust authority, which ultimately is an odd thing for a political party whose very rationale for existence is rooted in the concept of governmental authority to do. The GOP created a monster, but the monster isn’t Trump. The monster is the GOP’s base. Trump is the guy whole stole their monster from them, for his own purposes.
And this is why the GOP deserves the chaos that’s happening to it now, with its appalling and parasitic standard bearer, who will never be president, driving his GOP host body toward the cliff. If it accepts the parasite, it will be driven off the cliff. If it resists, the parasite Trump will rip himself from it, leaving bloody marks as it does so, and then shove the dazed and wounded GOP from the precipice. That there is a fall in the GOP’s future is inevitable; all that is left is which plunge to take.
I feel sorry for many of my individual friends who are Republicans and/or conservatives, who have to deal with the damage Trump is doing to their party and to their movement, even if I belong to neither. But I don’t feel sorry for the GOP at all. It deserves Trump. It fostered an environment of ignorance and fear and bigotry, assumed it could control the mob those elements created, and was utterly stunned when a huckster from outside claimed the mob as his own and forced the party along for the ride. It was hubris, plain and simple, and Trump is the GOP’s vulgar, orange nemesis.
Trump will do the GOP long and lasting damage, and moreover, Trump doesn’t care that he will do the GOP long and lasting damage. Trump was never about being a Republican; he was just looking to expand his brand. As it turns out, like apparently so many things Trump does, he’s done an awful job of it — the name Trump, formerly merely associated with garish ostentation and bankruptcy, is now synonymous with white nationalism, sexual battery and failure — but the point is on November 9th Trump is going to move on and leave the wreckage of the GOP in his wake, off to his next thing (everyone assumes “Trump TV,” in which Trump combines with Breitbart to make white pride propaganda for the kind of millennial racist who thinks a Pepe the Frog Twitter icon is the height of wit — and I hope he does, because the Trump touch will drive that enterprise into the ground, and little would warm my heart more than a bankrupt Breitbart).
Trump is the party guest who sets fire to your house, gropes your spouse and drives over your neighbor’s cat when he leaves; the GOP is left to deal with the police and the angry neighbors. It’s almost piteous, except when you scrub back to five hours earlier to hear the GOP say “What, Trump wants to come to the party? Well, he’s an asshole who drove Fred Jones’ car into the pool the other weekend, but he’s always good for a laugh, isn’t he? Surely it will be fine,” and then tells him to bring his bad boy self right on over.
There is no good way for the GOP or its members to extricate itself from this mess. Trump has doomed them for this election cycle. But there is a moral way, and they should take it. When a grifter and a con man has suckered you into a shitshow, you have two options: bail out early and admit you got shit all over yourself, or stick with the con and affirmatively choose to drown in the shit. No GOP politician should ever have endorsed him; the moral hazard he presented was obvious and clear and became clearer the further he went along. But if they were foolish enough to have endorsed him, it’s not too late to bail out. He’s going to lose either way and drag the GOP down with him; these politicians might as well come out of it with their souls, besmirched but still their own.
And obviously to me, no one with sense should cast a vote for Trump. He’s not just a candidate, he is an active repudiation of what we should expect from the United States and those who lead it. A candidate who can’t open his mouth without a lie falling out — a lie that everyone including him knows is a lie — doesn’t deserve to be president. A candidate who threatens millions because of their religion does not deserve to be president. A candidate who promises to extralegally throw his political opponent into jail does not deserve to be president. A candidate who fosters white nationalism, racism and anti-semitism does not deserve to be president. A candidate who brags about sexual assault and then tries to dismiss it as mere talk does not deserve to be president.
These are not merely Democratic or Republican issues. These are American issues, human issues and moral issues. You can’t vote for Donald Trump and say you don’t know what you’re voting for. You’re voting for hate, and chaos, and the deluge. Anything else that you think you get from voting for him will be washed away in the flood.
Trump is the single worst major party presidential candidate in living memory, but he’s there because the GOP spent decades making him possible, and its base, trained for decades to look for someone like him, made him its standard bearer. He needs to lose and the GOP needs to be punished for him. Conservatism and classical Republican ideas won’t go away, nor should they. But if the GOP can’t break itself from its addiction to the bigoted and the ignorant, then it certainly deserves to die. It’s brought the country to the edge. Shame is only the beginning of what it should feel for it.
I agree with Scalzi here. This is exactly the outcome the GOP has been working toward for years. Trump is the embodiment of a set of conscious decisions made by party leadership, only they had hoped to have their own puppet at the top. Well, fuck all of them.