Integrity, Loopholes and Statesmanship

By Julie Freestone

I don’t remember when, as a college student, the news moved so fast that my professor had to revise his lecture on the way to class. That’s what’s happening to Dr. Darren Zook, who is teaching my “First Hundred Days” class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Berkeley, CA. And I certainly don’t remember any of my professors opining about what might happen next and then not having to wait more than a day to see whether one of the prophecies was true.

The six-session, once-a-week class is designed for retired folks like me who want an overview of something: music, art, creative writing or, in this case, current events. None of us, including Dr. Zook, knew just how current it was going to be.

Part of this week’s session was supposed to cover the Executive branch’s inner circle, both those who have to be confirmed — the Cabinet — and those who are appointed by Trump.

The Inner Circle

Since I’ve become addicted to the news, I confess that I already knew about most of latter group. The OLLI audience apparently is too restrained to hiss and boo, but there were some groans when Steve Bannon’s picture came on the screen. Ditto for some of the others.

The one name I didn’t recognize was Donald McGahn, the White House Counsel, former head of the Federal Election Commission — where he loosened the law on campaign finance. According to Dr. Zook, McGahn is known both as a respected lawyer and “a master of the legal loophole.” Dr Zook said it will be interesting to see whether McGahn will protect legal ethics or search out loopholes.

Loopholes win

Since I’m not into delayed gratification, I was delighted not to have to wait too long for the answer. Less than half a day later, watching the news, I noticed that Donald McGahn had almost become a household name — at least for that day.

Turns out he’d found a loophole. Sean Spicer, the press secretary, explained why it took from the end of January until mid February to realize that National Security Chief Michael Flynn had to go. The White House Counsel was busy researching the legal issues. And he concluded there were no legal issues. Only a loss of trust between Flynn and Trump. Bye Bye Flynn. And legal ethics. Hello loophole.

Who knew what when?

So whether Flynn — and anyone else including Trump, broke the law (read more about this in a previous essay by me) by talking to the Russians prior to inauguration day and maybe even during the campaign, is something the American people might want to know.

The Washington Post’s James Hohmann just wrote about this issue, offering this from Walter Pincus’s column for The Cipher Brief: “What did the President know, and when did he know it? For those of us who went through Watergate, that question, first posed by Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), is the one most relevant today as the current White House drama unfolds … At 6:28 a.m. yesterday morning, Trump wrote from the White House: ‘The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?’ That presidential tweet should make people uneasy, the way we felt nervous during Watergate about what military actions President Nixon might undertake as the truth began to threaten him personally. Trump was initiating what can only be described as a typical attempt to divert his roughly 25 million followers from paying attention to what he and his own White House has been caught doing.”

Covering up is dangerous

Hohmann says Pincus, who he calls “one of the wisest men in Washington,” offers sage advice that the Trump high command might want to heed: “More than 50 years ago, on the very first day I showed up for work to run an investigation of foreign government lobbyists for Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he told me, ‘Remember, it’s not what you did that counts, it’s what you did after you were caught.’ Washington, believe it or not, is a very forgiving town to government officials, including members of Congress, if they confess to misdeeds. But what has always brought people down is when they try to cover up what they have done.”

I found an old letter about Watergate

Which brings me to a letter I found recently. Written on June 21, 1974 by me and my then-husband Roger Freestone to the House Judiciary Committee, we said, “The American people have a right to know what the truth about Watergate really is, to find out whether Richard Nixon is guilty or innocent and to have the Senate weigh the evidence”. We decried the “polarization” on the committee, saying “The members of the House Judiciary Committee cannot let their partisan politics blind them to the duty that must be performed. …If any of you still remember or ever knew what statesmanship is, then for God’s sakes, demonstrate your knowledge. If your committee does not recommend impeachment to the House, you have denied the American people their vital access to the truth.”

We all know what happened. On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned.

Julie Freestone writes about the Resistance. She is a retired newspaper reporter and co-author, with Rudi Raab, of Stumbling Stone, a romance, mystery and literary stumbling stone to a young German who resisted the Nazis.