Week 100: The Real Disappointment of the Mueller Report

I still don’t know the whys behind his behavior. Why did Donald Trump lie so tirelessly about the status of the Trump Tower Moscow project? Why did he attempt to conceal the true purpose of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a gaggle of Russians? Why did he suggest the hackers behind the stolen Democrats emails could have been China or a “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds“ when it was so obviously Russia? Why did he lie about his request to get White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller in June 2017 and then demand that McGahn lie about issuing the directive?

Why did he ask FBI Director James Comey to abort the bureau’s investigation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had lied to investigators about his talks about sanctions with the Russian ambassador? Why did he switch stories on why he fired Comey? Why did he ask Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hold a presser about the firing and tell the lie that the sacking was Rosenstein’s idea? Why did he try to throttle the special counsel’s investigation? Why did he tease Paul Manafort with the promise of a pardon? Why did he shout “fake news“ so many times when he was the faker? Why did so many of the players in the Trump orbit—Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Erik Prince, Sarah Sanders, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Cohen and Roger Stone—appear to have told lies in the president’s service?

Except for pausing to explain that Trump suppressed information that would call into question the legitimacy of his election—and that he feared that incessant probing might uncover criminal activity by him, his campaign or his family—the Mueller report offers no firm theory on what motivated Trump’s constant deceptions. Likewise, Mueller’s assessment that Trump obstructed his investigation on at least 10 occasions lacks a firm explanation for why he would engage in such risky acts. For instance, why did Trump, whose sense of loyalty usually runs one way, put his neck out so far for Flynn by instructing Comey to lay off? Consider a counterfactual in which Trump dumps Flynn at the first opportunity and doesn’t interfere with Comey’s Russia investigation. No Comey sacking, no Mueller, hence no pattern of obstruction. Obviously, Comey probably would have uncovered some damaging Trump information, but those revelations would have been limited compared with what Mueller revealed because so much of the damning information in the report is about Trump’s efforts to undermine Mueller.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump in May 2017 that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate the Russia business, the report tells us, “the president slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh, my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.’” One way to read this lamentation is that Trump understood that he was guilty of great crimes and that the special counsel’s dragnet was going to collect them all and send him and his cronies to jail. Another is that the backstage Trump captured in the “I’m fucked” anecdote is a lot like frontstage Trump: He overdramatizes and overreacts to everything. If you were to stick Trump’s finger with a pin, he would scream that he was being fed into a woodchipper.

Maybe this hysterical bearing, fueled by Trump’s imperfect knowledge of the law, prompted him to regard any legal scrutiny as a potential Armageddon. The idea that confronting controversy by telling the truth—like admitting secret payoffs to your mistresses, for example—makes better political sense than uncoiling a batch of lies to conceal the facts seems beyond Trump. One takeaway from the report is that given his druthers, Trump would rather be maimed by the backlash of one of his lies than suffer the sting of telling a simple truth.

The watchword of the Obama administration, formulated by Obama himself, was “Don’t do stupid shit.” The corresponding watchword in Trumpworld, as observed by White House counsel McGahn, was “do crazy shit.” Trump’s sustained appetite for duplicity, his brinkmanship, and his ceaseless chaos-making, thoroughly documented in the report, appear to have prevented Mueller from formulating a greater theory of the case against him. Having made dishonesty his careerlong policy, Trump encourages us to believe that his lies don’t necessarily point to any definable goals. His lies exist primarily to shield the earlier lies he’s told, making his life’s work an endless weave of fraud and falsehood. That makes anybody who punctures these lies—the “fake news media,” for example, or Democrats on the Hill, investigators like Comey or Mueller, or intelligence agencies—the enemy. And the best way to counteract their critiques is with additional lies and new vitriol, Trump surmises.

Today, with Trump dodging an indictment, it looks like he won. But that victory might be temporary. Dispassionate almost to a fault, the Mueller report punctures with legal precision Trump’s ugly methods. The report’s final use might not be as the legal cornerstone to a Trump impeachment but as a political text to guide voters in the 2020 election.

Five Lies Our Culture Tells

The cultural roots of our political problems.

It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.

College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.

Here are some of them:

Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.

The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.

It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.

Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.

By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.

The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

The op-ed that got Stephen Moore his Fed nomination is based on two major falsehoods

President Trump reportedly chose Stephen Moore for one of the vacancies at the Federal Reserve Board after reading a Wall Street Journal op-ed Moore wrote attacking the Fed. The piece, co-authored with Louis Woodhill, made two central claims: (1) we’re experiencing deflation, and (2) the way to address it is to follow a rule adopted by Paul Volcker in the 1980s.

Slight problem though: Both of those claims are flat-out false. There is no deflation, and Volcker never created the imaginary “rule” Moore is now attributing to him. I know, because I asked Volcker — as Moore once suggested I do.

Deflation, for those unfamiliar, means prices are falling. There are three major measures of price changes: the consumer price index, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, and the “core” PCE price index (which excludes energy and food, which can be volatile). All three show modest but positive year-over-year price increases.

.. Moore and Woodhill explain this away by saying that in fact we shouldn’t be looking at overall price changes — instead we should be looking at just a small subset of prices, specifically commodities. Commodities refer to goods that are interchangeable with one another, such as metals, oil, soybeans, wheat, etc.

Now, there’s a reason why when people talk about inflation or deflation they usually focus on the overall index rather than some cherry-picked subset of products. Some products see prices go up (doctor visits); others see them go down (TVs); what we want to know is the big-picture trend. Sure, it’s possible that changes in commodity prices might eventually flow through to elsewhere in the economy. It’s also possible that commodities have weird, anomalous price changes driven by sudden shocks — a crop failure, say, or discovery of gold, or an oil embargo. These supply or demand shocks tell us little about whether there is too much money chasing too few goods, which is really what the Fed is trying to track.

Moore historically has had trouble distinguishing whether price changes in commodities are driven by monetary policy (that is, the Fed allowing too much or too little money to slosh around) or market-specific shocks. For instance, when I’ve appeared with him on CNN before, he has cited as evidence of “deflation” the fact that U.S. soybean prices have fallen. And hey, soybean prices are down! But as everyone in America except apparently Moore is aware, soybean prices have fallen primarily because China stopped buying U.S. soybeans in retaliation for Trump’s trade war, not because of changes in the money supply.

Nonetheless, Moore claimed in this op-ed, as well as in that CNN appearance, that his confused understanding of inflation and Fed policy was endorsed by none other than the godfather of sound Fed policy: former Fed chairman Paul Volcker.

.. On CNN, Moore said that we should follow the “Volcker Rule,” which he claimed was a rule Volcker set when he was chair in the 1980s that required linking interest rates according to movements in commodity prices. That is not actually anything close to what the Volcker Rule is about. It’s actually a regulation that prohibits banks from conducting certain investment activities with their own accounts, and has nothing to do with commodity prices or interest rates. I figured he’d misspoken, or gotten confused (this was around 7 a.m., after all), and moved on.

I was then surprised to see that Moore resuscitated this claim again in his recent Journal op-ed — you know, the one that earned him his Fed nomination. This time he didn’t foolishly refer to it the “Volcker Rule”; he said it was Volcker’s “commodity-price rule”:

The solution is obvious. The Fed should stabilize the value of the dollar by adopting the commodity-price rule used successfully by former Fed chief Paul Volcker. To break the crippling inflation of the 1970s, Mr. Volcker linked Fed monetary policy to real-time changes in commodity prices. When commodity prices rose, Mr. Volcker saw inflation coming and increased interest rates. When commodities fell in price, he lowered rates.

.. On Monday, I wrote to Moore to ask him where I could find more information about this rule, explaining that I had consulted Fed transcripts and other documents to no avail. He replied to say that Arthur Laffer, his longtime business partner and frequent co-author, had written “two very famous pieces” for the Wall Street Journal about the subject in the 1980s.

He eventually sent me one Journal op-ed from 1982, by Laffer and Charles Kadlec. It does not in fact say that Volcker adopted a price rule; rather, it says that Laffer and Kadlec speculated that such a relationship might be able to explain interest rate movements over the previous four months, and proposed how to test their theory. The headline, ending in a telltale question mark: “Has the Fed Already Put Itself on a Price Rule?”

Turns out Cato Institute senior fellow and economic historian George Selgin was also looking into Moore’s claim, and dug up another Laffer essay from this era. In this one (in Reason), Laffer explicitly says Volcker replied to that 1982 Journal op-ed to explain to Laffer why the Fed was not targeting commodity prices. Selgin also found a paper by another Fed official — written just after Volcker stepped down, in 1987 — arguing (apparently unsuccessfully) that the Fed should start adopting a rule such as the one Moore describes. Which, of course, implies that the Fed had not had any such rule when Volcker was in charge.

.. When I first, shall we say, expressed skepticism about Moore’s claim in that CNN debate, he suggested I get things from the horse’s mouth.

MOORE: Do you know what the Volcker Rule was? You know how he killed inflation? He followed commodity prices. Every time commodity prices went up, he — he raised interest rates, and every time —

RAMPELL: That’s not what the Volcker Rule is.

MOORE: Yes, it was. That’s what he did, and that’s how we conquered inflation, and that’s why —

RAMPELL: Google the Volcker Rule, people. That’s not what the Volcker Rule is.

MOORE: Yes, it was. Ask him. Ask him.

So I figured, why not ask Volcker? I sent an inquiry through his book publicist, who passed it along to Volcker’s assistant. The assistant replied: “I showed this to Mr. Volcker and he says that he does not remember ever establishing a commodity-price rule.”

There you have it. Trump has nominated to the world’s most powerful central bank a guy who has trouble telling whether prices are going up or down, and struggles to remember how the most famous Fed chair in history successfully stamped out inflation. But hey, Republican senators still seem keen on him because “the establishment” keeps pointing out how inept he is.