The West Wingnuts

Michael Cohen, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr.
Michael Cohen, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr.
Graphic by Alex Law

The West Wingnuts

Embarrassingly incompetent New Yorkers are dominating the national political debate.
August 20, 2018

Imagine the average television viewer in Columbus, Ohio, settling into their couch after dinner and turning on the cable news for another night of The West Wingnuts.

Every day, it seems, a different crony of the president’s who hails from his hometown is on the screen, each brasher and more foolish than the next. New Yorkers, after suffering through decades of administrations led by Texans and Californians, are restored to their rightful place of prominence.

But the New Yorkers who have been brought (or brought back) to the spotlight are making news for all the wrong reasons: unwise investments and unethical business dealings, contradictory or absurd statements, or just plain idiocy.

The Big Apple circus is in town and the president is happy to play the ringmaster. Here’s a quick recap of the most remarkable ethical tightrope walks, verbal acrobatics, and knife throwing acts from this clown show:

  • Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has become the face of Trump’s legal team thanks to his reality-bending guest appearances on Sunday morning news shows. In his latest act, hizzoner claimed on NBC that “truth isn’t truth” when arguing to “Meet the Press’” Chris Todd that the president should not testify for special counsel Robert Mueller because he may have a different version of facts than investigators. And he recently didn’t know whether colluding with Russia was a crime, among other eyebrow-raising claims. The former federal prosecutor’s unpredictable outbursts often conflict with his client’s own statements, such as when he admitted that Trump reimbursed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen for his payment porn star Stormy Daniels, repudiating the president’s prior assertion that he didn’t know about the payment. Giuliani’s performance has been so inept that it has led some pundits to wonder if he is suffering from dementia – and others to question whether he was ever a good attorney in the first place.
     
  • Michael Cohen himself, who grew up on Long Island and lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has been at the center of innumerable controversies thanks to his career as Trump’s henchman. Federal investigators dug into $20 million in loans Cohen reportedly took out for his family’s taxi companies and looked into possible campaign finance law violations when he paid hush money to women who claimed they had sex with Trump. Cohen, who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump, reportedly reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors regarding the payments, and the deal is also expected to include a guilty plea to bank and tax fraud charges and campaign finance violations.
     
  • First son Donald Trump Jr. has compared Democrats to Nazis, retweeted white supremacist memes during the campaign, and recently posted an Instagram photo with an alt-right symbol. In Trump World, he’s seen as a rising star and one of the president’s best campaign surrogates.
     
  • National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow lambasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his “betrayal” and for “stabbing us in the back” at the G7 summit. His slurred speech in that appearance led to speculation that he was drunk or high – Kudlow reportedly is a former cocaine addict – but may have been because he was suffering the beginning of a subsequent heart attack. Alas, even cardiac arrest cannot explain the substance of Kudlow’s blitz on one of America’s closest allies.
     
  • Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has taken on so many foreign policy advisory roles in the White House that staff referred to him as a shadow secretary of state, was temporarily demoted by John Kelly and had his security clearance downgraded as the CIA examines his family company’s entanglements with foreign businesses. Those entanglements are partly the result of his overpaying dramatically for a Midtown Manhattan building and needing an infusion of cash to keep it afloat. He also hasn’t made much progress on peace in the Middle East.
     
  • First Lady Melania Trump was admonished for copying an Obama-era pamphlet for her “Be Best” cyberbullying campaign — two years after her speechwriter plagiarized paragraphs from a Michelle Obama speech for her to read at the 2016 GOP convention.
     
  • Socialite Louise Linton published an Instagram photo of her and her husband, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, taking a military jet on a day trip to Kentucky last year and then chastised a snarky commenter by saying she pays a lot in taxes and sacrifices for her country.
     
  • There’s barely any room left for hedge fund Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted a mere 10 days as White House communications director – a record for shortest stint in that office – after vowing to fire staff who leaked to the press and then subsequently leaked his plans to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.

Even the fashion choices of Trump’s family have demonstrated poor judgment, as when first daughter Ivanka Trump posted an Instagram photo of herself in an evening gown the same weekend her father issued an immigration order restricting air travel, prompting side by side tweets comparing Ivanka’s metallic dress with a blanket wrapping migrant children, and when first lady Melania Trump wore a coat which read “I Really Don’t Care Do U” to meet children who had been separated from their parents by her husband’s administration.

What to make of all of this? Is it because New Yorkers are incompetent or unethical? Probably not, since the Obama administration was also heavily stocked with high-ranking New Yorkers such as attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, urban policy advisor Adolfo Carrion, Jr. One major scandal in Obama’s White House was that the president wore an ill-fitting tan suit while giving a briefing about the Middle East.

It’s probably more about Trump and his chaotic approach to governance. “The Trump Show is fueled by a single thing: ratings,” said John Del Cecato, a political consultant at AKPD Message and Media. “In this White House, every week is Sweeps Week so all that matters is that Trump is on the public’s mind as much as humanly possible. His staff only fails him if they fail to generate the attention that Trump craves or dare to upstage the boss.”

Trump doesn’t mind incompetence, in other words. The only thing he does mind is anyone gaining a reputation for being so competent that they are thought to be pulling his strings.

There’s also the Trump team’s lack of experience: Except for Giuliani, the New Yorkers in the news are mostly newcomers to national politics, suddenly thrust into arena by their relationship to Trump.

They also are following the president’s example. Trump tweets with abandon and shrugs off embarrassments that would threaten to topple other world leaders, such as calling African and Caribbean nations “shithole countries” in a private meeting with senators. That’s because his political base loves his cocksure demeanor and he has a decades-long history of dealing with the national media, so he knows what he can get away with.

But his underlings - especially the New Yorkers only used to being covered by the New York Post’s Page Six - can suffer when they display similar behavior. “They’ve misjudged the lens of the political press corps, which covers the highest form of government,” said Republican political strategist Susan Del Percio. “Things that happen in the White House are on the world stage, whereas the tabloid press cares about how their hair looks in a photograph. They’re not used to being judged on how their words and images matter.”

Or maybe they’ve decided it doesn’t matter and that any press is good press that enhances their own celebrity. “There’s almost an inherent arrogance that shines through with all of them, which is perceived as a New York characteristic,” said CUNY political science professor Doug Muzzio. “If there’s a choice of shame versus power, you pick power every time.”

Correction: The prime minister of Canada is Justin Trudeau. Garry Trudeau is the cartoonist who created "Doonesbury."

Aaron Short
is a New York-based political reporter.
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