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Trump and the EU Ambassador: Are “All The President’s Men” arrogant – or just “not that bright”?

11 / 20 / 2019

“Follow the money.” Those three words comprise the most famous line from the 1976 Watergate epic, All The President’s Men. The flick itself is one of my all-time favorites, but there’s another line from Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-nominated screenplay that’s always stuck with me most.

I’ll get to the quote in a minute. But first a little background.

“Deep Throat” is the character who tells Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to follow the money. It’s his way of pointing the two young journalists in the right direction — without running the risk of giving them specifics that could lead back to him.

The real-life character of Deep Throat turned out to be Mark Felt, a 30-year FBI Agent. His identity was only divulged after his death in 2008.

The strategy of following the money did lead “Woodstein” to put the pieces of the puzzle together and trigger public hearings that ultimately brought Richard Nixon down for the cover-up he had ordered to hide the Watergate conspiracy.

In the Trump Impeachment Inquiry, it would seem as though once again, “the money” is at least one large driver of a presidential scandal. While people will argue about — and Congress will ultimately determine — whether the president committed an impeachable offense, investigative reporter Drew Griffin has detailed how Rudy Giuliani was getting paid while driving a back-channel foreign policy operation on behalf of Trump.

Giuliani received half a million dollars in compensation to work for Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two gas company anglers who wanted President Trump to oust US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yonanovitch. She was not good for their business that relied heavily on wealthy and corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs.

Igor Fruman, Lev Parnas, President Trump and Rudolph Giuliani, pictured at the White House Hanukkah party in 2019.

 

Parnas and Fruman are now under federal indictment for contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns in America — allegedly violating laws that bar foreign money in our elections. The pair have pleaded not guilty.

But while the money seems to have driven the seedier side of the scandal, it’s Donald Trump’s specific desire to have the Ukrainian government investigate Joe and Hunter Biden and the 2016 election that has drawn far more fire. At issue is whether the president’s intent to hold up of military aid to Ukraine — until President Zelenski made an official announcement about doing the investigations — amounted to a “high crime or misdemeanor.”

The House will decide this question first, then likely the Senate. But no matter their verdict, the thing I am always surprised about is when people at this high a level of government leave such an easily visible trail of bread crumbs behind them.

So now back to All The President’s Men, and that second memorable line in the movie. Like the first, the following piece of dialogue was spoken by Deep Throat — played brilliantly by Hal Holbrook in only three scenes in a darkened garage — to Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward character:

“Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

Fifty years ago, the “myth” that Deep Throat was referring to was the belief that the people running the White House — and our government — were highly talented and capable people.

Even though polling shows that we have a far different opinion these days about the expertise and efficacy of our government, it can still be hard to believe that serious crimes could be committed in such a ham-handed fashion.

Multi-millionaire Gordon Sondland used four companies to secretly give $1 million to President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Committee. That’s how he got appointed by Trump to be Ambassador to the EU. Then the president dragged him into this whole mess.

Sondland has already had to return to the House Intelligence Committee to fix (“refresh” his memory) the mess of testimony he gave the first time around.

Then last Friday came forward a witness who testified that Sondland took a non-secure phone call from President Trump on a cell phone in the middle of a Ukrainian restaurant. Beyond just answering the call, the ambassador reportedly held his cell phone away from his ear due to Trump’s volume on the other end. This allowed others in public to hear the president of the United States directly asking Sondland if the Ukrainian president was going to announce and execute the investigation into his main political rival at the time: Joe Biden.

Brilliant.

Things definitely “got out of hand.” But is it because Trump, Guiliani and Sondland are “not very bright guys”? Were they so drunk on their power that they thought they could run a cover-up to keep all of this malfeasant behavior invisible.

Politicians make these kinds of mistakes again and again. It’s almost as if there’s a rule they must abide by that requires them to ignore the perils of history.

Trump is a man who figured out how to attract a large enough contingent of voters to defeat 18 other Republicans in a primary and then run an inside straight in the Electoral College. Could he really be this stupid?

Rudy Giuliani attended law school at NYU, served as two-time mayor of New York, as Associate US Attorney General and as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Gordon Sondland dropped out of college and went into real estate in the early 80s. He became a hotelier and 30 years later carries a net worth of at least $70 million.

None of these descriptions necessarily have any relation to the respective intellect of these three men.

Yet the schemes they were running and the ways they were running them scream “not very bright.” And we all now know just how “out of hand” it all became.

Many super-wealthy businessmen and politicians suffer from “master-of-the-universe” syndrome. Hubris and arrogance are symptoms of this disease.

Are those traits what led to the moronic scheme that played out in Watergate? In the Trump impeachment affair?

Or was it just plain stupidity? A little bit of both?

When Gordon Sondland testifies for the third time Wednesday morning — this time in public — Americans just might get a view into how these guys could have possibly thought they’d get away with all of this.