Let’s play a little mental game, you and me.
Cast your mind back about three years and imagine a scenario in which alleged Russian meddling in US elections was a matter of great and growing concern. Evidence of this meddling has been piling up, and all signs indicate the Russians will seek to further disrupt elections to come. Without saying why, President Obama has not authorized any of the agencies tasked to defend against such intrusions to take any protective actions, despite being fully funded for such a request.
Now imagine a reporter asking Secretary of State John Kerry about protecting that most fundamental element of US democracy — the vote — against Russian interference, only to have him reply: “If it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that. And we can take steps we can take, but this is something that once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to pre-empt it.”
Imagine what would happen next. Conservative rage would blast the mantle of the Earth into orbit around Neptune. They would still be hunting Kerry with dogs somewhere in the Maryland countryside, and Mr. Obama would be plying his new trade as a yak herder in Outer Mongolia. Probably, though, the Republicans still wouldn’t have done anything about the potential for Russian meddling.
And so much for mental games, because that astonishing little quote actually came from none other than current Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, in an interview he gave to Fox News last month. Short form: The Russians are clearly our superiors, there’s no point in resisting, so have those precious bodily fluids labeled and ready for transport. “I can’t think of one administration in my lifetime,” wrote Charles P. Pierce this week, “that wouldn’t have thrown Tillerson out the window for saying something like that and then fired him before he hit the pavement.”
Yet there he sits, Ol’ Rex, the second choice for his position if The New Yorker has the right of it. According to journalist Jane Mayer, Donald Trump intended to tap former rival Mitt Romney to head the State Department but changed his mind after some back-channel “requests” from Moscow motivated him to nominate someone more favorable to Russian interests.
Staffing at the White House these days is like the weather in New England: Don’t like it? Wait five minutes.
Enter then-ExxonMobil CEO Tillerson, who in 2013 was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin himself, after inking some oil deals between his company and the state-owned Russian oil company, Rosneft. In the intervening time, Tillerson has done as much to protect the US from the Russian government’s skullduggery as a cardboard cutout of Tillerson would have. According to his bald-faced statement to Fox News, he simply does not see the point of it.
Way back in the earliest days of computer programming, the scientists coined an acronym to explain a very old mathematical/engineering blunder: GIGO, short for “garbage in, garbage out,” means the quality of data derived from a computer program depends entirely on the quality of data entered into the program. Flawed data equals flawed results, every single time. The concept was axiomatic before Euclid: Garbage begets garbage. The computer guys just gave it a name.
Rex Tillerson is but one example of this genuinely absurd phenomenon we are all bearing witness to: the GIGO White House. Here’s another example: Rob Portman became White House secretary, Hope Hicks became communications director, and former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn became the administration’s top economic adviser (“garbage in”). In rapid-fire succession, Portman was finally called to account for physically abusing his wives and left the administration. Days later, Hicks testified before Congress in the ongoing Russia scandal and left the administration.
The sudden departure of trusted advisers Portman and Hicks, combined with a firestorm of criticism regarding spousal abuse, security clearances and other questionable White House staffers, caused Donald Trump to lose his temper and threaten to start a global trade war. This led directly to the resignation of economic adviser Gary Cohn on Tuesday, making three major departures in as many weeks (“garbage out”). Tillerson is still hanging on, but staffing at the White House these days is like the weather in New England: Don’t like it? Wait five minutes. His time is coming, too.
Nowhere has this spectacle been more vividly on display than in the mighty flame-out of amiable talking thumb and former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, who spent last Monday reeling through every network from CNN to QVC denouncing Robert Mueller and all his works. Mueller, special counsel in the Russia investigation, subpoenaed Nunberg to discuss his time in the early days of the 2016 Trump campaign. Nunberg enjoyed slightly more authority as a campaign aide than the sink in the custodian’s closet, but someone higher up the food chain saw fit to cut him in on the top-level email conversations taking place, and those emails are part of what Mueller is on about.
Nunberg thundered into every available microphone that he would go to jail before complying with Mueller. Why? Answering the subpoenas would take, like, 80 hours or something. Screw that. According to late-night host Stephen Colbert, Nunberg “took over cable news like a car chase.” His wild ride through the media on Monday was so enthusiastically unhinged that CNN’s Erin Burnett bluntly asked him at one point if he was drunk, because she smelled booze on his breath.
He denied it, but who knows? I might be tempted by the devil whiskey myself were I in Nunberg’s shoes. The “garbage out” portion of the exercise is not an enjoyable experience. Nunberg hasn’t been tight with the Trump crew since July 2015, when he got thrown off the campaign for posting racist messages on social media, but when he was there, he was there. According to Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, Nunberg was the poor sap tasked to try and teach an apocalyptically disinterested Trump the basics of the US Constitution. He was also the one who got left behind when a campaign trail McDonald’s run took too long.
Sam “Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away” Nunberg dared to brush the Trump For President coattails with his fingertips, and now finds himself on the wrong end of a prosecutor’s attention to detail. Mueller almost certainly has the emails he wants from Nunberg already in hand; it’s the other stuff Nunberg knows from those days that has his former colleagues updating their passports. Referencing the Russia scandal at one point, he said of Trump, “I think that he may have done something during the election.” Later, to Jake Tapper on CNN, he said, “I think Carter Page was colluding with the Russians.”
It was quite a show. Getting him under oath could prove to be a blockbuster sequel. Time will tell.
“Garbage out” is a lonely estate. Squadrons of former administration employees are finding it virtually impossible to secure work in the private sector with “Trump” on their resume. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and charter member of the Garbage Out Fraternity (he lasted exactly 24 days before fleeing the White House in a frenzy of criminal disgrace) is selling his Virginia home to help pay his legal fees. After this latest exodus, Trump tweeted that there are still people in the White House “I want to change.” Out here on the perimeter, there are no stars.
Garbage in, garbage out. We all know where it begins. The only remaining question is where it will end.