'In any other administration': Trump's novel strategy for dealing with scandal

'In any other administration': Trump's novel strategy for dealing with scandal
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For those of us who follow politics, the past three years have been dizzying. Opponents and proponents of President Donald Trump would likely agree that the pace of news coming out of Washington is unprecedented. Some of this is a function of social media. But much of it — as tell-all memoir after tell-all memoir and inside reporting indicates — has been the nature of the Trump administration and its tendency to flout norms and partake in activities that range from “not normal,” to possibly illegal.

I googled the phrase “In any other administration, this would,” with the expectation that in most cases that sentence would end with something like “be a major scandal,” or “been headline news for weeks.”  I also expected that the Google search would remind of incidents I had forgotten. My expectations were met. Here are some examples of the results of my search:

This is far from an exhaustive list. Along with these were more memorable events including the drive to add a citizenship question on the Census, President Trump’s use of a derogatory term to refer to Latin American and African countries, and of course various elements of the Russia and Ukraine scandals.

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Those who have used the phrase, “In any other administration” are not wrong to make the comparison. Think about the months of headlines generated by the firing of employees of the White House travel office under President Clinton, President George W. Bush’s dismissal of 66 U.S. Attorneys, and the “Solyndra” scandal under President Obama. Each of these generated months of headlines and led to formal investigations.

In contrast, the Trump scandals listed in the bullet points above have quickly faded from the public consciousness. While possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and the Ukraine “quid pro quo” that led to the current impeachment charges have had serious ramifications for the Trump administration, many other examples of the upsetting of norms or the possible violation of laws have not. 

Previous administrations have dealt with accusations of wrongdoing by denial, by cover-up, or by grimacing and hoping they would pass. The Trump administration has indeed used these techniques as well — but they have also pioneered a new method for ensuring that such accusations have minimal political or legal consequences. That approach is to have a continuous flow of scandalous behavior.

This approach takes advantage of the fact that parties that could hold the administration accountable for its behavior have limited capacity and limited attention spans.

Congress has 535 members, many of whom are up for re-election every two years. Their ability to engage in intense oversight is limited. Media resources are limited for major investigations, and there is only so much space for headlines that will generate the sales or clicks they need to stay in business. New issues quickly push aside old ones. Finally, the rest of us have bills to pay, jobs to go to, and many other things to pay attention to.

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We can hold only so many outrages in our minds.

Whether it is conscious strategy or the outgrowth of a general attitude toward laws and pre-existing norms, the Trump administration has managed to take advantage of these limits to make sure that accountability is at a minimum. You can be sure that leaders of potential future administrations that may be inclined toward corruption are taking notes.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.