By Howard Kurtz
Published December 05, 2018
The question is a provocative one: Is it easier for politicians to survive scandal in the age of Trump?
The same question might be posed about actors, moguls, journalists and others in the #MeToo era: What is the standard for surviving, or reviving a damaged career?
The answer doesn't lend itself to a couple of quick sound bites. There are many shades of gray in the political world:
How serious is the scandal? Is it clear-cut or murky? How does it stack up against the rest of the person's record? Does the person show remorse or just try to tough it out? And do the media keep pounding away at the scandal or quickly move on?
It seems a particularly apt time to ask these questions because President Trump is on a Twitter tear involving those caught up in the Russia investigation. He is praising Roger Stone for his "guts" in vowing never to testify against him, just as he once did with Paul Manafort for initially refusing a plea deal. At the same time, Trump is scoffing at Michael Cohen for trying to avoid jail time after his two guilty pleas, saying, "He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence."
Let's put aside the propriety of a president sounding off on which of his former associates should be put behind bars and which should not. (Conservative lawyer George Conway went off on him, and Eric Trump denounced Conway for showing "utter disrespect" for his wife, Kellyanne.)
And let's put aside the question of whether Robert Mueller has found evidence of collusion or any other crime by Trump himself. The president's Teflon doesn't seem to have been heavily scratched by the convictions of some of his former aides.
The larger question about public tolerance for scandalous behavior is raised by a New York Times piece that begins with this eye-catching scorecard:
"Representatives Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins campaigned this fall while out on bail for felony charges. Representative Greg Giantforte had been convicted of misdemeanor assault. Senator Bob Menendez's trial on bribery and fraud charges had resulted in a hung jury."
They were all re-elected last month.
What's a few criminal charges among friends?
The article, by Lisa Lerer, did a sort of wayback-machine thing based on 2018 standards. For instance, would the plagiarism charges that knocked Joe Biden out of the 1988 presidential race still be a problem? (My answer would be yes, but that it would be easier for him to survive.)
On sexual misconduct, there's no question that the public is more tolerant, a trend that began with Bill Clinton, not Donald Trump. Lerer didn't cite this example, but Gavin Newsom, who as San Francisco mayor had an affair with a city employee married to his campaign manager, was just elected California governor.
The Times story questions the impact on Michael Avenatti's 2020 hopes of having been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence against a girlfriend. Hours after it was published, Avenatti, who denies the allegations, announced he is not running for president after all. I'd argue that Stormy's lawyer never had a campaign or a shot at winning.
One weakness in the piece is that it also drags in political controversies that don't fall under the rubric of scandal. For instance, Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith won her seat after an uproar over her saying she'd accept an invitation to a "public hanging." But Mississippi is a very red state. The outcome was very different in Alabama because Roy Moore himself had been accused of once having engaged in sexual misbehavior with teenage girls.
Even more of a stretch is blaming Kirsten Gillibrand (as some Democratic donors are) for helping pressure Al Franken to resign. Franken quit because his position had become untenable after multiple allegations of groping women, not because Gillibrand, who’s weighing a 2020 run, spoke out against him.
Some politicians are agile enough to defend or deflect, to make amends or tough it out, to get off the defensive or stay on the attack. In the age of social media, there’s no one playbook anymore.
But an equally important factor is whether the media keep pursuing the scandal and regularly regurgitating it, or let it drop based on some invisible statute of limitations. And that may turn not just on the details but whether journalists like and sympathize with the person under fire. With Trump, of course, they never move on.