- During Tuesday’s debate, President Donald Trump kept interrupting former Vice President Joe Biden, something remarked upon by moderator Chris Wallace.
- ‘Well, frankly you’ve been doing more interrupting,’ Wallace said to Trump at one point.
- The rule-breaking is nothing new for Trump, but it was apparently unprecedented in a debate, as widely commented on by cable news throughout the post-mortem. (Aside from, of course, the 2016 debates.)
- White-collar rule-breaking going unpunished has become a persistent feature of American capitalism in the 2000s, as famously captured by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when no CEOs faced prosecution.
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Tuesday night’s presidential debate is already historic for the immediate and widespread criticism it inspired. CNN’s Dana Bash instantly called it a “s—show” while Jake Tapper called it a “hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.”
But even those strongly worded criticisms don’t get to what was so outrageous about the occasion: One of the participants, the incumbent President Donald Trump, simply wouldn’t follow the rules.
At one point, moderator Chris Wallace said he was “appealing” to Trump to allow former Vice President Joe Biden to speak with fewer interruptions. When Trump protested, Wallace said, “Well, frankly you’ve been doing more interrupting.”
Later, after Trump continued to speak during Biden’s allotted two-minute response time, Wallace noted that Trump’s staff had agreed that he wouldn’t do exactly that, and asked, “Why don’t you observe what your campaign agreed to as a ground rule?”
It was to no avail, leading to Bash and Tapper’s appalled post-mortem.
The saddest thing isn’t that Trump’s refusal to follow the rules is anything new. He has been a historic breaker of both norms and laws throughout his tenure, with sometimes deadly effects, such as the camps his administration set up along the US-Mexico border or his refusal to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic as recommended by his own health officials. The saddest thing is that rule-breaking going unpunished has been a feature of Trump’s class of elites for decades now.
Flouting and toothlessness
Former FBI Director James Comey was such a famous stickler for rule-following that he arguably swung the 2016 election by releasing an “October surprise” letter to congress on Hillary Clinton’s email habits. While technically wrong for a secretary of state to house emails on a private server, many members of the Trump White House have been reported to do exactly the same thing, with no kind of similar uproar attached. But Comey saw the culture of rule-breaking as dangerous long before that.
In 2002, when he was the US attorney in Manhattan, Comey warned young Dept. of Justice lawyers not to join the “chickens— club,” as reported by Jesse Eisinger’s book of the same name. Comey was referring to DOJ lawyers’ reluctance to bring cases against the rich and powerful that were closer to toss-ups than sure winners.
That same year, the DOJ brought charges against 32 individuals associated with massive fraud at Enron, a corporate scandal so famous it inspired a legendary business book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and cast a shadow over the early presidency of George W. Bush, given the close ties to the administration of Chairman Ken Lay (dubbed “Kenny Boy” by Bush at the time). The Enron case may have been the highwater mark for the old DOJ custom of aggressively pursuing white-collar wrongdoing — the FBI reports convictions for 22 people, including nearly the entire executive team from the time of the scandal.
Comey’s warning went unheeded afterward, as white-collar cases essentially fell from half their levels in previous decades to just 10% of the DOJ caseload from 2012 to 2015. Famously, Barack Obama’s DOJ did not prosecute any Wall Street CEOs for their involvement in the subprime mortgage crisis that led to the Great Recession.
We now know, thanks to last weekend’s New York Times report on Trump’s tax records, that the aftermath of the Great Recession also saw The Trump Organization rack up massive losses and adopt aggressive accounting practices. Would Trump have been a white-collar case pursued by the erstwhile “chickens— club” currently helmed by Attorney General William Barr? We’ll never know.
Instead, to quote Dana Bash, it’s a “s—show.”
It’s stunning how much the fundamental reforms that would help the debate would also help against the extremes of contemporary capitalism.
Namely: Naming and enforcing rules, but also changing structures.
As you may have yelled at your TV or into social media, the moderator definitely needs a mute button, or some sort of legitimate penalty — like, say, reduced airtime — for those who break the rules. You can’t lean on decorum, defer to power, and assume that the rulebreaker will be called by their conscience.
You need an empowered regulator, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for one. Debates, like markets, need regulation.