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Analysis

We never got closure on these political micro-mysteries of 2018

From Paul Manafort's ostrich jacket to Scott Pruitt's near-fatal nap, we're still looking for answers.

Illustration by Diana Ofosu for ThinkProgress
Illustration by Diana Ofosu for ThinkProgress

If you’ve spent any time covering President Donald Trump’s White House, or following those who do, you’ve probably encountered a catch-all metaphor that illustrates what it is like to contend with the daily deluge of breaking chaos that flows, hour after hour, into the news cycle: It’s like the writers’ room for a prestige television show has gone rogue and thrown every plot device they can imagine at the wall, until the wall buckles and the ceiling collapses.

Thursday, December 20 was one of those days that epitomizes this phenomenon. The day began with the news that Trump was set to sign a sweeping criminal justice reform bill — one he’d championed and which had received resounding bipartisan support. It was going to be a win for the president. If he’d been running an ordinary White House, his staff would have been directed to carefully stage-manage the day so that no other news could break and step on the big moment.

But this is not an ordinary White House, and so instead, Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria — an abrupt move that seemingly was made without much thought or consultation — pushed the president into an inflamed encounter with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who promptly resigned in a letter that spelled out, in gruesome detail, all of their philosophical differences. And that news broke after everyone had learned that Trump — in the worst play run in Washington since Jim Zorn’s ill-fated “swinging gate” — had decided without warning to scuttle a deal that would continue to fund the government, renewing the possibility of a government shutdown after many legislators had left Washington for the Christmas holiday.

That’s too much, man. There have been so many different plot lines happening at the same time that it’s been effectively impossible to stay on top of them all. At the end of 2018, we’re looking back at all those times we lost the thread on some bizarre twist or hastily-introduced character the Trump White House threw in our direction — the stories that fascinated us for a time, crowded onto the headlines, and then got dropped as seventeen new and unrelated developments clamored for our attention. These are the micro-mysteries of 2018 on which we are still waiting for closure.

The case of the near-death nap

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt spent the entirety of 2018 going above and beyond the call of duty to implicate himself in an increasingly outlandish series of mishaps. Pruitt was a virtuoso at turning the most mundane of activities — like renting an apartment, or recommending his wife for a job — into spectacular displays of self-destruction not seen since John O’Hara penned Appointment in Samarra. At one point, three (3) Washington Post reporters were assigned to investigate why Pruitt “directed [EPA security] agents to drive him to multiple locations in search of a particular lotion on offer at Ritz-Carlton hotels.” That’s some lotion!

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Pruitt’s beleaguered security detail figured prominently in another story that remains unresolved. On March 31 of this year, ABC News reported that Pruitt’s security team had to bust down the door to his home, apparently believing he was “unconscious and unresponsive and needed rescue.” Per ABC News:

The incident occurred in the late afternoon on March 29, 2017 at the Capitol Hill address Pruitt was renting, which was co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist. A Capitol Police officer called 911 at the behest of Pruitt’s security detail, which had tried unsuccessfully to reach him by phone, and by banging on the building’s front door, according to police recordings obtained by ABC News.

“They say he’s unconscious at this time,” the 911 operator is told, according to the recordings. “I don’t know about the breathing portion.”

After Pruitt’s security team gained access to his condo, however, they discovered the EPA head “groggy” and “rising from a nap.” Pruitt declined medical attention and everyone was left wondering what had caused the alarm in the first place. The EPA had to foot the bill for the damaged door, and no one spoke about the matter ever again, leaving us all to wonder, was this really a case of a nap gone wrong?

The case of the two Zinkes

Another member of Trump’s Ghastlycrumb Cabinet, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, figured prominently in a bizarre incident that took place in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in November. As the Washington Post reported, residents of the 100 block of Kentucky Avenue in southeast D.C. ended up in a row with the driver of a Mercedes SUV that sat idling, taking up several parking spaces in an area where places to park are often scarce. The driver of the car refused to identify himself to residents, saying only that he was waiting for his boss.

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Resident Paul Legere was in the midst of remonstrating with the mystery driver when suddenly a man identifying himself as Ryan Zinke emerged from Zinke’s apartment. Only… it was not Ryan Zinke, a fact that Legere, Zinke’s neighbor, immediately pointed out by saying “Dude, you’re not Zinke.” Eventually, the man re-identified himself as “Scott” and went back into Zinke’s apartment.

From there, things degenerated. “Profanities were exchanged” between Legere and the driver. The U.S. Park Police were called to the scene, apparently by Zinke, who had contacted his security detail about “a suspicious individual staking out his home and guests.” When the police arrived, however, the idling car had left, leaving only the puzzled neighbors at hand to explain what had happened. The Post went on to report that sometime around ten o’clock, the “guest who impersonated Zinke, along with three or four other men, all left the house and piled into the Mercedes.” The Post report doesn’t really clarify if this Mercedes was the same one as before.

The incident was apparently “all the talk of the Lincoln Park email group” by the next morning, according to the Post. As one member of the group put it, perfectly summing up this era, “Nothing makes sense anymore.”

The case of Brett’s big debts

In the years to come, as we recall the nomination hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the matters that were left unresolved, the serious and credible sexual assault allegations levied by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford will likely feature most prominently in our memory. A hastily thrown together — and hamstrung-by-design — FBI “investigation” into the charges gave Republicans just enough political cover to confirm him, but missed an opportunity for Americans to learn the truth.

It’s worth pointing out that had Ford not come forward with her claims, there were still some mysteries about Kavanaugh that could have used a little unraveling, chief among them the story of how Kavanaugh incurred, and then suddenly paid down, a staggering amount of personal debt.

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A lengthy account from Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer lays out some of the unanswered questions. There was the money Kavanaugh owed on various “credit cards and a loan against his retirement account,” an amount reported to have been somewhere between $60,000 and $200,000 that Kavanaugh managed to settle between May of 2017 and the time of his nomination in July. There was the $1.2 million house he purchased in 2006 at a time when his reported net worth of $91,000 would have made gathering a needed $245,000 down payment seemingly impossible.

And then of course, there was his expensive baseball fandom. As the Washington Post’s Amy Brittain reported in July, Kavanaugh managed to incur “tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt buying baseball tickets over the past decade and at times reported liabilities that could have exceeded the value of his cash accounts and investment assets.” Kavanaugh explained that he’d run up those costs purchasing tickets for a “ticket draft” between him and his friends. In his written response to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh explained, “Everyone in the group paid me for their tickets based on the cost of the tickets, to the dollar… No one overpaid or underpaid me for tickets. No loans were given in either direction.”

Like many of the explanations Kavanaugh offered (Mencimer chronicles them all), his account of how he managed this expensive habit landed somewhere between propriety and shadiness — just plausible enough to pass muster, but leaving questions behind. Such as: Don’t well-connected Washingtonians just finagle free tickets to the Nationals? That’s the whole point of having a baseball team in D.C.

The case of the bird-skin bomber

Did you recently come into possession of an ostrich-leather jacket, perhaps obtained from some government auction of seized assets? If so, why are you not dining out on the fame of having this cherished piece of clothing once belonging to Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager and obsessive crime completist who was convicted of tax and bank fraud in the ongoing Mueller investigation earlier this year?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mueller investigation is that it has so far been profitable for taxpayers, a fact that seems to have escaped Trump, who frequently intimates that Mueller’s team is running up a huge tab. It’s true that as of the most recent filings, which cover the cost of the investigation through March of this year, Mueller’s expenditures total something in the vicinity of $25 million. However, thanks to the vagaries of Manafort’s plea deal, Mueller seized between $42 and $46 million worth of assets.

Manafort’s famed ostrich jacket was presumed by many to be among that collection of assets that would have been moved to a government auction house. But as it turns out, it may have never left Manafort’s possession. As the Daily Beast’s Adam Rawnsley reported, it’s an open question as to whether the jacket “could be part of a criminal forfeiture”:

According to an invoice that is part of the court record, Manafort bought it from Alan Couture in April 2013 along with other bespoke menswear totaling $102,000. Bank records Alan Couture entered into evidence show a $102,000 wire transfer from Pompolo Ltd—one of 31 offshore companies Manafort created—shortly thereafter. But that transfer isn’t included on a list of unreported-income transactions alleged by the government, meaning the feds might not be able to lay claim to it even if there’s a guilty verdict.

And clothing isn’t on the list of the assets the government has indicated it will go after, like some of his real estate properties are.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that the jacket would fetch much money in a resale. As Eric Bradley, the public relations director for Heritage Auctions told the Daily Beast, “It’s a used jacket that would only be attractive to a limited clientele. Nor does his notoriety add any appreciable value. At auction, we would estimate it at $2,000-3,000.” [Editor’s note: it’s also unspeakably ugly.]

Based on all of this, it seems likely that this piece of outerwear remains hanging alongside other ill-gotten pieces of couture in Manafort’s wardrobe, though no one can really say for certain. Regardless, it’s fair to say that the need to decide the fate of an ostrich jacket has to be the strangest-ever result of a FARA investigation.

The case of the incognito opinionist

The New York Times opinion page lives to troll all decent people with half-baked inanities, but no single piece of dross produced by Times opinion editor James Bennet caused more alarums and excursions than “I Am A Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” Penned by an anonymous mystery author, our brave hero explained that while he — and let’s face it, it has to be a man — totally shared most, if not all, of the Trump White House’s policy goals, he was nevertheless part of a cabal of insiders dedicated to thwarting “parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.

And yet these insights are not limited to those dumb enough to join the team! Nevertheless, the author goes on at length about all things obvious. Have you heard? Meetings with Trump “veer off topic and off the rails.” He’s impulsive and prone to rants. He makes “half-baked, ill-informed” decisions. It’s sadly clear that the author thinks he’s laying this bare for the very first time.

The author goes on to insist that a “steady state” exists within the White House, running what amounts to an ongoing administrative coup d’etat in the Executive Branch. It seems to have occurred to nobody — not the author, not the New York Times opinion page — that leaving the safety of the nation in the hands of an unelected and unaccountable league of extraordinary factotums is not the ideal solution to the problems described in the piece.

As of this telling, we have no idea who this anonymous author was, despite that the paper’s opinion desk is in the same building as dozens of reporters who might want this incredible scoop. Though at this point, the only good reason to unmask this author is to ridicule him. After all, in the time since this anonymous op-ed writer introduced this “steady state” fighting Trump’s most dangerous tendencies, this unnamed gaggle of resistance fighters has done nothing but demonstrate their own hilarious incompetence at their self-appointed task.

The case of the fraudulent frame

Coming in just under the wire is a genre classic: “Answers to a mystery that only raise more questions.” Back in June of 2017, the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who has carved out a steady and entertaining beat plumbing the depths of Trump’s many vices, noticed that a framed cover of a Time Magazine, featuring Trump, festooned the walls of many of his properties.

The cover in question — which featured a glamour shot of the real estate mogul and headlines attesting to the fact that he was “HITTING ON ALL FRONTS…EVEN TV” — was quickly exposed as a fake. A spokeswoman for Time confirmed: There was no issue of the magazine on the date printed on the cover — March 1, 2009 — and, indeed, Trump did not feature on the magazine’s cover at any time that year.

Fahrenthold would go on to document the numerous places throughout Trump’s empire where this fake cover hung. But one place he did not find the cover was Trump’s “brag wall” in his Trump Tower office — a special place where Trump hung his most prized media mementos. That is, until this week, when Politico ran a photo that finally proved that the fake cover adorned that wall as well.

On Twitter, Fahrenthold went on to say that the question he was left with after his first attempt at reporting out the story was whether or not Trump was “in on the fake.” “I thought he must have been in on the joke,” Fahrenthold wrote, “Who would believe they were on the cover of Time if they really weren’t. I could never find pics of the fake in [Trump’s] office. Since it wasn’t there, in his space, I figured he was in on the joke.”

Never assume this! At any rate, as of right now, the identity of the person who created this replica of Time Magazine — which featured many actual Time headlines, along with a “barcode on the cover… for karaoke software” — is unknown. But it has to be Michael Cohen, don’t you think?

More miscellaneous mysteries

These examples are but a few of the many micro-mysteries which have been left unsolved. There are so many others:

  • Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was unceremoniously ejected from her White House perch earlier this year, was allegedly in possession of “a stash of video, emails, text messages, and other documentation supporting” a numerous of zingy claims laid out in her tell-all book, “Unhinged.” But after a slew of audio recordings released to the media on September 10, Newman’s haul of goodies dried up. What happened to them?
  • Back at the beginning of November, right-wing vaudeville act Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman staged a bizarre press conference at a Holiday Inn in Rosslyn, Virginia. Those reporters in attendance had been told that the two men would be presenting a woman with a credible accusation of sexual impropriety against special counsel Robert Mueller. However, it quickly became apparent that there was no accuser on offer, and the only truly noteworthy thing for anyone to report was that Burkman spent the whole of the presser with his fly down. All of which led to the inevitable question: Is nobody going to tell Burkman about that?
  • Infrastructure week: Did it… happen? Or, not?

Ultimately, we may never obtain the answers to these unresolved riddles. And in a few short days, we’ll be on to a new calendar year, and what’s likely to be a fresh crop of new micro mysteries to briefly bedevil our imagination before they, too, get discarded in another flood of exhausting breaking news. Obviously, if you can help us solve any of these lingering puzzles, please get in touch. (Also, we’d be happy to receive a copy of the president’s tax returns if you’ve got one.)