Two parallel issues (call them controversies or scandals — your choice) involving the occupants of the White House and Malacañang have been hogging the headlines of late. In both cases, squid tactics are apparently being used to muddle public perception of culprit and victim, accuser and accused, right and wrong. In both cases raw political power is being wielded.
On the US side, there is the recent decision of President Donald Trump and the Republicans to release a memo that tends to cast a bad light on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US counter-intelligence agencies, the Department of Justice, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The memo is in connection with the surveillance by the FBI of Trump campaign associate, Carter Page, in the course of its investigation of Russia’s interference in the last US presidential elections, the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign, well as the possibility of obstruction of justice by Trump himself.
The Republicans, who dominate both Capitol Hill and the White House, have accused the FBI of abuses in its handling of the investigation, thus putting the premier law enforcement agency of America under a cloud and, in effect, providing relief for heretofore culprit, Page and possible major culprit, Trump.
The FBI’s alleged misconduct in its surveillance of Carter Page has been characterized by Republican spin specialists as “worse than Watergate.” The focus of their spin is the allegation that the FBI partly based its suspicion of Page’s Russian links on a dossier prepared by a former British intelligence operative funded by the Democrats and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Democrats have accused the Republicans of besmirching the reputation of the FBI and the Justice Department ahead of any findings by Mueller that may be adverse to Trump. In other words, they are cushioning the possible impact on Trump of the Mueller investigation, and also providing a justification for firing Mueller and the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, who has direct supervision of the Special Counsel.
Talk about turning the accuser-culprit-victim paradigm upside down, this is one is a classic.
But wait, in the Philippines there also appears to be a parallel case of making the accuser the accused and portraying as victims the alleged wrongdoers.
President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the suspension of Overall Deputy Ombudsman Arthur Carandang, who has been tasked with looking into allegations of billions in unexplained wealth of Duterte and members of his family. Duterte’s order is said to be in utter disregard of a Supreme Court position on the issue and in the face of resistance by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.
Like the Special Counsel in the US, the office of the Ombudsman is supposed to be beyond the clutches of partisan politics.
Carandang’s sin? He reportedly leaked to media bank documents obtained from the Anti-Money Laundering Council that may confirm earlier accusations of Duterte’s unexplained wealth made by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.
According to Duterte, Carandang secured the documents without the knowledge of the AMLC. Of course, Duterte denies the allegations and questions the authenticity of Carandang’s purported findings.
Duterte and his allies have characterized Carandang’s violation as deserving his suspension even if that act also constitutes another violation. A violation of the Constitution.
Like the anti-FBI memo of the Republicans, turning the tables on Carandang is said to be a squid tactic to cover the more serious issue of unexplained wealth hovering over a president who claims to be incorruptible (“I hate corruption. P — ina!”).
In the US case, one would have expected right-thinking representatives of the American people to vent their ire on Russia and on Carter Page (after all, Russia is supposed to be an adversary of America) — but no, the Republicans have cast Page and, by implication, Trump, as “victims” of FBI misconduct, rather than as possible Russian bogey men. The FBI, the Justice Department, the US intelligence community and, by implication, Special Counsel Mueller have been cast as the villains.
To rub in the point about the “villainy” of the FBI, the memo, crafted by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, glosses over the fact that the dossier only served as part of the basis for suspecting Page and that other independent and verifiable intelligence information had raised red flags on Page. The Republicans also appear to be completely ignoring the many contacts with the Russians made by Trump associates, including Donald Trump, Jr. (who met with Russian agents who had promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton).
Worst of all, the Republicans appear to be completely overlooking Russia’s meddling in the US elections and possible treasonous acts committed by certain US citizens. This inexplicable stance of the GOP has been summed up by maverick Republican Senator John McCain as “doing (Vladimir) Putin’s job.”
In a prepared statement, McCain said: “In 2016, the Russians engaged in an elaborate plot to interfere in an American election and undermine our democracy. While we have no evidence these efforts affected the outcome of our election, I fear they succeeded in fueling discord and dividing us from one another.
“The latest attacks on the FBI and Justice serve no American interests — no party’s, no president’s, only Putin. The American people must know all the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why special counsel Mueller’s investigation must continue unimpeded.”
McCain accused Trump of creating “partisan side shows” to distract from the investigation — adding that the partisan attacks on American institutions means, in effect, that “we are doing Putin’s job for him.”
The motives of both the Republicans and the Duterte camp appear too obvious and too brazen (there is a Tagalog term for it, garapal) for them to expect the citizenry to believe them. Unfortunately, their respective battalions of loyal supporters are standing by them.
Trump’s spin specialists have proven themselves expert at portraying an apple as a banana (to cite a CNN TV spot on the need to purvey truth in journalism). And Trump himself has lied so often and so habitually that his supporters and the Republicans no longer see anything wrong with it. In the process they seem to be discarding loyalty to country in favor of party loyalty.
Duterte and his information machinery have also been conducting a vigorous media and social media campaign to justify Carandang’s suspension, as well as the possible impeachment of Ombudsman Carpio-Morales, if she continues to be defiant.
Of course what is happening in the Philippines is not unusual. Our people are resigned to the fact that President Manuel Quezon’s noble assertion, “My loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins,” is absolutely meaningless in Philippine politics.
What resonates are the immortal words of Senate President Jose Avelino, “What are we in power for?” Aptly translated into Erap-speak: “Weather weather lang iyan!”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.