Pope Francis Gets Bushwacked Over Sexual Abuse Scandal

So imagine you’re 81 years old, and tired after a tense visit to Ireland to reassure faithful Catholics distressed over sexual misconduct by priests there (and elsewhere). How can your day get that much longer? By having a former Vatican diplomat (Carlo Maria Vigano) issue an 11-page letter accusing you of knowingly failing to take action against a now disgraced American cardinal (Theodore McCarrick). Even worse, the media will have you at close quarters during the flight back to Rome when you attempt some version of a press conference aboard the papal plane.

You’re Pope Francis, and what does your face show?

082818-01 Pope Francis Dual

There’s consternation, for sure. Notice the rise of an inner eyebrow and the eyebrows pinched together, both expressions a sign of surprise and anxiety. Is Francis guilty of participating in a cover-up and therefore nervous? It’s possible, though the timing of Vigano’s letter—as if to stymie any progress the Pope might have made in Ireland—also surely amounts to a sneak attack.

More pronounced is anger. One eye is drawn tight and narrow, a sure sign of anger, and the raised upper lip joins with the eyebrows knitted together in carrying traces of anger. That emotion can range from focused attention (Francis knows he better choose his words carefully in answering Vigano’s allegation) to outrage. Anger involves wanting to move forward and control your circumstances. Vigano’s letter is an attempt to topple Francis, and with him a progressive agenda offensive to Vigano’s fellow conservatives. Power, policy pronouncements and money are all at play here, with contributions to the Church falling as disappointment and dissent mount among parishioners and church officials alike.

Most of all, though, Francis’s face signals disgust and contempt given the wrinkled nose that dominates the left-side photograph and the slight sneer evident in the photo to its right. Something—maybe everything—stinks, a stench the Pontiff’s can really only easily evade by resigning, like his predecessor Benedict XVI did (the first resignation of a Pope in almost 600 years).

Francis took away Vigano’s job as nuncio to the United States two years ago, and now the former diplomat is eager to return the favor. Contempt is about a lack of trust, which is what makes the Pope’s statement aboard the plane so interesting.  “I will not say a single word about this. I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the sufficient journalist ability to make your conclusions,” the Pope told the assembled media: “It’s an act of trust.”

Here we are at a moment in the Catholic church’s long history where the Pope is placing more faith in investigative reporters than in many of his own current, and former, top officials. How this will all unfold, nobody knows. But forget the celibacy rule supposedly in place for priests. In this scandal, there aren’t any virgins left to be found.

Unhinged: Omarosa Manigault Newman Takes on Trump

081618-01 Omarosa & Trump

If Turkey’s financial crisis proves to be the “canary in the coal mine” that an economist is warning about, then there might be a bigger story this week than former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman releasing her insider exposé Unhinged. But for sheer personal drama, Newman versus Trump takes the cake. For a decade plus, from The Apprentice to The Celebrity Apprentice to the campaign, and then The White House, she was somebody he reportedly admired for her being conniving—and now she’s a “crazed, crying lowlife” and a “dog” if Trump’s twitter tirade is to be accepted at face value.

081618-02 Omarosa & Trump

Speaking of faces, what does Newman’s show as she makes the media rounds, promoting her book? Yes, there’s often a raised upper lip and narrowed eyes. Newman’s as capable of showing disgust and anger as her former boss, as when she asserts that Trump “doesn’t even know what’s happening in his White House.” Trump as Chief of Staff John Kelly’s puppet is hard to believe. Less hard to believe is Newman’s related claim that Kelly as puppeteer is possible because the president has a severe attention deficit disorder and declining mental health.

081618-03 Omarosa & Trump

It’s not disgust and anger, however, that’s most noteworthy in observing Newman on the air this past week. It’s the fear she shows. Time and again her mouth pulls wide. Maybe the former communications director for the Office of Public Liaison is, ironically enough, simply uneasy appearing on television. But she has manhandled the people interviewing her. So it seems it’s more likely she’s weighing book sales versus legal bills, knowing things will get “ugly” for her now, as Kelly allegedly warned Newman while keeping her confined for up to two hours in the Situation Room at The White House on firing her this past December.

Trump’s a misogynist and racist? Really? What a revelation. But seriously, Newman has recordings to back up her allegations.

081618-04 Omarosa & Trump

When will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences give a lifetime achievement award to Steven Soderbergh for his prescient movie Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)? Michael Cohen. Stormy Daniels. Newman. Everyone is recording Trump’s behavior one way or another, knowing that this White House is a House of Mirrors. It’s got to be so stressful working there that naturally I feel sorry for Sarah Huckabee Sanders being reduced to sadness and fear in telling reporters she “can’t guarantee” that Trump has never used the N-word. Well, actually I’m lying, too.

Intelligence Chief Dan Coats Given Shock Treatment

072018-01 Dan Coats Triple

You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump: there’s nothing like leaving dumbfounded on stage the man supposed to be the country’s Director of National Intelligence. I’m referring of course to the latest twist to the Helsinki summit and its aftermath, insofar as it involves Dan Coats. During a session with Andrea Mitchell at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, Coats got the breaking news right along with everyone else in the world that Vladimir Putin is being invited to the White House sometime this fall.

Sure, Coats offered an expression of mock surprise on hearing the White House’s tweet. Maybe that look is what The New York Times, for instance, was referring to when it said Coats “expressed surprise” and “appeared genuinely astonished.” But in non-verbal terms, that was the least of Coats’s actual emotional response to the Twitter announcement.

First, Coats’s mock surprise already contained a hint of more than mere surprise (as noteworthy as surprise is in this case). When a person’s mouth drops open while simultaneously pulling wider, fear is as much a part of the equation as surprise. Coats diplomatically surrendered to laughter and a series of big smiles that began with replying: “Say that again.” But Coats’s first, camouflaging look of mock surprise already contained within it the seeds of Coats’s actual, more enduring and substantive reaction to having Trump invite into the White House the man who metaphorically speaking has been busy burglarizing it.

A playful version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream was, after all, just the start of Coats’s emoting. “Okay. That’s going to be special,” Coats added, his mouth pulled slightly wide in unadorned fear after saying “okay” —though feeling exactly the opposite.

Then Mitchell pressed the point by mentioning that Trump and Putin were alone for over two hours in Helsinki. Coats gulped at that idea, and again his mouth pulled wide in fear. “How do you have any idea what happened in that meeting?” was Mitchell’s follow-up. In replying, “Well, you’re right. I don’t know,” Coats now brought anger into play with a look of eyes flashing wide open (a sign of fear, anger and, yes, surprise). And it was anger that Coats most felt by the end of this particular exchange with Mitchell. “So, um, it is what it is,” the Director of National Intelligence concluded, those conciliatory words offset by the way Coats’s eyes had narrowed and his lips had grown taut.

You could say Coats graduated to anger in recognizing that being so left out of the loop is, in effect, a measure of Trump’s disrespect for, and humiliation of, all or nearly all of the people who work for him in this administration. Coats no doubt resents Trump’s behavior, as much as Trump will surely punish Coats for honesty, independence and patriotism instead of unquestioned loyalty to him.

The bigger picture here is that Trump relishes indulging in surprises that leave much of the universe dumbfounded.  The E.U. is America’s leading “foe,” NATO is “obsolete,” and the press is supposedly the true “enemy of the people.” Putin and his idol, Joseph Stalin, couldn’t say it better. As emotions, surprise and fear are fellow travelers. Many of the facial expressions that reveal surprise also reveal fear, which makes sense because human beings don’t generally welcome surprises. Something new can be threatening, and certainly it is in the case of Trump. What’s next? Who knows—certainly not Coats. Why stop with inviting Putin the arch-burglar into The White House? Forget about the G-7. Why shouldn’t Trump convene a gathering of the world’s greatest dictators instead? Here’s a suggestion: he can dub this new group the D-7 and thereby champion the rise of strongmen everywhere.

The Incredible Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki

“No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up” (with reality), Fran Lebowitz once said, a comment that aptly summarizes the bizarre press conference held following the private, two-hour talk between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Finland. What was bizarre about the summit? For one thing, Putin was actually happy at times and Trump was, too. If Russia had some kind of incriminating video about him, it “would have been out long ago” Trump claimed, all smiles, as if retaining leverage wouldn’t be more helpful to Putin’s cause.

071718-04 Putin & Trump

The cat that swallowed the canary was surely the subtext of Putin’s smile when the two men emerged to begin the press conference. Whatever Putin heard in private must have been pleasing, as was the spectacle of being again a super power sharing the world stage with America’s leader.

Donald was Donald. Have you heard that he won the election after a “brilliant” campaign? Or that there wasn’t any collusion (“I didn’t even know” Putin, Trump said, sarcastically smiling). On this day, Putin had the more interesting body language. Yes, he exhibited the usual smirks – like when Trump insisted the goal of meeting was for the “greater good of all.” Putin’s concern about the humanitarian crisis in Syria was certainly touching. His adroit sense of humor in making what Trump characterized as the “incredible offer” of having Russia itself “interrogate” the 12 men Muller indicted on Friday was likewise a masterpiece of obfuscation delivered with only the slightest of ironic smiles.

071718-03 Putin & Trump

But even the often tight-lipped ex-KGB officer couldn’t manage not to give away his discomfort when the question became:  who did Trump believe regarding alleged Russian interference, the FBI or Putin? Then Russia’s leader pulled back his upper body, rubbed his head, kept his eyes down, and hid his lips with his hand—all in the matter of 25 seconds—in knowing that dishonestly earning trust was the key to the day. Could he get through Trump’s answer that Russia had no plausible motive for interfering in America’s election without betraying fear if caught red-handed or laughter on getting away with it?

071718-02 Putin & Trump

Did Putin want Trump to win the election? Ah, there was motive directly inquired about and for a moment Putin was truthful: “Yes” was the answer, accompanied by wrinkles forming in the middle of Putin’s forehead as his eyebrows lifted in a sign of feelings that include apprehension. Otherwise, it was all pretty smooth sailing. “You can trust no one if you believe” these allegations about Russian hacking, Putin informed us, which is indeed true. Trust no one on that stage in Helsinki. Putin is Putin, and meanwhile Trump has cheated on everyone and everything from his customers, vendors and wives to his country, without even the slightest hint of shame.

How Might Kavanaugh Change the Supreme Court?

Kennedy Gorsuch & Kavanaugh (2)Besides death and taxes, the other surety since the Robert Bork nomination fight is that Supreme Court nominees are unlikely to reveal very much in answering U.S. Senators’ questions during the confirmation process. Insisting that they can’t comment on matters they might have to rule on has become the stock reply. So besides their life stories, their allies, and the various prior cases they’ve ruled on, how else can judicial candidates be evaluated for their likely voting records?

One intriguing possibility is to look at judges’ emotional tendencies. After all, a study by Sam Gosling at the University of Texas concluded that liberals tend to be more emotionally positive and extroverted than more negative and detached conservatives. In my facial coding of various high-court justices, past, present, and perhaps future (Brett Kavanaugh), what emerged?

The chart takes into account two measures: appeal (how positive or negative the justices’ emoting is based on taking into account the “flavor” of smiles, scowls and other negative emoting) and the intensity or strength of their emoting. Somebody given to joyful smiles will emerge as more positive and intense than somebody mostly prone to tepid smiles; and somebody whose scowls aren’t softened by instances of mildly amused smiles will emerge as more negative and intense.

071018-02 Supreme Court Cartesian

What do the facial coding results show? In general, Gosling’s theory has merit but isn’t a slam dunk. For the Supreme Court as constituted before Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, The New York Times reported the following share of votes that were liberal:

  • Ruth Ginsburg (84%)
  • Elena Kagan (83%)
  • Stephen Breyer (81%)
  • Sonia Sotomayor (81%)
  • John Roberts (49%)
  • Anthony Kennedy (46%)
  • Neil Gorsuch (44%)
  • Clarence Thomas (22%)
  • Samuel Alito (16%)

Of the four, current Supreme Court justices with a positive appeal result, their liberal voting records mostly match up well: Sotomayor (81%), Kagan (83%), Roberts (49%) and Ginsberg (84%). In other words, three out of four times, Gosling’s theory seems to have some merit—even if Ginsberg is barely upbeat. Meanwhile, the inverse is true for the conservatives: in three of four cases, those justices land in negative appeal territory. Only Breyer (81%) has a liberal voting record to go along with a slightly negative emotional tilt. Add to the track record the conservative-turned-often-moderate Sandra O’Connor (positive emoting) and the rock-ribbed conservative Antonin Scalia (negative emoting) and Gosling’s theory looks to be on even firmer though not rock-solid ground.

So . . . what to expect of Kavanaugh if confirmed? These results suggest that he might prove to be the less reliably conservative vote that some right-wing Republicans fear. Emotionally, he might be a little less conservative than Gorsuch, who is also the most reserved justice based on his low intensity level. If anything, I might predict that a natural affinity may emerge between an affable Roberts and a mild Kavanaugh, with the Chief Justice finding in Kavanaugh a kindred spirit: a relatively speaking middle-of-the-road, circumspect evaluator of cases on a court dominated by conservatives.

Trump Stiffs G7 in Favor of North Korea

Who needs old-fashioned democratic allies when you can go hang out with a dictator who ordered his half-brother poisoned and other people executed using anti-aircraft guns? By comparison, surely Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is “weak” (according to Donald Trump).  Welcome to the wacky – and corrosive – world of American foreign policy as our president stiffs the leaders of what Ronald Reagan used to call the “free world” in favor of serenading Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

061118-01 BBC G7 By the Numbers

Speaking of stiff,  what to make of this photograph posted from the official account of German chancellor Angela Merkel as the G7 summit was collapsing into discord? Some people online have interpreted the photo as Trump sheepishly taking a scolding from Merkel playing the role of school marm. I couldn’t disagree more. Trump is displaying what is perhaps his single most signature expression: an upside-down “grin” caused by a rising chin. Left to itself, that facial muscle activity reveals anger, disgust and sadness. But in this case, there’s also a slight, actual smile accompanying the upside-down grin – plus narrowed eyes that signal anger. Throw in the defensive, folded-arms body gesture and what you’ve got here is Trump as defiant bad boy, pleased with himself as Merkel tries to cross the moat into the castle of Trump’s ego.

How about the other folks captured on camera here? Figure 6 is Merkel, looking slightly pained around the eyes as she tries to reason with Trump. More demonstrative is Figure 7: the French president Emmanuel Macron. Even at this oblique angle, it’s hard to miss the wrinkles across Macron’s forehead, expressing both surprise and fear. Figure 8 is British prime minister Theresa May, all but invisible (apt symbolism there, nice job Germany!). Finally, Figure 4 is Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, doing his best imitation of being Trump’s mirror brother.

How well is the G7 summit outside of Quebec City going? Figure 3 is a senior official in Japan’s foreign affairs ministry and his face sums up the summit’s status as debacle. His right outer eyebrow is cocked upwards in alarm, while his mouth is simultaneously both taut with tension and pulled ever so slightly wide in fear. So much for famed Japanese subtlety! When Donald Trump is part of the picture, forget nuances: it’s right on to people like Figure 9, Larry Kudlow, the president’s new director of the U.S. National Economic Council. He’s the guy who afterwards told CNN that Trudeau “stabbed us in the back” at his post-G7 summit post conference by again denouncing the new U.S. tarriffs on steel and aluminium being imported from the EU, Mexico and Canada.

How wrong of an ally to “stab us in the back.” Trump’s not “very dishonest” like Trudeau supposedly is. Why, you might say that he verbally stabs people right in the stomach instead.  Reinstate Russia to make it the G8 again? Take that Theresa May. The recent poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter Yulia on British soil can’t count for much. Not when you are all robust smiles (so uncharacteristic of anger, disgust and sadness-ridden Trump) at the prospect of picking up a Noble Peace Prize for officially ending the Korean War with your new pal, Kim Yong Un.

Isn’t cooperative, paint-slowly-by-numbers democracy such a bother? Long live the regime, whether it be yours or mine. That might not be what Trump is thinking, but it’s most assuredly what he’s impulsively feeling one tweet and photo-op after another.

The Empire Strikes Back: When Harry Weds Meghan

“Royals can marry chorus girls and sometimes even Americans” Prince Harry apparently said before the wedding, giving me hope that this wasn’t just a paint-by-numbers “fairy tale” marriage. Nevertheless, let me first give credit where credit’s due. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of royal wedding hoopla, but this was truly a stunning spectacle that the newly-minted Duke and Duchess of Sussex pulled off. The ceremony itself was innovative instead of a rote exercise. The genuine affection on display between the couple was something Lady Diana and Prince Charles could have only dreamed of. And afterwards, the majestic carriage procession through the narrow streets of Windsor was about as intimate an affair as possible considering the scale of the event.

Naturally, as a facial coder I couldn’t resist assessing Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s feelings on their big day, starting with the groom’s wait for his bride. Was Harry a little nervous? Not outside the church, but once he and his brother, William, stepped indoors the (relaxed) smiles previously evident began to flicker on and off like a lighthouse beam. The latest smile would go on, only to be replaced by either a mouth-pulled wide expression of stage fright or else a sigh accompanied by lips pressed together in apparent annoyance at having to stand-on-ceremony, not a natural occurrence, especially given Harry’s mischievous, cheeky nature.

For most of the ceremony that followed, your eyes weren’t deceiving you if you saw a radiant bride and a more solemn groom. Harry’s been on stage all his life, as a royal, but now his eyes were blinking or else downcast, his eyebows often furrowed in a look of pained concentration, and it wasn’t until Harry lifted Meghan’s veil that the couple—in unison—managed a joyous, true smile. Until then, Meghan, the professional actress, was the one best holding it together with an almost seamless series of modest, equal-to-the-moment smiles. The lifting of the bride’s veil qualifies as an expected “highlight.” That’s not so true of the impassioned sermon that followed.

052018-01 Harry Meghan Reaction

Now things got interesting. The choice of Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American to serve as the bishop of the Episcopal Church, to deliver the sermon was already notable in itself.  But it was the performance he gave that almost stole the show. Leaning in, Curry wasn’t doing so to recall whatever text appeared on the high-tech tablet lying in front of him. No, Curry clearly knew his message by heart, and I do mean by heart.

052018-02 Reverend Curry

Curry let loose with references to Martin Luther King, Jr., to slavery, to reminding the assembled audience that “love is the way.” Prince Harry mostly smiled along, with a few smirks. By contrast, Meghan’s eyes shot wide open with surprise and anxiety at times—like she was getting even more for “her money” than she could have imagined. It’s an expression that also shows some anger, as Curry went on at some length, while Camilla looked on, mouth agape, seemingly bewildered, and other members of the English royal family arched their eyebrows and allowed themselves faint, pert ironic smiles. No passion, please; we’re British, was all but the signal being given.

You could say the entire wedding event was a case of the Empire Strikes Back. Who but the British royal family could stage a resplendent spectacle like this one? Then again, saying The Empire Strikes Back could also apply to former subjects as equals: a thoroughly integrated wedding ceremony—starting with Meghan, a biracial American bride, and extending to elements like a black gospel choir singing “Stand By Me.”

When the British Empire was at its zenith, a century ago, the English firmly held sway over nearly one-fourth of the world’s population and land mass. Today the “empire” is mostly a collection of island outposts. The royals have held onto their many privileges, but even that may change someday.  Nothing is forever. Perhaps you noticed how Harry’s right eyebrow shot up in surprise and anxiety when asked to repeat two parts of the wedding vows? The first was “til death do we part.” The second? Well, that would be the promise that “All I have I share with you.”

052018-03 Harry Raised Eyebrows

With Guiliani Aboard, Are There Now Two, Three or a Thousand Stooges?

Well, despite running a 2016 presidential campaign akin to a fallen soufflé, Jeb Bush got something right. Remember the Republican primary debate in which Bush declared that Donald Trump was “great at the one-liners. But he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Enter Rudy Guiliani, stage right, as the White House’s new legal point man in dealing with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation–and more. In last week’s Fox interview of Guiliani, Sean Hannity clearly couldn’t believe what he was hearing when the more became the matter of hush money paid to Stormy Daniels with apparently the president’s knowledge.

But, oh, wait: Guiliani needs to learn to “get his facts straight” Trump then informed us.

The new, latest round of subsequent media interviews by Guiliani has solved nothing, of course. How could it be otherwise when the “facts” are something Guiliani admits “we’re still working on,” like a script you’re constantly rewriting in hopes the entire episode won’t turn out to be a flop, or worse, a disaster of historical proportions. “I can prove it’s rumor. I can’t prove it’s fact.” That’s one garbled statement. Another on-air answer this past weekend trailed off into saying a previous statement by Guiliani himself was actually, instead, “one of the possibilities of one of the rumors.”

In contrast, the nonverbal message being communicated by Guiliani was crystal-clear: fear. Here’s a man with his eyes bugging out, to go along with an occasional gulp or a mouth twitching wide in a display of anxiety about as well handled as a drunken man trying to hold onto a wet bar of soap in the shower.

050918-01 Giuliani Triple

The old Guiliani mostly showed combatant disgust, with a raised upper lip (see the left image) to ward off his critics. But now he’s simultaneously closing his eyes, unable to punch his way out of a paper bag. Truth be told, it might all be so funny—like a scene from The Three Stooges—if it 050918-02 Three Stoogesweren’t all so sad and dangerous. With one eye on Erdogan’s ever-tightening grip in Turkey, with the other I’m watching a serious, madcap farce playing out here at home. Guiliani is but the latest, inept addition to a cast of grafters (Scott Pruitt) and henchmen (Michael Cohen) that makes Trump’s boast of engaging in “truthful hyperbole” only half true most days.

Michelle Wolf at the White House Press Dinner

At least three analogies come to mind.  Pick your favorite. When the comedian Michelle Wolf gave the keynote roast at last Saturday’s televised White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., was her performance a matter of speaking-truth-to-power, humor-as-torture or humor-as-colonoscopy? (Check out Youtube for the full performance.) Certainly, President Donald Trump’s stand-in, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was not amused by the proceedings. Sitting on the dais just a few feet from Wolf, what did Sanders’s face reveal when the comedian aimed her barbed jokes at the press secretary starting at about the 13-minute mark of what proved to be a 19-minute performance?

050318-01 Michelle Wolf & Huckabee-Sanders

  • “I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handsmaid’s Tale’” Wolf puckishly said on stage, alluding to the terrifying re-education maestro at the center of the book, film, and now Hulu television series. In response, Sanders did more than flinch. Lips pressed in anger, with a slight disgust sneer, was Sanders’s first response, followed by the slightest of grimace smiles, closed eyes, and a raised eyebrow, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding shrug of dismissal.
  • As to the evening’s perhaps most notorious line about the press secretary, “she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” how did Sanders respond? A wide-mouth shudder of fear followed the reference to “burns facts.” Then Sanders settled back into coping with the pointed criticism by resorting to a combination of a slight smile, firm lips, and eyes momentarily closed in disappointment.

It wasn’t only Sanders who was disappointed. When Wolf moved from alluding to Aunt Lydia to rhetorically asking, “What’s Uncle Tom for white women who disappoint other white women?” the audience responded with both laughter and jeers. Did Wolf know she was pushing the edge? Absolutely, as Wolf’s rejoiner (“Oh, I know: Ann Coulter”) was one of the few times on stage that Wolf managed a true, eyes-crinkling smile of joy. Otherwise, Wolf tended to display a mixture of mouth-pulled-wide fear, fairly slight smiles, and a lower lip pulled down and out in disgust.

Some pundits have compared Wolfe’s performance to Stephen Colbert’s roast of George W. Bush at the 2006 White House press dinner. But after re-watching that earlier performance by Colbert, I can tell you the similarity is limited. Colbert mostly displayed eyes wide in mock surprise at his own jokes, delivered with numerous smiles amid mock consternation at what he had to tell the president seated beside him. Yes, Bush wasn’t always amused but at evening’s end he shook Colbert’s hand with a smile. This year after the roast was over, Sanders refused to participate in a photograph on the dais that would have brought her and Wolf together.

What’s the big take-away here? In 2006, the Iraq war fiasco and the aftermath of Katrina were ugly enough. But the country’s mood nowadays is, if anything, even uglier amid so much partisan rancor. When Wolf began to warm up for “ribbing” Sanders, she started by saying “We should definitely talk about the women in the Trump administration” and showed both a raised upper lip and a down-ward twisting lower lip at the same time: a double dose of disgust. Sanders on stage and Trump on a daily basis are likewise given to showing disgust, in turn, for those denouncing them. As an emotion, disgust signals that something tastes bad, smells bad; rejection results, and a loss of intimacy.

There is nothing congenial left in how Americans are interacting, politically, in the age of Trump. Many people found Wolfe’s remarks in poor taste, vulgar, and far more mean-spirited than funny, and they have a point. The president gleefully joined in, tweeting that the dinner was “DEAD as we know it.” But for anyone objecting to Wolf’s tone and content – given Trump’s own demeanor and antics – that’s a little bit akin to imagining Al Capone complaining back in the day about John Dillinger’s behavior. Being “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius,” Trump promised us he would hire the “best people” to join his administration. A year and a half after Trump won the election, I’m voting for humor-as-colonoscopy to explain Wolf’s performance.

Grief-Stricken: Comey Pushes Back Against Trump

One name kept coming to mind as I watched former F.B.I. director Jim Comey’s interview on ABC’s “20/20” program last night, and it wasn’t Vladimir Putin. Instead, the name was John Dean: the man who served as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel from 1970 to 1973. Why did Dean’s name resurface now? It’s that moment before the Senate Watergate Committee when Dean recalls telling the president that, given the cover-up underway, there was “a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed that the president himself would be killed by it.”

Two details of Dean’s testimony stand out for me even after all these years. The first was the high stakes involved. While Alexander Butterfield’s inadvertent disclosure about the existence of a taping system within the White House was the torpedo that sank Nixon’s presidency, Dean’s testimony was the major, sustained, initial hit. The other detail is just how flat-footed but earnest Dean was as he stoically read a seven-hour opening statement, rarely emoting.

Comey’s five hours of being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos was boiled down into an hour-long segment on ABC. Also, there was plenty of emoting by the former F.B.I. director. Those are the differences between Dean and Comey’s televised appearances, neither of which takes away from the similarities between the two men and the circumstances they found themselves in. With Comey likely to be central to Robert Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, the stakes in judging Comey’s veracity and motives are immense; and, yes, Comey came across on the air as equally flat-footed but earnest.

041718-01 Dean & Comey (resize)

Of all the ways a person might emote, few if any are as hard to fake as when somebody’s inner eyebrows arch upwards without the entire brow rising. That movement is a reliable sign of sadness, fear and surprise.  Call it grief, for short. On “20/20”, Comey expressed grief repeatedly and in bipartisan fashion. The inner eyebrows shot up, for example, while discussing Barrack Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch insisting Comey call his probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server a “matter”, not an “investigation”.  And they shot up again and again as Comey talked about Trump extracting a pledge of “honest loyalty” from Comey at a private White House dinner; about Trump raising Michael Flynn’s case and asking Comey to “let it go;” about inviting Russian guests into the White House shortly after firing Comey and telling those guests the “pressure is off;” about the possibility of Muller being fired by Trump; and finally even about the possibility of Trump ever being impeached.

Since Comey calls Trump’s presidency a “forest fire” causing grievous damage to America in his new book, A Higher Loyalty, why not favor impeachment? The former F.B.I. director’s rationale is that to do so would be the easy way out. As he said on “20/20”, the American people need to “vote their values,” values Comey believes amount to faith in maintaining that nobody is above the law. In making that statement on the air, for one of the few times in the interview Comey’s lower eyelids grew taut with anger.

Why is anger, and its rarity compared to expressions of grief, significant? Because expressing anger so rarely speaks to Comey’s motives in going on offense against Trump with the new book and an extensive book tour. Will Comey make some money? Yes. Does he hope to restore and possibly even burnish his reputation? Undoubtedly. Is he out for revenge? Due to the far greater frequency of grief instead of anger, I don’t think so. I believe Comey is utterly earnest about seeing Trump as equivalent to a mafia boss who must be stopped before inflicting more damage on the country. (Other instances where Comey shows that brand of anger is Trump’s habit of trying to establish dominance, and Trump treating women “like meat.”)

One pejorative slang term for cops is to of course call them “flatfoots”.  Of Comey’s fundamental honesty and decency I have little doubt after watching him on “20/20”. As to any criticism of him, who could say they would do better in the situations Comey experienced? Still, there is something a little odd about a veteran, high-level law enforcement officer allowing himself to be alone with Trump more than once, no witnesses present, for compromising conversations.

Comey admits to not having had “the guts” to push back against Trump in-person. In making that admission to Stephanopoulos, Comey’s entire brow raised as if in perpetual surprise and discomfort about his own lack of courage.  In perhaps being naïve in an un-naïve sort of way, Comey brought to mind Dean yet again, given the moment captured on tape of Dean telling Nixon, “I have the impression that you don’t know everything I know,” when in fact Nixon knew plenty more than Dean had yet to realize.