National Enquirer’s plea deal badly hurts tabloid – and potentially Trump

At first, executives at the National Enquirer's parent company didn't regard the mess surrounding its payment to a woman alleging an affair with President Trump as that big a deal. Publicly, the company insisted that ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal was paid $150,000 — which included the rights to her life story —to appear on a … Continue reading “National Enquirer’s plea deal badly hurts tabloid – and potentially Trump”

At first, executives at the National Enquirer's parent company didn't regard the mess surrounding its payment to a woman alleging an affair with President Trump as that big a deal.

Publicly, the company insisted that ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal was paid $150,000 — which included the rights to her life story —to appear on a couple of magazine covers and write a fitness column. It was not, they insisted, to buy and bury a story that could hurt Trump, a close pal of David Pecker, who runs the parent company American Media Inc.

But as the heat got turned up, I'm told, company executives went from contradicting themselves to remaining silent for a long period. As federal prosecutors in New York ramped up their investigation, these executives came to grips with the reality that they could be facing criminal penalties.

So they flipped. And they were rewarded on Wednesday with a deal that shielded Pecker, chief content officer Dylan Howard and AMI itself from prosecution.

But it did more than that, as some insiders see it. The deal essentially ensured that the Enquirer and its sister publications would survive, since an indictment of the company might have been a fatal blow.

In return, Pecker and his company agreed to cooperate with the U.S. attorney's investigation. And that cooperation, under the deal, is supposed to continue. But insiders believe the firm has little additional information to provide and say there is no mythical "safe" with dirty details on additional women.

The agreement was made public on the same day that Michael Cohen, who dealt with AMI on the McDougal mess, was sentenced to three years in prison, mainly for bank and tax fraud.

Prosecutors said in a statement that AMI has admitted buying McDougal's story to make sure she "did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate." What's more, contrary to its past denials, the company acknowledged it was trying to kill the story "to prevent it from influencing the election."

Cohen, according to prosecutors, planned to reimburse Pecker's company by cooking up a phony $125,000 fee to an outfit affiliated with AMI for "advisory" services. Pecker approved that arrangement, but later told Cohen to call it off and destroy the paperwork, the prosecutors said.

In an interview with Harris Faulkner yesterday, Trump said he didn't think his side made any payment to AMI. (That's true; see above.) The president went on to say that the payments to McDougal and Stormy Daniels are not campaign finance violations — or if they are a fine would be the usual punishment – and were put into Cohen's plea solely to "embarrass" him.

Under the previously secret deal — and this is new — AMI said it would train its staffers on election law and name a lawyer to review stories that involve paying for stories that might involve political candidates.

There has been a whole lot of analysis from the media and from Democrats that AMI's cooperation and Cohen's plea means the president, at least theoretically, could be charged with a crime. That very much remains to be seen, and politically, many people just see it as dissembling over sex.

But what about AMI's reputation? That's not a snide question, because the Enquirer has broken plenty of legitimate news over the years. That includes the case of John Edwards and his campaign mistress, which led to an unsuccessful prosecution against the former presidential candidate.

But the Enquirer has now been shown not only to be in the tank for Trump but to have actively tried to help get him elected by buying off women making accusations against him.

Doesn't even a supermarket tabloid have to do something to regain the trust of its readers?

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He also hosts the MediaBuzzmeter podcast and is the author of “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Trump may own the shutdown, but it’s unlikely despite TV drama

For all the drama of the televised confrontation in the Oval Office, the odds are overwhelming that there won't be a government shutdown. The plain fact is that neither party wants one.

So what happened between Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer during those tense 17 minutes on Tuesday was more about political theater and blame-shifting.

The amount of money — Trump wants $4 billion more for his wall than the Democrats are willing to provide — is almost negligible. And the House Democrats aren't going to budge when they take over next month. What's at stake is the symbolism surrounding the president's signature issue.

The media verdict is that Pelosi and Schumer embarrassed Trump and boxed him into a damaging declaration: He now owns any shutdown.

As The New York Times put it, "The trick in Washington has always been to make sure a government shutdown is pinned on the other guy. President Trump is the first to ever pin one on himself."

With the Times saying Pelosi and Schumer "essentially goaded" the president into saying he'd proudly close the government for border security, The Washington Post says the Democratic duo "called out Trump's falsehoods. They exposed him as malleable about his promised border wall. They lectured him about the legislative process and reiterated to him that he lacked the votes to secure the $5 billion he seeks for the wall."

But there's another view, as these and other accounts acknowledged.

The border wall, and the broader issue of illegal immigration, is immensely important to Trump's core supporters. He wanted to send them an unmistakable signal that he's fighting for them and understands their concerns. And then, if he falls short, he can blame the Dems. Or, with his recent comments that some of the wall is already being built, Trump can try to cobble something together and claim victory.

The incoming House speaker seized upon Trump's tactic of brutally personal insults. Democratic allies leaked to reporters that Pelosi later told party colleagues that she felt like she'd been in a "tinkle contest with a skunk," adding: "It's a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him." So much for the high road.

What the president may not have fully appreciated is that the party seen as triggering a partial government shutdown always pays a stiff price. The Republicans were hurt when they tried the tactic during the Clinton years and again during the Obama administration. But when Democrats were seen as precipitating a shutdown at the end of last year, they quickly backed off and made a deal within hours.

When real people are hurt — furloughs, delayed paychecks, national parks and monuments closed — the underlying issues get lost in the backlash. Of course, that may not be a factor if Trump doesn't really plan to take things past the brink.

I think it's great to watch our leaders debating serious issues on TV. Trump did that with lawmakers last year on gun control but never followed through, leading to criticism it was all about the show.

But let's face it, the process only goes so far. Pelosi and Schumer were right when they told Trump that a deal needed to be made behind closed doors. There's too much posturing, by everyone, when the cameras are on.

The frenzy over the meeting will quickly fade unless there's actually a Christmas-season shutdown. But the one clear loser was Mike Pence. The media mockery of a stiff and stone-faced vice president may have been unfair, but the images will stick to him like tarpaper.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Fantasy land: Trump’s not resigning and Beto is still a long shot

There's a whole lot of wishful thinking going on these days.

Too many people, perhaps living in their own bubbles, have convinced themselves of the outcomes they want to see. And the phenomenon cuts across political and cultural lines.

Their instinct is that they must be right because it just seems so obvious to all thinking persons.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the celebrated historian, writes terrific books about past presidents. But Goodwin, who was close to LBJ, went off on Donald Trump yesterday in a rather odd way.

On "Morning Joe," Goodwin said the situation in America "hasn't been this bad since the 1850s, and that didn't end up too well, with a Civil War that 600,000 people died in."

Okay, that's quite a comparison.

She did have a reasonable point in talking about "the miserableness of these people — there's no joy in that White House." Many have had to lawyer up, and there's been a record level of turnover, with some being trashed after their departure. And, said Goodwin, "the top guy doesn't have any joy."

Then came the wish-upon-a-star: "I think at some point he might resign. If this thing gets so bad."

Anyone who believes that Donald Trump is going to voluntarily give up the job that almost nobody thought he could win simply doesn't understand the man.

Then there are some of the Democrats who see an involuntary exit for Trump. I wrote yesterday about how some of them are now talking up indictment, rather than impeachment, as the media shift their focus from Russia to paying off alleged paramours. But some senior Democratic lawmakers are still talking up impeachment.

The Federalist puts it bluntly: "Why Democrats Would Be Insane to Impeach Donald Trump." Writer David Marcus notes that after Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate, his approval rating hit 73 percent:

"The thrice-married Trump, who has been known to boast about adultery like a suburban dad who won the best lawn in the neighborhood award, apparently had sex with a porn star and a Playboy playmate. That seems about par for his course. But wait! He lied about it! Well, yeah, also pretty much behavior we knew about and expected. But there's more! He might have violated campaign finance law! Okay, but so do a lot of campaigns. Usually they pay a fine and we all move along."

The piece argues that House Democrats, knowing there was no chance of a Republican Senate convicting Trump, "would presumably bring up articles of impeachment to hurt the president politically." But, he says, "Counterpunching Trump would like nothing more than to tell crowd after crowd at rally after rally that the angry Democrats on the elitist coasts and their friends in the deep state are attempting a coup."

Unless more evidence emerges in the Mueller probe, it remains a liberal fantasy.

Another object of fantasy is Beto O'Rourke. The media are so in love with this guy that they provide breathless updates about his 2020 prospects: He met with Al Sharpton! He spoke to Elizabeth Warren's former campaign manager. He "appears to have frozen the Dem field," says NBC.

The New York Times the other day pronounced him the "wild card" of the presidential campaign, "rousing activists" in early-voting states and drawing the interest of former Obama aides.

Now I get that O'Rourke raised record-shattering amounts of money in his 3-point loss to Ted Cruz. But he still lost — not exactly the usual launching pad for a White House bid. But some of his media boosters were talking him up during the campaign as a strong contender even if he lost the Senate race — because, well, he's Beto.

The Times does point out the downside:

"Mr. O’Rourke would surely have vulnerabilities in a primary, including an absence of signature policy feats or a centerpiece issue to date. In his Senate race, he was often disinclined to go negative, frustrating some Democrats who believe he wasted a chance to defeat Mr. Cruz, and he struggled at times in some traditional formats like televised debates. He is, by admission and design, not the political brawler some Democrats might crave against a president they loathe. And his candidacy would not be history-making like Mr. Obama's nor many of his likely peers' in the field, in an election when many activists may want a female or nonwhite nominee."

O'Rourke could always catch fire and win the nomination, I suppose. But for now, it's wishful thinking.

Finally, it pains me to write this because I'm a huge admirer of Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors star who has a fabulous work ethic and whose three-point shooting transformed the game.

I don't expect athletes to be well informed on anything other than the mechanics of their sport. But Curry is buying into the fantasy that the American moon landings were faked.

This, a half-century since Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, apparently remains a popular conspiracy theory.

And when two hosts on a podcast said the landings never happened, Curry responded: "I don't think so either."

"You don't think so?" he was asked.

"Nuh uh," Curry replied. One of the hosts then brought up the theory that the government hired Stanley Kubrick to produce the phony show.

NASA has now invited Curry to visit its lunar lab at the Johnson Space Center and examine the lunar rocks brought back by Apollo 11.

Maybe Curry will be too busy nailing threes to go. Wishful thinking can be much more fun.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Why Trump critics are now switching from impeachment to indictment

Two decades ago, liberals argued that Bill Clinton should not be impeached for his tawdry affair with Monica Lewinsky because, well, his lies were just about sex.

Today, some liberals are arguing that Donald Trump should be impeached because of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal because, well, it's not the sex, it's the hush money.

For well over a year, Trump's critics have been banking on Robert Mueller to come up with evidence of Russian collusion, and there have been only disconnected fragments. So now —never mind! — it's about women and money.

The old argument from the left: Trump has committed crimes and should be impeached!

The new argument from the left: Trump has committed crimes and should be indicted!

I'm in no way excusing what went on with the two women from his past. But here's some perspective.

To be sure, Mueller's sentencing memos last week provided some leads on the Russia matter. Michael Cohen, for instance, admitted lying to Congress about the time period that the president's company was pursuing a real estate deal in Moscow, and the memo says Cohen discussed his testimony with people in the White House.

But in the blink of an eye, the media focus seems to be switching to the Stormy narrative — the case being pursued not by Mueller but by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.

Here's a key difference between Trump and Clinton. The 42nd president had his dalliance with Lewinsky while he was in office, in the White House itself, with a subordinate who was a lowly intern. Trump's alleged affairs with a porn star and a Playboy model took place 12 years ago when he was a celebrity businessman.

That's why most people don't care about what Trump did as a private citizen, and I get it. I got a lot of flak when I started reporting on the Stormy case — first broken by the Wall Street Journal days before the election — and always stressed that it was the financial paper trail that might come back to haunt the president.

And that's why the Southern District's probe of Cohen — who was reimbursed for making the $130,000 payment to Daniels and brokered the National Enquirer's $150,000 payment to McDougal — is troublesome for Cohen's former boss.

Yes, it's a campaign finance violation, and yes, those are usually punished by fines or even a slap of the wrist.

But the argument that prosecutors could make is that it was an attempt to subvert the election.

National Review contributor Andrew McCarthy, who worked in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office and is a sharp critic of the Mueller probe, doesn't mince words in a piece for Fox:

"The president is very likely to be indicted on a charge of violating federal campaign finance laws."

McCarthy's argument is that when Cohen pleaded guilty in August, "prosecutors induced him to make an extraordinary statement in open court: the payments to the women were made 'in coordination with and at the direction of' the candidate for federal office – Donald Trump.

"Prosecutors would not have done this if the president was not on their radar screen. Indeed, if the president was not implicated, I suspect they would not have prosecuted Cohen for campaign finance violations at all. Those charges had a negligible impact on the jail time Cohen faces, which is driven by the more serious offenses of tax and financial institution fraud, involving millions of dollars."

There is, of course, the not-insignificant matter of the Justice Department practice that a sitting president can't be indicted. That's why Democrats like Adam Schiff are now saying Trump could face jail time after he leaves office (if he's not reelected). And MSNBC's Joe Scarborough says the Supreme Court will have to decide whether the president can be indicted for a crime "which helped him get elected."

Trump — proving that no one proofreads his tweets — said: "Democrats can't find a Smocking Gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia." So now, he says, "the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution which it was not (but even if it was, it is only a CIVIL CASE, like Obama's – but it was done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer's liability if he made a mistake, not me). Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!"

All Michael Cohen's fault, according to the president.

I don't minimize the importance of the payments to Daniels and McDougal to suppress their stories before the election. If a Democrat had done that, the right would be up in arms.

But I still think it's a stretch that it leads to indictment or impeachment, especially if the much-ballyhooed Russian collusion probe comes up dry.

And the reason is that the underlying offense (if there is one) was to keep embarrassing sexual disclosures from coming out. The point was to win an election, of course — and the president's pal at the Enquirer's parent company rolled over for him — but also spare Trump pain in his marriage.

My assumption is that much of the public won't see that as sufficient grounds to overturn an election or imprison a president — just as they didn't when Bill Clinton repeatedly lied about a similar subject.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Despite her gaffes, media make Ocasio-Cortez a Beltway superstar

Donald Trump, who stayed quiet while the spotlight was on another president, roared back on Twitter yesterday in the wake of the Bush funeral.

And it’s clear he's been stewing about the Mueller investigation, which just dropped its sentencing memo on Mike Flynn and plans to do the same today with Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort.

"Without the phony Russia Witch Hunt, and with all that we have accomplished in the last almost two years (Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judge’s [sic], Military, Vets, etc.) my approval rating would be at 75% rather than the 50% just reported by Rasmussen. It’s called Presidential Harassment!"

First, Rasmussen tends to report higher numbers for Republicans; Reuters had Trump at 41 percent approval.

Second, there's no question that the probe, and the constant media coverage of all the indictments, convictions and guilty pleas, has hurt Trump. But would he be 25 points higher in this deeply divided country?

And third, whatever the problems with the Mueller prosecution, what Trump calls harassment is a duly authorized investigation ordered by his own deputy attorney general.

But such tweets also underscore what Trump supporters love about their man. They're argumentative, ticked off, in-your-face, and if they embellish or stretch reality, so be it.

Which brings me to the Democrats' latest media darling, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Trump's third year will undoubtedly be defined by his battles with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. And his fourth year will definitely be defined by his campaign against one of the seemingly dozens of Dems trying to win the White House.

But the woman who, at the age of 28, knocked off a veteran congressman to win a seat representing Queens and the Bronx seems to be getting as much attention as her far more experienced colleagues.

Hats off to the dogged young candidate who pulled off this feat. But she has really been struggling with the facts.

Ocasio-Cortez recently tweeted: "$21 TRILLION of Pentagon financial transactions 'could not be traced, documented, or explained.' $21T in Pentagon accounting errors. Medicare for All costs ~$32T. That means 66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon. And that's before our premiums."

This was, I'll simply say in the holiday spirit, spectacularly wrong. She was off by, well, $21 trillion.

The Washington Post fact-checker gave her four Pinocchios.

The congresswoman-elect mangled a study cited in a Nation piece that was actually about Pentagon funds, between 1998 and 2015, that lacked adequate documentation.

In fact, the Defense Department hasn't received $21 trillion in appropriations over all of American history.

Ocasio-Cortez did not apologize.

But The Federalist says her "mind-numbingly stupid" tweet shouldn't mask her appeal. Writer Jesse Kelly says the politico class made "the exact same arguments" against Trump.

"It is critical for folks on the right to avoid the mistakes made by the left. We must learn from how they treated (and treat) President Trump and endeavor not to make the same mistakes.

"Do not underestimate this woman, and do not think your savage mockery of her stupidity will be an effective tool to stop her. It won't. It will instead be personalized by her supporters, creating an army that will lay down and die for her (or at least vote for her), just like the army Trump has. You should be afraid of Ocasio-Cortez. Be much more afraid than you are."

I don't know that Republicans need to be very afraid, but the piece is on to something.

The Federalist's Emily Jashinsky made the same point last month after Ocasio-Cortez spoke of "all three chambers of Congress": "Denigrating unpolished, less-than-flawless politicians who speak to the working class is not a great look."

Of course it matters that Ocasio-Cortez is a democratic socialist (and a bit math-challenged). But she does seem to have a common touch — not surprisingly, since her last job was as a bartender and she worries about earning a living before her House salary kicks in.

When she showed up in Congress dressed professionally and pundit Eddie Scarry snarked "that jacket and coat don't look like a girl who struggles," he got buried under an avalanche of hostile tweets. Ocasio-Cortez asked whether he thinks "he can delete his misogyny without an apology? I don't think so. You're a journalist – readers should know your bias."

If you look at her Instagram, she's seen hugging and high-fiving people and posing for selfies. She tweets photos of herself making mac and cheese.

As the Federalist says, "She's pretty. She's young enough to understand and take advantage of this current political world. Most importantly, her naiveté about the things of government make her more appealing to the common man, not less."

The media are treating Ocasio-Cortez like a superstar. An Atlantic piece was headlined "How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Plans to Wield Her Power."

Power? She's at the bottom of the seniority ladder. But the media spotlight gives her a different kind of power.

The Hill yesterday ran this piece: "Ocasio-Cortez on Why Young People Need to Run for Congress."

She's taken on Amazon and made news the other day for saying she'd actually pay her interns.

None of this changes her gaffes, her inexperience and her tenuous grasp of how government works. But as with Trump, the more her critics overreach, the more they build her up — maybe even to 75 percent approval.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Why media will be crucial in winnowing huge Democratic field

The Democratic presidential field is suddenly shrinking.

Michael Avenatti, a candidate mainly in his own mind, has decided not to run.

The Stormy Daniels lawyer who became intoxicated by his cable news stardom cited his family, but obviously his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence downgraded his chances from far-fetched to nonexistent.

And Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, has told associates that he won't be a candidate despite encouragement from the Obama inner circle, according to Politico.

That leaves roughly 572 Democrats still eyeing the White House.

In light of yesterday's emotional funeral for George H.W. Bush — attended by Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and the chief eulogist, George W. — it seems an apt moment to reflect on what makes a good president and the art of winning the office.

If Trump, a real estate developer, is an unlikely president, so was Carter, a peanut farmer who camped out in Iowa and somehow caught the post-Watergate wave. So was Obama, a community organizer and freshman senator who had to break a racial barrier.

Bush 41 was the ultimate establishment figure — ex-senator's son, congressman, ambassador, party chairman, CIA chief, vice president, — but would not have won had he not unleashed Lee Atwater to run a very aggressive campaign.

The Democratic field can be grouped several ways, but the greatest divide is between the aging old guard and a younger generation of contenders.

Joe Biden, who had already been a senator for eight years when Bush became vice president, recently declared himself the most qualified person in the field (as well as an admitted "gaffe machine"). He has the stature of a former VP and an ability to talk to blue-collar voters, but his past presidential campaigns were disasters.

Some pundits see Bernie Sanders as the automatic front-runner given his strong showing last time. But it's just as likely that his moment has passed, that he was the beneficiary of anti-Hillary sentiment, and he remains weak with black voters.

Elizabeth Warren is in this group too, even though she hasn't been in Washington nearly as long. She seems to get under Trump's skin and could siphon some of Bernie's populist support, but her campaign skills are suspect.

Then there are the senators. Sherrod Brown could make inroads in Ohio and the Midwest. Kirsten Gillibrand has street cred for saying Bill Clinton should have resigned but alienated some elements of the party who like the Clintons, who had helped her. Kamala Harris has a built-in African-American constituency. So does Cory Booker, who tried to drum up a Spartacus moment during the Kavanaugh hearings, but seems more second-tier. So does Amy Klobuchar: likable, little-known and possibly suffering from Minnesota Nice.

Beto O'Rourke, who recently met with Obama, gets his own category. He has the kind of charisma that gets the media swooning and raised truckloads of money in his 3-point loss to Ted Cruz. Sure, it's Texas, but it's still not easy to see a losing Senate candidate pulling a Lincoln and winning the White House two years later.

There are many other names — Eric Garcetti. Julian Castro, John Hickenlooper — who may be accomplished people but still feel like long shots, and perennial presidential tease Mike Bloomberg.

The media, it's clear to me, will play a key filtering role with such an unwieldy field. Not because of their predictions; they blew it with both Trump and Obama. Not based on whether journalists like the candidates, although that can be a peripheral factor.

No, the key question is who gets the ink and airtime necessary for a viable candidacy. That can change — contenders who get hot can move from the kiddie table to the main stage — but coverage is like oxygen. (Even negative coverage, in Trump's case.) You can't survive without it.

Even Jeb Bush, who raised $100 million and made plenty of mistakes, couldn't overcome the Trump spotlight.

Ultimately Democratic voters have to decide how liberal their candidate should be and whether he or she should be as hyper-aggressive as Trump or a milder, contrasting personality.

The media, unlike what we saw yesterday at the Washington National Cathedral, were never particularly kind to George Herbert Walker Bush. But his example reminds us that when it comes to White House wannabes, character counts.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Are political scandals less damaging in the Trump era?

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.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Media elevate Bush in death, use his passing to denigrate Trump

The outpouring of affection and gratitude for George Herbert Walker Bush raises two fascinating questions about our media and political culture.

Is the praise for the 41st president driven in part by attempts to disparage the 45th?

And how is it that a decent man so widely celebrated in the wake of his death was often depicted as a weak and passive president?

History, of course, is sometimes kinder to former presidents as we gain a critical distance on their record and they step out of the punch-and-counterpunch arena. Bush's universally acknowledged qualities of graciousness, civility and restraint seemed unremarkable, even boring, during his time in the Oval Office. But in the current age of hyperpartisan politics, they foster a sense of longing and nostalgia for a quieter and more unified time. That is especially evident in the lifelong friendships he forged with Bill Clinton, who defeated him in 1992, and Barack Obama, who visited him during his final days.

It's obviously true that Donald Trump has a far more pugilistic style than Bush, often denouncing the opposition party and the mainstream media while making himself the focus of the coverage. But the polarization that defines our politics intensified long before Trump, from the Clinton impeachment to the 2000 recount involving Bush's son to the battles over the Iraq War and ObamaCare.

And yet many in the media are constantly drawing the contrast, summed up by yesterday's Washington Post headline: "'Honorable, gracious and decent': In Death, Bush Becomes a Yardstick for President Trump."

On and on it goes: Bush was a force for international unity, Trump was isolated at the G-20. Bush was a World War II hero, Trump got a Vietnam draft deferment. And much the same thing happened after John McCain's death.

In other words, many in the media are using praise of a late president they now like to disparage one they have never liked. And this is despite the fact that Trump praised Bush upon his passing and declared Wednesday a national day of mourning. The president will also attend the funeral, as Bush intended, despite the fact that 41 did not like Trump (who repeatedly attacked Jeb and George W.) and let it be known he voted for Hillary Clinton.

As for the stark contrast between Bush's coverage now and in the 1980s and 1990s, it goes deeper than the healing of old wounds or a desire not to speak ill of the dead.

Many journalists had a hard time believing that the "kinder, gentler" Bush could move up from VP to POTUS in 1988, as exemplified by Newsweek's infamous cover, "Fighting the Wimp Factor." He did not have Ronald Reagan's speechifying skills or his feel for retail politics.

More important, most pundits were appalled by Bush's flags-and-furloughs campaign against Michael Dukakis, particularly the racially charged ads involving murderer Willie Horton, to the point where some questioned whether his victory rendered his presidency illegitimate. He was also widely panned for his selection of Dan Quayle.

Bush drew well-deserved criticism for not acting more aggressively against AIDS. But he compromised with Democrats on numerous issues, including a civil rights act for people with disabilities and a major clean air law.

When Bush broke his read-my-lips pledge and agreed to raise taxes, the media consensus was that he had committed a cardinal sin and was weakened within his party. The second part was true — Pat Buchanan challenged him in 1992 — but Bush drew little credit for risking his career to address what he viewed as the threat of rising deficits.

Still, after presiding over the demise of the Berlin Wall and winning the Gulf War, Bush was at 91 percent in the polls and most journalists thought he was a lock for reelection. But the combination of Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, a lingering recession and the sense that Bush lacked much of a domestic agenda denied him a second term. "Message: I care," he told a rally that year.

What's more, the Republicans had been in power for 12 years, allowing time-for-a-change sentiment to mushroom.

The election outcome led the media to brand Bush a loser, rather than as a principled leader who had at times taken risky steps to do what he thought was right.

Brit Hume told me on "Media Buzz" that President Bush was "exceedingly friendly" to White House reporters. And Maureen Dowd, who was tough on Poppy, disclosed their decades-long correspondence in a remarkable New York Times column.

The former president would say such things as "I like you. Please don't tell anyone," or scratch out "love" in favor of "not quite there yet."

"'Put it this way,' he wrote me once. 'I reserve the right to whine, to not read, to use profanity, but if you ever get really hurt or if you ever get really down and need a shoulder to cry on or just need a friend — give me a call. I'll be there for you. I'll not let you down. Now, go on out and knock my knickers off. When you do, I might just cancel my subscription.'"

Bush was warm to Maureen even though she kept knocking his knickers off. That is a remnant of a bygone era, of course, but typical of the man we now remember so warmly.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Why Michael Cohen, with new plea, is no longer a sideshow in Mueller probe

President Trump has been on an absolute tear about the Mueller investigation, now even accusing the prosecutor of McCarthyism.

It had been hard to fathom why the president was escalating his rhetoric and accusing Robert Mueller of pressuring people to lie and ruining their lives.

But it's becoming more clear by the minute, first with Mueller's office accusing Paul Manafort of blowing up his plea deal through lies, and Michael Cohen pleading guilty yesterday to lying about a potential Trump project in Moscow.

The president yesterday unloaded on his former personal lawyer before leaving for the G-20 summit. He called Cohen "a weak person. What he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence. He's lying about a project everyone knew about."

Cohen may be hoping for leniency, but Mueller says he is now telling the truth. Cohen may not have had any choice but to plead in a Manhattan courtroom because the special counsel has evidence that he lied to Congress.

And keep in mind that this is Cohen's second guilty plea. In a case not handled by Mueller, he already admitted guilt to bank fraud involving his taxi business and admitted paying hush money to Stormy Daniels — which he claims was at Trump's direction.

I think Cohen's cooperation with prosecutors is potentially more troubling for the president than Manafort's on-again, off-again dealings with Mueller, even though Manafort is the former campaign chairman.

With one exception, Manafort doesn't seem to know much about Trump and Russia (which is, you'll recall, the original reason for the investigation). The exception is the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. But most of his legal liability has to do with dirty dealings with the likes of Ukraine. And now that we know Manafort was essentially acting as a double agent — having his lawyers brief the Trump team while supposedly cooperating with Mueller — his credibility is pretty much destroyed.

Cohen, too, is now an acknowledged liar, in both cases. But he said in the runup to his first plea that he had decided to break with his ex-boss and now tell the truth.

In yesterday's case, Mueller has emails showing that after the Trump Tower Moscow project supposedly died in January 2016, he continued his contacts with Russian officials and offered to fly to Moscow — with Trump's approval, Cohen says — to get the deal done. (Buzzfeed cited two law-enforcement sources as saying Cohen planned to offer Vladimir Putin a $50-million penthouse in the building to attract wealthy buyers.)

This may be just another rabbit hole since the trip never happened and nothing was ever built. Trump told reporters yesterday that as a businessman running for president he had every right to pursue new deals — especially since there was a "good chance" he wouldn't win — and he's right.

But this may be a piece of Mueller's puzzle. If he's trying to make the case that Trump was open to cooperating with Russia against Clinton's campaign, the prospect of a financial deal during the months when he was winning the GOP nomination could help his case. Or it could turn out to be nothing.

The president has been on a tear over the Mueller probe. He tweeted the other day:

"When will this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt, one that has shattered so many innocent lives, ever end-or will it just go on forever? After wasting more than $40,000,000 (is that possible?), it has proven only one thing-there was NO Collusion with Russia. So Ridiculous!"

One problem with this line of argument is that Cohen and Manafort, along with Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and others, can no longer claim to have been leading "innocent lives." They have all pleaded guilty to crimes.

But Trump did manage to make some other Russia news that has nothing to do with Mueller. After telling reporters that his meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 was on, the president canceled it while flying to Argentina, as a protest against Russia seizing three Ukranian ships and their crew members. That, of course, counters the media narrative that he never stands up to Putin.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Should Trump be warning of retaliation over GM layoffs?

President Trump is pointing fingers on the economy.

The country's sustained boom, of course, has been one of his major selling points, with jobless numbers not seen in decades and a stock market that soared until the recent downturn.

But some recent bursts of bad news have Trump slamming both General Motors and his hand-picked Fed chairman.

It's not hard to grasp why the president is hitting the giant automaker after its announcement that it would cut 15,000 jobs and close plants in Ohio, Michigan and Maryland (but not Mexico and China). He's obviously trying to pressure the company.

But I'm surprised there's not more of a backlash against this tweet:

"The U.S. saved General Motors, and this is the THANKS we get! We are now looking at cutting all @GM subsidies, including for electric cars."

How can the president talk about retaliating against one particular company because he doesn't like its policies? Federal subsidies usually go to whole industries, not particular corporations. GM would have a pretty good lawsuit if it was singled out for punishment.

And if Barack Obama, who engineered the 2009 federal bailout of GM, had made such a comment, the right would have exploded. There would have been an uproar about picking winners and losers.

As a career businessman, Trump should understand that CEO Mary Barra has to do what's in the best interests of her company and her shareholders. She's making these moves because many of her cars aren't selling well. (Know anyone who has a Chevy Cruze?)

In fact, like other American carmakers, GM is all but getting out of the business of making passenger sedans, which is dominated by the Japanese, in favor of SUVs, trucks and electric and hybrid cars.

As the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page put it yesterday, "President Trump believes he can command markets like King Canute thought he could the tides. But General Motors has again exposed the inability of any politician to arrest the changes in technology and consumer tastes roiling the auto industry."

This isn't the first time Trump has scolded corporations; he questioned Amazon postal subsidies (Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post) but hasn't done anything about it.

The only subsidies involving GM actually go to consumers who get a $7,500 tax credit for buying battery-powered or hybrid cars (much of this has gone to Tesla buyers). But the credit is greatly reduced after a company’s first 200,000 vehicles, and GM has already sold 190,000 such cars.

Meanwhile, Trump went after his Fed chairman, Jerome "Jay" Powell, in a Post interview.

"So far, I'm not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay," the president said. "Not even a little bit. And I'm not blaming anybody, but I'm just telling you I think that the Fed is way off-base with what they're doing."

Actually, he is blaming someone. And while it's not unusual for presidents to be frustrated with the Federal Reserve for tapping on the brakes, Trump, of course, doesn't hold back — even when it's his guy.

"I'm doing deals, and I'm not being accommodated by the Fed. They're making a mistake because I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."

Yes, we can't have Government by Gut. But Trump's gut did get him elected. It does not, however, have the power to reverse industry layoffs or force an independent agency not to hike interest rates.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.