Good news, politics fans—if you loved Benghazi, or if you loved Whitewater, or, hell, if you loved the Birther movement, you are going to go nuts for Burlington College-gate. (Or Burling-gate? Or Burlinghazi?)
If you’re unfamiliar with this newest GOP inquisition, you can read a story by Harry Jaffe on Politico that promotes the “scandal” as a byzantine, mysterious, and potentially sordid affair with no easy answers. However, I recommend that you do not read that story, because it’s godawful in its desperate attempt to paint this as something more than drummed-up political hackery. Jaffe manufactures fog for fog’s sake, all to give the story a veneer of something more substantial than the baseless partisan witch hunt of the kind that Republicans adore. I advise you to skip it entirely.
In fact, the outline of the real story is pretty damn simple. Here’s what’s happening:
1. In 2004, Jane Sanders, Bernie’s wife, became the president of Burlington College in Vermont. She orchestrated the purchase of lakefront property at a discount from a Roman Catholic diocese who were financially burdened by lawsuits. It was a bad move—she had to take out a bunch of loans from various quarters, and the anticipated financial benefits never materialized. The deal was finalized in 2010, and Sanders was forced out in 2011, partly because of financial matters, and partly because of personal conflicts. Burlington College closed in 2016. It seems fair to say that Jane Sanders was not the ideal leader for this institution.
2. Brady Toensing, a Republican apparatchik in Vermont who chaired Trump’s campaign in the state and has never liked Bernie Sanders, managed to get federal investigators involved, and soon introduced allegations (with absolutely no supporting evidence) that Bernie Sanders used his position as Senator to exert pressure on certain banks to approve the loans for the land deal. Toensing is famous for launching attacks on Democrats in the state, including the former Governor—he even tried to nail Bernie Sanders on a bogus campaign finance charge in 2016, and his mom was one of the Benghazi power players—but this is frivolous even by his standards, which we’ll see in a moment.
3. This, in turn, forced the Sanders’ to hire lawyers. Jaffe, or some editor, decided to title his article “Jane Sanders Lawyers Up,” as though hiring a lawyer is an implication of guilt.
4. If Trump really wanted to stick it to Sanders, he could appoint someone like Toensing as U.S. Attorney for Vermont, and Toensing could go full Benghazi with this thing.
That’s it. Even Jaffe, as he tries desperately to conjure actual accusations against Sen. Sanders from thin air, can’t fake it very well. Here’s how he introduces the idea that there was some undue influence exercised by then-Senator Sanders on his wife’s behalf:
A second letter to federal prosecutors in early 2016 alleged that Senator Sanders’ office had pressured the bank to approve the loan application submitted by Jane Sanders. “Improper pressure by a United States Senator is a serious ethical violation,” the letter asserted….The FBI, it seems, is looking into exactly what Jane Sanders did or didn’t do—and whether her husband Bernie, hero of the progressive left, tried to ease along one of the loans.
This comes after a theatrical introduction in which Jaffe tries to make hay by narrating how a local TV reporter recently held Bernie’s feet to the fire on the topic, and the Senator wouldn’t comment beyond calling it “nonsense,” due to the fact that it’s an ongoing investigation and this is a standard response.
Here’s Jaffe, doing his best to take the accusations at face value, hitting his full melodramatic stride:
End of conversation. But not the end of the investigation or the potential for damage to the senator from a small New England state who has rocketed to the top of the world of progressive politics nationwide.
Amazingly, he then waits THE ENTIRE STORY to tell us what the accusations really are. We have to wade through thousands of words of “context” before he finally gets to the basis of Toensing’s witch hunt, which really should have been in the third paragraph:
The evidence for that charge seems to be thin, at best. According to sources familiar with the matter, the alleged “pressure” may have simply been a casual suggestion—perhaps chatter by a Sanders staffer over lunch, instead of a written document or email—and though such a suggestion might still be improper, it would be difficult to prove a direct connection to the senator.
Seriously? That’s it? You waited that long to tell us that there’s literally nothing here? Here’s a crazy thought: Maybe you should have clued us in a little earlier, since this is what you’re story is actually about. And maybe, perish the thought, this wasn’t worth an entire feature.
And the hilarious part is, Bernie’s whole involvement in this non-saga comes from a letter Toensing wrote to federal investigators, in which he said the following:
“As a result of my [initial] complaint,” Toensing wrote, “I was recently approached and informed that Senator Bernard Sanders’s office improperly pressured People’s United Bank to approve the loan application submitted by the Senator’s wife, Ms. Sanders.”
Translation: They have fuck-all. There is nothing here, and the entire purpose of this witch hunt is to smear a man who threatens Trump’s chances at re-election in 2020. It’s not going to stick, but you can bet the same Republicans who managed to work themselves into a lather over the birther movement or Benghazi will do the same here—get ready for conspiracy theories, manufactured evidence, and, who knows, maybe even a congressional hearing! This is the Republican playbook as it’s been executed for decades now, and nobody should expect anything different for a political opponent as threatening as Sanders. But Harry Jaffe just showed us what will undoubtedly be the most frustrating aspect of everything to come—journalists who should know better giving the story a credence it doesn’t deserve, feeding into a flimsy narrative, and carrying the Republicans’ water for them because they’re too credulous to understand how they’re being used.