In the short lifespan of a campaign’s costumed critter, there is no greater honor than having its farcical, furry, and fake life validated by the opposing candidate. Like when Hillary Clinton signed a copy of her book Hard Choices and gave it to a giant orange squirrel wearing a blue t-shirt branded “Another Clinton in the White House is Nuts.” Or when President George H.W. Bush ejected a “Chicken George” heckler, who was mocking him for not debating Bill Clinton, from an event on a Midwest whistle-stop tour.
So far, the Republican Party’s “Lyin’ Lion Comey” hasn’t been so lucky. In his first couple of weeks, the Lion has seen his prey—former FBI director James Comey—sell over 600,000 copies of A Higher Loyalty. Meanwhile, he (is the Lion a he?) has lurked in the rain outside one Washington book party, and wandered the campus of Comey’s alma mater, William & Mary, as a CNN town hall proceeded undisturbed inside.
But the Republican National Committee has claimed victory. The launch of lyincomey.com and “Lyin’ Lion” has delivered over $5 million worth of earned media on television, and reached millions of people online, according to spokesman Michael Ahrens. The stunt was covered on the front pages of the Fox News and CNN websites.
The Lyin’ Lion is descended from a long line of campaign creatures. Unions blow up inflatable rats as part of protests of employers across the country. The Nevada Democrats have reportedly used the same chicken costume in at least five campaigns. In 2004, the Republican Party sent three dolphins—“Flipper,” “Flopper,” and “Flapper”—to follow around John Kerry, sending people to a website noting the Democratic candidate’s varying positions on the Iraq War.
The party’s ploys are cost-effective, according to Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary and RNC spokesman. The “squirrel” that tracked down Clinton in 2014 was the same costume used in a campaign against ACORN, the voter-registration group, years earlier. He said the party found it in its headquarters’ basement.
“We’ve generated well into millions of dollars of earned media over the years for a very high return on investment for a very small cost,” said Spicer in an interview. “The idea that a presidential candidate has to interact with a furry squirrel shows that at least you’re getting their attention.”
And while the Lyin’ Lion has yet to meet the former FBI director, Spicer argues that the campaign has still been “extremely successful” at changing the conversation from Comey’s allegations to his record.
Aristotle once wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” It apparently is also in our nature to use animals in our politics. In 1874, Thomas Nast drew a now-famous cartoon with a donkey wearing a lion’s skin to scare a bunch of other animals, including an elephant labeled “The Republican Vote.” In that example and in countless others, lions are seen as fearsome animals, but the Republicans are now using it to brand Comey as a liar. While the alliteration is solid, a Lyin’ Lion is a puzzling moniker.
“Lions are not known at all for any sort of mendacity,” Dr. Craig Packer, director of the Lion Center at the University of Minnesota, told National Journal. “They are straightforward and honest to a fault.”
When asked to respond to the lion expert, Ahrens wrote, “With all due respect, not all lions are the same, lest we not forget Scar and his burning desire to be King of Pride Rock.”
Comey’s reputation has definitely taken a hit, even if it’s not clear whether the lion is the culprit. Since May 2017, Comey’s unfavorable rating has risen 8 points, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
Instead of calling him a flip-flopper, dodger, or wimp, the RNC is trying to undermine Comey’s integrity, alleging that he lied about his motives in the Clinton and Trump investigations and about whether he had improperly leaked or authorized the leak of sensitive information. Comey has pushed back strongly against those charges.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Comey responded to the president repeatedly calling him a liar.
“What am I going to do?” Comey asked. “People have to make their own judgments about other people.”
“Whenever we would evaluate a witness you’d always say, ‘So what’s their body of work? So what are they like? What’s their pattern and practice? Is their story internally consistent? Did they document it?’ All of those questions,” he added. “But I’m not going to make that argument for myself.”
Some elected officials say that these sorts of stunts don’t make a difference. In the 2016 campaign cycle, the National Republican Senatorial Committee set up a Twitter page, YouTube video, and website alleging that Jason Kander, a Democrat running against Sen. Roy Blunt in Missouri, pandered for money, featuring a person dressed in a panda suit and a bag of money. In a recent interview, Blunt said he didn’t think the “Pandering Panda” attack worked. “I never quite got it, and I don’t think anybody else did either,” he said.
In her book Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House, Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile said she thought the idea of dressing people up as Donald Duck to draw attention to the fact that Trump didn’t release his tax returns was idiotic. She wrote that the Disney Corporation objected to the use of the cartoon and could sue over the campaign’s use of it. She reportedly told Marc Elias, the senior lawyer for the Clinton campaign, to “get rid of the f—ing duck!”
The Lyin’ Lion campaign has taken flak from critics who note that President Trump repeatedly engages in falsehoods. The Washington Post recently reported that Trump has made 3,001 “false or misleading claims” since taking the oath of office.
Even some Republicans think that these sorts of attacks on the former FBI director are unseemly. In a recent interview, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said the RNC’s attacks were “small-minded,” “childish,” and improper. “People spend a lot of money giving to these organizations, and that’s what they do?” he asked.
But other Republicans and political observers say Comey has entered the political arena by selling a book that discusses his firing while special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is ongoing.
“The reason they’re going after Comey is he has some bite,” said John Geer, a professor of political science and the vice provost of academic and strategic affairs at Vanderbilt University.
What We're Following See More »
"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."
"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."
"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.
"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."