Every week seems to bring another Trump scandal. There are so many now we’re going to have to start numbering them. Up until now the sheer volume of alleged misdeeds and malfeasance has actually worked in the president’s favor. There is so much out there that it’s hard to keep the whole picture straight in your mind and that has the weird effect of making things seem less serious than they actually are. We know that the Trump base and the vast majority of Republican voters still support the president and think it’s all nothing but a witch hunt. They are mesmerized by the president and propagandized by Fox News and other right-wing media. But I would imagine that even people who don’t like Trump but don’t follow all this closely or in much detail wonder whether maybe the whole thing is just a collection of complaints that don’t really add up to anything. That’s why it’s meaningful when the likes of Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Axios, journalists whom the political establishment sees as avatars of acceptable mainstream thinking, decide that it’s time to take stock of how many scandals are now being investigated and how wide the scope of the alleged criminality and corruption has become. It’s rather sobering. On Thursday they wrote out a partial list, entitling it, “The biggest political scandal in American history.” VandeHei and Allen report that historians tell them there are only two previous scandals that even come close to what we are dealing with now: One is Watergate, and even Americans who weren’t alive at the time have heard plenty about that one. The other would be Teapot Dome, a bribery scandal under the manifestly corrupt Warren G. Harding administration in the 1920s.
Trump’s scandals include the Russia investigation, of course, which the Axios authors call one of the greatest counter-espionage cases of all time; the Stormy Daniels campaign finance scandal; the lies about the Trump Tower Moscow project (which is likely also part of the Russia counterintelligence investigation); the more than 100 contacts between Russian agents or emissaries and members of the Trump campaign; Michael Flynn’s inexplicable lies to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador; the firing of James Comey and other acts of obstruction of justice; and the granting of security clearances to Trump’s daughter and son-in-law over the objections of the intelligence agencies. Their list does not include all the administration officials under suspicion of corruption while in office or the scandals swirling around the president’s family business, which he refused to give up upon taking office and is still closely involved with, even promoting his resort properties and private clubs with personal appearances nearly every weekend. Top executives and foreign representatives seeking favor from the administration ostentatiously spend money at Trump hotels to gain the attention of the president and his family. In the wake of a recent unfavorable court ruling over his golf course in Scotland, Trump even posted a promotional tweet openly promising foreign policy considerations.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York is investigating Trump’s inaugural committee and various financial issues regarding the Trump Organization. New York’s attorney general and insurance regulators are looking into various charges of fraud. And the House of Representatives has launched at least half a dozen different probes into various of the matters mentioned above. Even the purveyors of Beltway conventional wisdom are starting to see that regardless of what Robert Mueller’s eventual report may conclude, what we already know makes this the most scandal-plagued presidency in history. And the big question that hangs over all of it is the proverbial one uttered years ago by Sen. Howard Baker, who was the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” It’s tempting to believe that Donald Trump is just too dim to have known what he was doing. That theory goes like this: He had no experience in government and just didn’t realize that his ruthless tactics, which were customary in the business world, would be seen as corrupt and possibly criminal. He was busy running for president and then being president. That is almost certainly wrong. First of all, Trump’s business history is full of examples of corrupt practices, from his days as a casino magnate to redlining of rental housing, fraudulent development projects and partnering with the mob. Not long ago, we saw a massive exposé of the fraudulent scheme Trump’s father set up, from which his family massively profited for decades. It’s not as if he’s ever operated with integrity. Let’s take one example from the recent revelations by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer. Cohen produced checks signed by Trump, after he became president, that Cohen says were to pay him back for the hush money Cohen had paid to Stormy Daniels.
Bloomberg recently reported that Trump was heavily involved in the inauguration festivities. His inaugural committee chair, Tom Barrack, said Trump wanted to know everything about the finances. There remain big questions about what happened to the massive sums of money collected for that lame inaugural celebration. We know that in at least one case foreign donors to the inaugural committee were told to send their money directly to other people donors in order to hide the origins of the money. Is it remotely conceivable that Trump wouldn’t have known about such arrangements, or that he had no idea where any of that money was going? Big questions remain about whether the then-candidate knew in advance about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian emissaries who had promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. After all, he had a big deal brewing in Moscow at the time. Are we really expected to believe that Donald Trump Jr., who was heavily involved with that deal, didn’t mention the meeting to dear old Dad? Not bloody likely. Hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake. Donald Trump is a narcissistic control freak, particularly when it comes to his cashflow. When it comes down to it, most of these scandals are about money — including his Russia entanglements, now that we know about the Moscow project. So to answer Howard Baker’s question: It’s pretty clear that the president knew everything, and knew it all from the very beginning.
It’s not often that while watching a congressional hearing on television a French expression pops into my mind. But the appearance of President Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, before a House committee last week sent me, as a veteran of Watergate, to the dictionary to look up “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Mr. Cohen’s testimony took me back to the summer of 1973, when I was moving to Washington to become NBC’s White House correspondent.Specifically, to the testimony of a former White House counsel, John Dean, and his description of President Richard Nixon’s knowledge of the Watergate affair. Mr. Dean, like Mr. Cohen, had once been a confidant of a vindictive president who turned on him.
The memory brought to mind the many parallels between the two presidents. There are their top aides lost to scandal. For Mr. Nixon: H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Egil Krogh, Dwight Chapin, Jeb Stuart Magruder, Charles Colson and other lesser members of the team who were caught up in the Watergate scandal. For Mr. Trump: Michael Flynn, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, who were forced out in scandal — not to mention a long list, sure to grow yet longer, of people who have resigned in shame or out of disgust. There are the odd bedfellow celebrity allies. Mr. Nixon was famously befriended by Elvis Presley, who wanted to help in the war on drugs. Mr. Trump welcomed the rapper Kanye West to the White House, where they talked about prison reform, running shoes and the power of Make America Great Again caps.
Tax issues plague Mr. Trump as they did Mr. Nixon. After Mr. Nixon reported he paid less than $1,600 in total federal taxes in 1970 and 1971, when his annual salary was about $200,000, he had a tortured explanation and famously said, “I am not a crook!” Eventually he wrote big checks for what he should have paid. Mr. Trump’s income tax returns remain a mystery. We have no accurate idea of the financial conflicts between his job as president and his continuing connection to his company’s global network of real estate holdings, hotels and resorts. The Times has also reported that he engaged in “dubious” tax practices that may have included fraud. And during his testimony on Capitol Hill last week, Mr. Cohen said Mr. Trump on a number of occasions underreported his earnings to avoid paying taxes.
And like Mr. Trump, Mr. Nixon hated the press. We’ve seen on a weekly basis how Mr. Trump labels critical reporting “fake news” and belittles reporters and news organizations as “enemies of the people.” When Mr. Nixon lost the White House to John Kennedy in 1960 and then lost the California governor’s race two years later, he called a news conference and angrily announced, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore!” As president, he ordered investigations of prominent journalists and placed others on an enemies list.
Sometimes the small lies mask big lies, and we often spend so much time chasing the small ones that we let the big ones slide past, uncorrected and even undetected. Little by little, President Trump’s most ardent defenders have smuggled a big lie into the ongoing political debate, and it isn’t attracting any scrutiny. That big lie is this: Democrats in Congress who have launched a new round of hearings and other oversight efforts on Trump are abusing their power, because they lack evidence or reasonable suspicion of crimes before conducting investigations. This completely misstates the core purpose of congressional oversight. In this sense, the lie doesn’t represent a routine disagreement over a particular separation-of-powers clash, or an ordinary argument about whether a given presidential act merits the criticism it’s receiving. Instead, we’re seeing a concerted effort to deceive Americans about the very legitimacy of the exercise of a core function of government — Congress’ role in acting as a check on the executive branch.
That oversight role actually has little to do with pursuing criminality. The purpose of this deception effort, of course, is to delegitimize any and all efforts to hold Trump accountable for the extensive misconduct, corruption and abuses of power he has committed on top of anything criminal he might have done. The lie is suddenly everywhere. Trump tweeted out a quote from a Republican congressman who said: “No one is accusing the President of a crime and yet they (the Democrats) are issuing hundreds of subpoenas. This is unprecedented.” Fox News regularly blares forth this same idea. In a recent segment that Trump also highlighted, Fox personalities ripped into Democrats for investigating Trump without any “facts or evidence of a crime warranting impeachment” and for following the special counsel in a “search for a crime.” Trump also recently drew attention to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) making this claim: “All of these investigations are in search of a crime. Democrats have no evidence to impeach President Trump. Ridiculous!” Another Trump media ally recently said that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is scrutinizing multiple matters as Intelligence Committee chair, is “inventing crimes.” All emphasis mine.
Trump’s allies are laying the groundwork for a spin war over whatever findings by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III are reported to Congress. Anything short of criminal charges for conspiracy with Russia will be touted as vindication. But this is nonsense. Even if Trump is not charged, he may still have committed crimes — such as directing criminal hush money payments — while escaping charges, at least until he leaves office, due to policy against indicting sitting presidents. Even if Mueller’s publicly released findings don’t confirm this, crimes may have been established — one reason the public must see those findings in full. But beyond whether crimes occurred, a great deal of wrongdoing, misconduct, outright corruption and naked abuses of power by Trump has already been established. This will remain true, and worthy of continued scrutiny, irrespective of whether any criminal charges are ever brought against him. The whole point of this new line of propaganda is to convert any failure to bring additional criminal charges into a blanket of rhetorical fog that obscures that basic reality and places all that misconduct beyond the reach of accountability entirely. All this rests on a big lie that is eluding our attention. But it shouldn’t.
Goofy & Incompetent Judge
“He has lived an otherwise blameless life,” said Judge T. S. Ellis as he sentenced Paul Manafort to just 47 months in prison on Thursday. In an otherwise blameless life, Paul Manafort lobbied on behalf of the tobacco industry and wangled millions in tax breaks for corporations. In an otherwise blameless life, he helped Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos bolster his image in Washington after he assassinated his primary political opponent. In an otherwise blameless life, he worked to keep arms flowing to the Angolan generalissimo Jonas Savimbi, a monstrous leader bankrolled by the apartheid government in South Africa. While Manafort helped portray his client as an anti-communist “freedom fighter,” Savimbi’s army planted millions of land mines in peasant fields, resulting in 15,000 amputees. In an otherwise blameless life, Manafort was kicked out of the lobbying firm he co-founded, accused of inflating his expenses and cutting his partners out of deals.
In an otherwise blameless life, he spent a decade as the chief political adviser to a clique of former gangsters in Ukraine. This clique hoped to capture control of the state so that it could enrich itself with government contracts and privatization agreements. This was a group closely allied with the Kremlin, and Manafort masterminded its rise to power—thereby enabling Ukraine’s slide into Vladimir Putin’s orbit. In an otherwise blameless life, Manafort came to adopt the lifestyle and corrupt practices of his Ukrainian clients as his own. In an otherwise blameless life, he produced a public-relations campaign to convince Washington that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was acting within his democratic rights and duties when he imprisoned his most compelling rival for power. In an otherwise blameless life, he stood mute as Yanukovych’s police killed 130 protesters in the Maidan.
In an otherwise blameless life, he found himself nearly $20 million in debt to a Russian oligarch. Instead of honestly accounting for the money, he simply stopped responding to the oligarch’s messages. In an otherwise blameless life, he tried to use his perch atop the Trump campaign to help salvage his sorry financial situation. He installed one of his protégés as the head of the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America. His friend allegedly funneled $125,000 from the super PAC to pay off one of Manafort’s nagging debts. In an otherwise blameless life, Manafort was found guilty of tax evasion on an industrial scale. Rather than paying his fair share to help fund national defense and public health, he kept his cash in Cyprus and wired it home to buy more than $1 million in bespoke clothing.
In an otherwise blameless life, he disguised his income as loans so that he could bamboozle banks into lending him money. In an otherwise blameless life, he attempted to phone a potential witness in his trial so that they could align their stories. In an otherwise blameless life, he systematically lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, after he promised them his full cooperation. In an otherwise blameless life, he acted with impunity, as if the laws never applied to him. When presented with a chance to show remorse to the court, he couldn’t find that sentiment within his being. And with Ellis’s featherweight punishment, which deviated sharply downward from the sentencing guidelines, Manafort managed to bring his life’s project to a strange completion. He had devoted his career to normalizing corruption in Washington. By the time he was caught, his extraordinary avarice had become so commonplace that not even a federal judge could blame him for it.