The New York Times published an extraordinary deep dive into the financial history of President Trump this week. The paper’s reporters spent more than a year hunting down and analyzing documents for the 14,000-word investigation, which accuses the president and his family of committing large-scale tax fraud over several decades. State and municipal authorities in New York are already indicating that they may have to take a fresh look at the president’s finances. Those of us who count ourselves among the Trump critics won’t be surprised to hear fresh evidence that he has cut moral and ethical corners in his business dealings. Those who adore the president, of course, will undoubtedly discount the Times’s findings as the product of liberal bias. So it is hard to predict what sort of bearing these new revelations will have on the president’s political future. But I continue to hope that the gradual accumulation of information about Trump’s dubious business practices — past and present — will ultimately have a transformative effect on American public opinion. Specifically, I hope that it will contribute to the end of our naive glorification of tycoons.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that most of our business leaders are corrupt or dishonest. What I object to is the American habit of turning business leaders into idols who stand beyond any sort of critical judgment. Anyone who enjoys enormous power should be regarded by the rest of us citizens with healthy skepticism. Yet, all too often we give our plutocrats a pass. Americans, of course, have a long history of respect for business success — it is part of what has made us the wealthiest country in the world. The idea that any American can rise to the top through hard work and smarts is a founding element of our national myth. That helps to explain why we tend to celebrate our business leaders to such an excessive degree. Yet, today — in an era when the gap between the wealthy and the less privileged has reached extremes reminiscent of the late 19th century — the risks of this mindset are becoming increasingly obvious.
It might be the ultimate journalistic cliché to announce that Donald Trump’s presidency is not normal. Indeed, it’s just as likely that this is what normal looks like now, and that the naked power politics of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation — embraced by Republicans for many reasons, but most of all as a smackdown to feminists and liberals and everyone else perceived as preachy and condescending and threatening to the old order — is a sign of the times. To use another overused phrase of the moment, conservatives will surely reap the whirlwind for this fateful decision, to an extent they cannot now imagine. They don’t appear to care. Meanwhile, the Republican Party as we once knew it — the party of middle American businessmen, upstanding New England ladies and the Presbyterian Church — has been fully digested by the Trumpian virus. Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake make polite, mournful noises about this, but most Republicans appear to be delighted. All of that is the new normal too. Greg Miller’s painstakingly researched new book, “The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy,” is an attempt to explain how we arrived at this new normal, and beneath the surface a lament for the old one. Numerous other books have been written about the history-shaping 2016 presidential election and Trump’s mysterious relationship to the Russian oligarchy and Vladimir Putin. Miller, who is a national security correspondent for the Washington Post, does not go nearly so far as some reporters in alleging conspiracy or — yes! — collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, or in building a thesis that Putin holds compromising personal information about Trump. (He raises a valid point, both in the book and in conversation: Given what we already know about the president, how bad could the kompromat we don’t know possibly be?)
Miller builds an exhaustive and authoritative case, as suggested in his subtitle, that a Rubicon was crossed in American political history during that campaign, quite likely without anyone consciously intending to cross it. A mendacious demagogue with an incompetent, unprofessional campaign operation conquered a political party that had come untethered from its philosophical moorings, and then became both the target and the pawn of a highly capable foreign adversary who wanted to sow as much chaos as possible. We can all see the results around us in the ruined state of American political life and civic culture, and most of us would agree (Miller included) that this was the culmination of a long process for which Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin cannot be blamed. As “The Apprentice” makes clear, Trump’s presidency was born out of poisonous division, and all along that has been the core of his political brand. Virtually none of the incoherent promises he made to his followers will be fulfilled, but they are nonetheless delighted with his xenophobic vitriol and his sweeping contempt for all the formerly sacred norms and institutions of democracy. The Trumpian masses will evidently tolerate any number of betrayals and reversals, from selling out the country’s fiscal future to the richest of the rich to embracing a prep school graduate and Yalie from an ultra-privileged background as (in some symbolic way) a man of the people. But if their hero had tried to “pivot” himself into yet another vaguely benevolent White House father figure — that might have been the one thing they could not forgive. In Michael Moore’s famous phrase, they wanted to extend a giant middle finger to the American establishment, and didn’t much care about the details.
Even Miller would not claim that there are explosive new revelations about the Trump-Russia connections in “The Apprentice.” But it is researched and sourced at vastly more depth than any other book on the subject to date, and as Miller puts it, almost every page features a nugget of new reporting or reveals a previously hidden connection. If you had forgotten that the Russian spear-phishing attack on the Democratic National Committee began two or three hours after Trump invited the Russians, in July 2016, to release Hillary Clinton’s emails, that is documented here. If you didn’t know that circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Trump knew about the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 2016 in advance, and understood its intended purpose, that’s here as well. In the bigger picture, Miller means to banish any remaining doubt, on both the Trumpian right and the radical left, about whether Russian agents interfered extensively in the 2016 election with the aim of helping Trump, and about whether they succeeded. In the end, I believe that latter question remains subjective, and likely unanswerable. Given the flukish nature of the final outcome, it’s reasonable to claim that any one of dozens of marginal factors was decisive. Even Miller clearly agrees that to point the finger exclusively at Putin and his troll army is a way of avoiding the massive failures of American political culture and American society that made this possible in the first place. As for whether there was an active, conscious conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or whether Putin is blackmailing Trump with the “pee tape” or a trail of bribes and payoffs or something else — as befits a journalist of his background and temperament, Miller gestures at all those things but renders no judgment. Instead he offers an Occam’s-razor explanation that’s about as good as any other that I have heard: The “smoking gun” that explains Trump’s obvious and puzzling subservience to Putin is no secret, and has been visible the whole time.