The tribulations of Donald Trump continue to mount as news of his crumbling network of accomplices gets more dire with each passing day. Just this week his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of eight felonies and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to felonies of his own. Then two close associates – David Pecker of the National Enquirer, and Allen Weisselberg, CFO of the Trump Organization – were granted immunity by federal prosecutors in exchange for their cooperation. As usual, whenever Trump sees dark clouds gathering he attempts to blow them away by creating a windstorm of his own. It’s an obvious tactic that just makes him look desperate and even more guilty. On Saturday morning he deployed this scheme with a series of tweets intended to distract from the Mueller probe and the slow-motion apocalypse that is his presidency. The “Big story” that Trump refers to is one that has been in circulation for nearly two years now. It revolves around allegations that Hillary Clinton engaged in some vaguely defined wrongdoing connected to her handling of classified documents. This matter has been investigated by everyone from the FBI to various Republican-controlled committees in the House and Senate. And even when starkly partisan players in Congress were pushing hard to find misdeeds, they never did.
If getting “to the bottom of all of this corruption” was actually on Trump’s agenda, he would not be relying on Fox News as his source for information. After all, he has the world’s most sophisticated intelligence operations at his fingertips, but he still prefers the imbecilic sycophants on Fox and Friends to experienced law enforcement professionals. The big story that has Trump triggered now is one that alleges that the FBI failed to review thousands of Clinton’s emails during their investigation in 2016. Trump attributes the story to Fox News, but it originated with a website, The Federalist, that is a virulent right-wing fount of extremist propaganda. The article authored by Paul Sperry is an interminably long screed that offers nothing but conjecture, when it isn’t rehashing ancient history about alleged Clinton misdeeds. The key point that Trump’s tantrum focuses on is the charge that the FBI deliberately ignored thousands of Clinton’s email that were discovered on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, who was married to Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Sperry asserts that some 675,000 emails were found, but that the FBI only reviewed 3,077 of them. That’s because the FBI conducted an automated review that identified the vast majority of these emails as duplicates that they had received and reviewed from other sources. Sperry casts doubts on the FBI’s ability to have effectively screened out the duplicates, but he offers no proof for that contention, and he completely ignores the fact that computers are quite capable of comparing text.
Somehow, Trump concludes from this dubious article that the emails that were supposedly unreviewed were “REALLY BAD” and “disasters.” Where he got that from is anyone’s guess because even Sperry never made that claim. Nevertheless, on the weakness of this report, Trump is threatening, again, that he “may have to get involved” in the work of what should be the independent Justice Department. He has long claimed that he has that right and that he could even run the investigation himself if he wanted to. Imagine that: a president who personally takes control of the persecution of his political enemies. That says pretty much everything you need to know about the wannabe dictator in the White House.
There’s never been any confusion about the character defects of Donald Trump. The question has always been just how far he would go and whether other individuals and institutions would stand up to him or become complicit in his corruption. When I first took to these pages three summers ago to write about Mr. Trump, I warned my fellow Republicans to just say no both to him and his candidacy. One of my concerns was that if Mr. Trump were to succeed, he would redefine the Republican Party in his image. That’s already happened in areas like free trade, free markets and the size of government; in attitudes toward ethnic nationalism and white identity politics; in America’s commitment to its traditional allies, in how Republicans view Russia and in their willingness to call out leaders of evil governments like North Korea rather than lavish praise on them. But in no area has Mr. Trump more fundamentally changed the Republican Party than in its attitude toward ethics and political leadership. For decades, Republicans, and especially conservative Republicans, insisted that character counted in public life. They were particularly vocal about this during the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, arguing against “compartmentalization” — by which they meant overlooking moral turpitude in the Oval Office because you agree with the president’s policy agenda or because the economy is strong. All that has changed with Mr. Trump as president. For Republicans, honor and integrity are now passé.
Mr. Trump’s corruptions are ingrained, the result of a lifetime of habits. It was delusional to think he would change for the better once he became president. Some of us who have been lifelong Republicans and previously served in Republican administrations held out a faint hope that our party would at some point say “Enough!”; that there would be some line Mr. Trump would cross, some boundary he would transgress, some norm he would shatter, some civic guardrail he would uproot, some action he would take, some scheme or scandal he would be involved in that would cause large numbers of Republicans to break with the president. No such luck. Mr. Trump’s corruptions have therefore become theirs. So far there’s been no bottom, and there may never be. It’s quite possible this should have been obvious to me much sooner than it was, that I was blinded to certain realities I should have recognized. In any case, the Republican Party’s as-yet unbreakable attachment to Mr. Trump is coming at quite a cost. There is the rank hypocrisy, the squandered ability to venerate public character or criticize Democrats who lack it, and the damage to the white Evangelical movement, which has for the most part enthusiastically rallied to Mr. Trump and as a result has been largely discredited. There is also likely to be an electoral price to pay in November.
But the greatest damage is being done to our civic culture and our politics. Mr. Trump and the Republican Party are right now the chief emblem of corruption and cynicism in American political life, of an ethic of might makes right. Dehumanizing others is fashionable and truth is relative. (“Truth isn’t truth,” in the infamous words of Mr. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.) They are stripping politics of its high purpose and nobility. That’s not all politics is; self-interest is always a factor. But if politics is only about power unbounded by morality — if it’s simply about rulers governing by the law of the jungle, about a prince acting like a beast, in the words of Machiavelli — then the whole enterprise will collapse. We have to distinguish between imperfect leaders and corrupt ones, and we need the vocabulary to do so. A warning to my Republican friends: The worst is yet to come. Thanks to the work of Robert Mueller — a distinguished public servant, not the leader of a “group of Angry Democrat Thugs” — we are going to discover deeper and deeper layers to Mr. Trump’s corruption. When we do, I expect Mr. Trump will unravel further as he feels more cornered, more desperate, more enraged; his behavior will become ever more erratic, disordered and crazed. Most Republicans, having thrown their MAGA hats over the Trump wall, will stay with him until the end. Was a tax cut, deregulation and court appointments really worth all this?
Early in his administration, he was a channel surfer, dipping into Fox News for a shot of groveling lickspittle, clicking over to CNN long enough to figure out what to deny, then — like a tongue drawn compulsively to a sore tooth — switching to MSNBC to mourn the lost friendship of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. More recently, he has settled into Fox News almost exclusively, starting his days with the soul-numbing vapidity of “Fox & Friends,” and ending it in the virtual company of the propaganda mouthpieces of the People’s Republic of Trumpistan. I imagine him each night, after a few hours of ego massage by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, peering into his mirror and saying, Stuart Smalley-style: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!”
The quirk becomes a problem, though, when the president relies on his TV screens not only for comfort but also for information. In a recent interview with Fox News’s Ainsley Earhardt, Trump asserted that one can “learn a lot from the shows,” but that is simply not true. I know some dyed-in-the-wool partisans who occasionally tune into contrary programming to discern what the enemy is up to. But true learning involves an honest search for well-supported facts and authentic experience. As for “the shows,” their bread and butter is commentary and spin, loosely rooted in the work of others. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could tell us the difference. The other day, he was assigned via Trump’s Twitter to confront South Africa’s government over the practice of “seizing land from white farmers” and “large scale killing of farmers.” The inspiration for this undiplomatic outburst was a cynically distorted segment of Carlson’s show on Fox News, in which the bowtied Washington toff made an ugly cartoon of a very complex political situation. It’s dumbfounding to think that a president, with on-demand access to people who have spent their lives getting to know the history and contours and politics and players of South Africa, would rely on the host of a cable “news” program for policy guidance.