Uh, didn’t we just spend two excruciating years trying to determine whether Donald Trump, wittingly or otherwise, conspired with a foreign government to help vault him into the White House?
And didn’t Donald Trump over the course of those two years swear up and down nearly every waking minute that he never did any such thing, that the mere allegation was a dirty lie by sore losers trying to delegitimize his presidency? And even now does he not continue to howl that there was “No collusion! no collusion! no collusion!”?
That happened, right? I didn’t dream it, did I?
It’s no wonder Emmet Flood wouldn’t let this guy sit down with Bob Mueller.
This of course is the classic evolution of a Trumpian self-defense:
1) I didn’t do it, and how dare you even ask!
2) Well, maybe I did do it, but I never said I didn’t, and anyway it’s not a crime,
3) Hell yes, I ordered the Code Red!
The Stephanopolous interview was a near reprise of Trump’s on-camera admission to NBC’s Lester Holt in May 2017—a boast, really—that he fired Jim Comey specifically to halt the Russia investigation. At the time I thought that alone made for an open-and-shut case on obstruction of justice. I still think that.
(Particularly, buttressed as it was, by his blunt comments to Lavrov and Kislyak that same week as to why he fired the FBI director: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”)
Trump truly should stick to talking only to Fox & Friends, because any time he talks to a proper journalist he immediately confesses to the Black Dahlia murder, snatching Jon Benet Ramsey, and sinking the Andrea Doria.
As you might expect, his comment to Stephanopolous created a fairly big kerfuffle, largely among Democrats, progressives, law enforcement and intelligence officials, constitutional law scholars, historians, journalists, pundits, and the like. Not, notably, from Republicans.
I hesitate even to call it a gaffe, because he’s proud of it, but regardless of the uproar or lack thereof that Trump’s latest gaffe prompted, there is no reason to believe that it will deal him lethal political (or criminal) damage, or even mark a tipping point, death-of-a-thousand-cuts-style, that leads to his downfall. Which brings us to the crux of the issue, one that we have been continually returning to over and over in these pages:
A disturbingly large number of Americans—enough to put a chokehold on our representative democracy—simply do not care.
I BEG YOUR PARDON (I NEVER PROMISED YOU)
Even before the Stephanopoulos interview, there was a similar should-have-been bombshell story that caused barely a ripple.
In a May 22 press conference in the White House rose garden, Trump clumsily let slip that Don Jr had told him about the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives before it happened—a fact that is central to the conspiracy charge, and something both Dons Sr and Jr had, until then, denied to high heaven.
It’s a measure of our collective national PTSD that this revelation went almost noticed, or at least unremarked upon. Just a few months ago that would have been considered a giant development in the Russiagate story. Now we just yawn.
And even taking into account the conclusion of the special counsel investigation, there is no concrete reason for that change in reaction, no real change in the circumstances or the facts that makes it less significant than it would have been last winter. The apathy with which it was greeted was purely a matter of fatigue.
Of course, if we want to look at the entire Trump presidency (and campaign before that), we can find an almost infinite supply of moments and events that ought to have had the American people out in the streets with torches and pitchforks demanding the immediate ejection of this cretin from the White House. But for the sake of challenge, let’s just limit ourselves to the past couple weeks.
In that period, we’ve seen Trump go over Congress’s head to sell $8.1 billion worth of sophisticated military weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its allies like the UAE and Jordan. That’s the same Saudi Arabia that consistently pumps money into Trump’s own pockets via his hotels, and that recently murdered and dismembered a US-based journalist (notwithstanding Trump’s refusal to admit it, let alone do anything about it).
We’ve seen him float the possibility of Memorial Day pardons for both convicted and accused war criminals, a stomach-churning piece of pandering and contempt for the rule of law aimed straight at his aptly named base, and one that—apparently—he was dissuaded from carrying out only by ferocious opposition within the top ranks of the US military.
We’ve seen him traffic in Gulf of Tonkin-style sabre-rattling over Iran, a naked attempt to distract from the domestic troubles that threaten to end his presidency (and put him in jail), even at the risk of setting off a horrific and wholly unnecessary new war in the Persian Gulf.
We’ve seen him refuse to fire Kellyanne Conway even after a separate special counsel recommended that she be removed for violating the Hatch Act by engaging in partisan political attacks from her official governmental position.
We’ve seen him direct the prosecution of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, a chilling attack on free speech and a free press, and one drenched in irony. The idea of the Trump administration prosecuting anyone for canoodling with a hostile foreign power is mindboggling, but especially Assange, whose work as a Russian cutout helped Trump get elected. That Assange is a loathsome piece of pond scum is not the issue—or perhaps it’s more correct to say that that is exactly the issue. The administration is engaged in a concerted effort to muzzle dissent and freedom of expression in the most underhanded possible way, by focusing on a man whom very few can muster the enthusiasm to defend. (Paging Martin Niemöller.)
We’ve seen him kick off his 2020 re-election campaign with a greatest hits rally in Florida that spent more air time on Hillary Clinton than on anything else, suggesting that he intends to stick to the same racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, hate-mongering playbook that worked—with some foreign help—four years ago. Drink in this classic case of psychological projection-cum-fascist demagoguery (translated from the German):
Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country, as we know it…..They would shut down your free speech and use the power of the law to punish their opponents. They would strip Americans of their constitutional rights while flooding the country with illegal immigrants….Instead of bringing us together as one America, Democrats want to splinter us into factions and tribes, they want us divided….
And lastly and perhaps most egregiously, we’ve seen him give that odious toady Bill Barr free rein to muck about in the US intelligence community, to include the authority to override the intel agency chiefs and declassify cherrypicked material, all to further stymie proper investigation into Trump’s own wrongdoing and perpetuate their Orwellian false narrative about his relationship with the Kremlin. While that is already reprehensible on its own demerits, in the process Trump and Barr are potentially putting the lives of American agents in jeopardy and compromising the mysterious and oft-cited “sources and methods,” an effort that has the potential to make the outing of Valerie Plame look like small beer. This from the alleged party of strong defense, national security, and flag-waving patriotism.
The Barr matter, of course, is related to an ongoing pattern of obstruction, including refusal to comply with subpoenas, instructions to subordinates not to cooperate with Congressional investigations, and a general disinformation campaign, the details of which we won’t even get into here. But as I recently wrote in a piece called Garbo Speaks: Will Congress Listen?, this brazen distortion of the legitimate purpose of the Justice Department is among the most alarming developments in Trump’s already plenty alarming pattern of proto-authoritarianism since taking office. Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman turned Trump critic, has said that this is the realization of the dream that Trump and Bannon (remember him?) announced when they first arrived in Washington: the destruction of the administrative state. And as Steele as says, it is happening without consequences.
And that’s just May and June.
Yet quiet flows the Potomac.
COME MISTER TALLYMAN
Trump just put up a banner outside the White House telling autocrats around the world that he’s open for business. You want a few F-22’s over there in Poland or the Czech Republic? Bring me some crap on Biden, or Bernie, or Warren! You want to get that oil flowing out of the ground up there above the Arctic Circle, Putin my pal? Get those damn hackers clacking those keyboards! Hey, MBS! You want some more smart bombs to drop on goat herders over there in Yemen? How about putting some more bucks in my buildings!
It’s hard to overstate how outrageous Trump’s remarks were, except to note that they demonstrate how utterly this man fails to understand the most basic principles of our representative democracy, statesmanship, the rule of law, let alone his job as head of state. That is hardly news, but it’s still shocking and appalling to see it so baldly on display.
Yet the real shock and disgrace, per above, is that so few Republicans care. They either share Trump’s wanton ignorance, or if they do understand the implications of what he’s saying, are so unprincipled, hypocritical, and stone cold unpatriotic that they are willing to exploit his behavior for their own partisan gain.
We’ve already established that, for diehard members of MAGA Nation, Trump could wipe his ass with the American flag on live TV and they would still cheer and chant “lock her up!” It’s deeply disturbing that some 30-40% of our countrymen are fine with this shameless con man and all his behavior so long as it promotes their own retrograde belief system and agenda. But what would it take for a critical mass of the sane portion of the American people to rise up and say “Enough!” What would to take to ratchet up their anger at Trump from, say, writing-an-angry-blog level to taking-to-the-barricades level?
Of at least equal importance, what would it take for the Republican establishment to turn on him?
We know that caging babies, conspiring with the Kremlin, defending neo-Nazis, and protecting murderers like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman won’t do it, to name just a few lowlights. Trump himself infamously mused aloud that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any support. (He might gain some, especially if the person he shot were black. The NRA would certainly cheer.) The bootlicking behavior of the GOP leadership has certainly lent credence to that boast.
Back in January, in a piece called The Rise of the Espiocracy, I mused about what the GOP would do if the Mueller report—then very far off—delivered a damning indictment of Trump’s wrongdoing:
I am not saying that the Republican Party will suddenly discover its missing spine and do the right thing. I doubt it will. But I do think that it will be impossible for the GOP to plausibly dismiss Russiagate as a witchhunt, mere partisanship, or trivial “process” crimes.
How dewy-eyed and innocent I was.
What I did not anticipate—what few did, to my knowledge—was that a new Attorney General would be in place who would spearhead a shameless distortion of that report; that Mueller’s conclusions would be so narrowly drawn in a legalistic sense, and so meticulously respectful of constitutional law in the most careful and cautious way; and that the White House and DOJ coverup would be so aggressive, that the administration would be able to declare victory when it should have been fending off calls for Trump’s immediate resignation. Nor did I anticipate that those circumstances would allow the already supine GOP to abet that strategy in a way even more despicable than usual.
But what if Trump did something truly batshit crazy, so crazy that even Mitch McConnell, the king of pokerfaced hypocrisy, could not excuse or defend it? Perhaps not something policy-based, but indicative of his all-but-undeniable creeping dementia. What if he stood up during a nationally televised speech and began singing and dancing “The Banana Boat Song”?
Would McConnell, Thune, McCarthy, and Scalise then go on TV and say, “Sadly, it appears that the President is ill. Someone call Mike Pence.”
I doubt it. I think they’d shake their hips and sing “day-o.”
For the Republican establishment, I believe the only thing that could possibly cause them to mutiny against the captain of the SS Pussygrabber would be if Trump ceased working for the further enrichment of the wealthiest Americans. That, after all, is the very thing—really the only thing—that causes them to support him in the first place. (One could argue that it is a subset of the GOP’s sheer lust for power, but I would argue that the equation goes the other way around: they want power primarily to enrich themselves and their cronies and patrons. All else is ancillary.)
If that were to come under threat, if Trump were to suddenly reverse course on massive tax cuts for the 1% (not that he has any reason to do so), or were to take his already reckless economic policies even further—say, with a truly destructive trade war that threatened the immediate financial well-being of the plutocracy—then and only then do I believe that the Republican poobahs would at last balk. (Indeed, the only time the GOP has shown ANY real willingness to stand up to Trump in even the smallest way was over tariffs.)
Luckily for Trump, his own financial interests are fully aligned with theirs.
SHEEP GET SHEARED
In another essay almost a year ago I wrote about what I called The Death of Hypocrisy. By that I meant that Trump and his supporters seem to operate outside and beyond the realm of rational recognition of behavior that is jawdroppingly hypocritical by any reasonable standard. (See: Golf.)
But the end of outrage is worse. It suggests that the emotion that ought to be caused by that hypocrisy and the other flagrant offenses committed by this “president”—righteous, justified outrage—is equally dead. It has passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. Its metabolic processes are now history. It’s a stiff, bereft of life, rests in peace, pushing up the daisies, off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.
In its place is a shameful complacency.
The Stephanopolous interview may yet prove a pivotal moment in his downfall, but I doubt it. It’s already fading from our consciousness as the next outrage/non-outrage takes its place. I suppose SOMETHING could yet be emerge that would shock us and move the proverbial needle, but probably not. At this point we are inured to scandals that would be presidency-ending in any previous administration, and to ostrich-like right wing tolerance of the same.
So where does that leave us?
It leaves us with the same task as before: holding this criminal administration to account, and maintaining the drumbeat that reminds the American people of Donald Trump’s manifest unfitness for office and pattern of behavior that demands his removal. It means not ceding control of the narrative, and pushing forward on the parallel fronts of Congressional investigation on the road to impeachment, and an aggressive electoral effort to unseat Trump in 2020. (And to keep the House and try to take the Senate as well.)
The age of waiting for a bombshell from Mueller or elsewhere is over. We know all we need to know. All that’s left now is the grim death march toward Trump’s constitutional removal one way or another.
In 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach, playing a Mexican bandit (gulp, in brownface), says of the hapless townspeople he and his comrades are about to rob: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” (In Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake, the line is uttered by Peter Sarsgaard, playing a white dude.)
So it is with the American people. If we don’t rise up and express our unwillingness to be ruled by a monstrous ignoramus who gleefully announces that he intends to rob us blind and trample everything we claim to hold dear, we deserve what we get.
So I respectfully suggest that we get off our collective ass and do that. We’re never going to change the minds of a certain Kool-Aid-guzzling 30-40% of the country. But if I remember my grade school arithmetic correctly, all we have to do is motivate the remaining 60-70% to get up and act.
Despite the conventional wisdom that partisanship has calcified, within that majority there remains a squishy segment who could tilt either way, including moderate conservatives who are uneasy with Trump but tribally resistant to the Democratic Party, and burn-the-system-down types who could go for Donald or go for Bernie, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. Regarding the latter, there were reports last week that a notable number of that tiny sliver of people who voted for Obama and then for Trump have been defecting back. All it would take is a slight move of those numbers to the Democratic side to make a huge difference in 2020. I say this to reinforce the idea that we can and should still make the case to those on Team MAGA who are willing to listen, as that segment could prove crucial in tight race.
And make no mistake: the other side will be fighting just as hard. If Trump’s 2016 campaign was ugly, his 2020 campaign kickoff in Florida this week suggests that this one will be exponentially worse. Four years ago Trump’s campaign began as a lark, a branding opportunity in which Trump basically had nothing to lose. Now he has everything to lose, including his freedom, his fortune (small though it is), and his criminal business empire. He is a cornered rat, and already behaving that way.
Or it may be that our political system is so broken that we cannot recover from this debacle. It took 240 years, but finally a monster emerged—enabled by a venal and anti-democratic political party and the people who support it—who is perfectly engineered to exploit the loopholes and vulnerabilities in the system that the Founders, for all their wisdom, accidentally left in place. They were visionaries, but not psychics, and they did not foresee a shameless charlatan like Trump rising to power and bulldozing through norms and morals and even explicit laws like the emoluments clause in the way that he has, and without sufficient check by the legislative branch. (Not to mention the emergence of technology and media that could not have been contemplated in the 18th century.) 2020 may prove that Republican skullduggery is enough to beat down the will of the majority—through ultra-gerrymandering, voter suppression, disinformation, collaboration with hostile foreign powers (passive or otherwise), and the anti-democratic anachronism of the right wing-favoring Electoral College—to say nothing of a White House gleefully thumbing its nose at proper oversight, Congressional subpoenas, and court orders,
And it may be that, even if he loses, Trump will refuse to leave office. Don’t believe it? He continues to float trial balloons to that effect. Or are we supposed to take him “seriously but no literally”?
Please. That may be American democracy’s epitaph.