Donald Trump has had some bad days as president, but none quite like Tuesday. His former campaign chairman was convicted of eight felonies, including tax and bank fraud, and his former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to eight other charges, including some directly implicating the president in a criminal scheme. Among liberals and the conservatives who have opposed Trump, there is an overwhelming feeling today of “At last!” But we need to ask ourselves: Is the system really working?
That was the conclusion many people made after Watergate came to its final conclusion and President Richard Nixon resigned: Yes, there was a horrible scandal revealing a massive criminal conspiracy reaching all the way to the Oval Office, but in the end, everything worked out. Nixon’s attempts to obstruct the investigation were unsuccessful, and once the full extent of his corruption was revealed, members of both parties came together to push him out of office. The scandal led to a series of reforms that strengthened the system’s integrity.
But even as talk of Trump’s impeachment gets louder and Republicans scramble in panic, something tells me that the president is telling himself that he can get away with this one, too.
From where he sits, it isn’t a crazy thing to believe. Just think of everything he did and said in 2016 that would have sunk another candidate, up to and including being caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. He survived it all. But more fundamentally, that Trump got within 100 miles of the White House to begin with represents a massive failure of the system.
I say that because there was little mystery about how spectacularly corrupt he was — not just boorish, sexist and racist, but someone who had spent a career lying in public and engineering one grift after another to exploit people and cheat the gullible out of their money, whether it was Trump University or the Trump Institute or the Trump Network, or his habit of refusing to pay contractors, the exploitation of foreign models, or his foundation that was essentially a scam, or his apparent eagerness to have sketchy figures from the former Soviet Union use his properties for money laundering. We knew it all.
And when he refused to reveal his tax returns, like every other major-party presidential nominee in the past half-century had, despite the fact that there has never been a candidate for whom the public has had a more urgent need to know the details of their finances? He got away with that, too.
We saw how the most corrupt people in business and politics seemed to be drawn to Trump, seeing in him someone who shared a flexible approach to rules, norms and laws. It’s fitting that the first two members of Congress to endorse him, Rep. Chris Collins and Rep. Duncan Hunter, have both been indicted on their own charges this month. But somehow it didn’t matter.
As it now stands, the president’s former campaign chairman has been convicted of crimes, his former personal attorney has pleaded guilty to crimes, and his former national security adviser, deputy campaign manager and foreign policy adviser have all pleaded guilty, as well. Meanwhile, Trump and his defenders insist the whole thing is a “witch hunt” and should be shut down immediately, while his supporters gather in arenas to chant “Lock her up!” at the mention of Hillary Clinton’s name. You’ll recall that she used the wrong email, which was considered a big deal in 2016.
One can’t help but think that if Trump and his associates were just a little smarter, or if other people had made different decisions, the possibility of him being driven from office, let alone facing criminal liability, would be far more remote. If Stormy Daniels had chosen not to talk publicly about her affair with Trump, or if Michael Cohen had been more careful in his effort to conceal the payments to her, we might never have known about it. If Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. hadn’t been so dumb as to take a meeting with a group of Russians offering dirt on Clinton — and leaving an email trail about it — the question of collusion might have remained murkier than it is. So whatever chance we have at true accountability may only come because Trump and those around him aren’t capable of mounting a competent conspiracy or an effective coverup.
As Michael Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said yesterday, Cohen “stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election.” A smarter bunch of guys would have made sure that Trump was more insulated from the crime, that it was never discussed in his presence so plausible deniability could be maintained. But it barely occurred to them that the law might reach them — after all, who knows what they had been getting away with up until then?
Trump spent a lifetime learning that the rules didn’t apply to him, which may have been why back in 2015 the idea that he could become president didn’t sound as crazy to him as it did to everyone else. Then he proceeded to teach us all how weak the safeguards against a corrupt demagogue becoming president really are. His party couldn’t stop him from winning its nomination, the media let his history of corruption slide while vivisecting his opponent for ludicrously trivial misdeeds, some timely intervention from the FBI director gave him a last-minute boost, and the electoral system allowed him to triumph despite winning the votes of 3 million fewer Americans than his opponent.
And now, Trump’s last line of defense (apart from his willingness to use the powers of his office to protect himself) is the Republican Congress, an uncommonly craven collection of politicians. Fortified by a conservative media raising an increasingly urgent drumbeat of demands to hold fast, they will stand by Trump’s side because abandoning him poses the greater risk of backlash from their constituents, no matter what he is revealed to have done. So long as there are enough of them in office, Trump will be safe.
When it’s all over, we’ll ask, “Did the system work?” I think we already know the answer.