President Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Aug. 27. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

We have gone from “hoax” and “witch hunt” to “Well, tax fraud, lying to the FBI and campaign violations are penny ante stuff.” That’s essentially President Trump’s newest line of defense: He and others didn’t break the law. But if they did, it’s no big deal.

Asked in a Reuters interview about his involvement in payments to women before the election, he declared. “Number one, it wasn’t a campaign contribution. If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. Okay?” Hmm. I wouldn’t advise using that argument to a judge or jury. (Ah, remember the good old days when Trump denied knowing anything about the payments?)

We’ve seen a lot of backpedaling of late. “No deals with Russia" now has become, well, maybe 14 Trump associates did have Russian contacts, and Trump “lightly looked” at a multimillion-dollar deal in Russia while campaigning for president and defending Vladimir Putin in one interview and debate after another. (In December 2015, when asked about Putin’s alleged involvement of murders of Russian journalists, Trump told Joe Scarborough, “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.")

What about more than 30 indictments, the guilty pleas and the conviction of Paul Manafort on eight felony counts? “The stuff you’re talking about is peanut stuff,” says the chief executive of the United States. So much for Trump being the law-and-order president.

Manafort, 69 years old, who is likely to be sentenced to what could amount to a sentence of life in prison, will be amused to hear the description of his crimes.

What makes Trump’s blithe dismissal of felony crimes doubly horrifying is as chief executive Trump took an oath to “execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” not to “execute the Office of President of the United States — except when it comes to ‘peanut stuff.'”

Trump’s party is no better. When Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) says he doesn’t care if Trump broke the law, it’s time to question whether he or any other Republican congressional apologists for Trump, who took an oath as well, is fit for office. (This is the same crowd who wants to lock up migrants for the misdemeanor of entering the country illegally. Silly them — if only they’d obstructed justice or committed some “peanut stuff,” they’d be in fine shape.)

The notion that “process crimes” are somehow lesser or insignificant offenses would come as a shock to the felons in prisons around the country for obstruction, witness-tampering, lying under oath, lying to the FBI and campaign finance fraud. These are serious felonies carrying substantial jail time. Moreover, crimes that seek to defeat the operation of law enforcement or obtain office under false pretenses go to the heart of our judicial and political system. These are quintessential High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Indeed, these “process crimes” were the heart of Article 1 in the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon:

1. making false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States;

2. withholding relevant and material evidence or information from lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States;

3. approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counselling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States and false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings;

4. nterfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and Congressional Committees;

5. pproving, condoning, and acquiescing in, the surreptitious payment of substantial sums of money for the purpose of obtaining the silence or influencing the testimony of witnesses, potential witnesses or individuals who participated in such unlawful entry and other illegal activities; ...

7. disseminating information received from officers of the Department of Justice of the United States to subjects of investigations conducted by lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States, for the purpose of aiding and assisting such subjects in their attempts to avoid criminal liability;

8. making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted with respect to allegations of misconduct on the part of personnel of the executive branch of the United States and personnel of the Committee for the Re-election of the President, and that there was no involvement of such personnel in such misconduct: or

9. endeavoring to cause prospective defendants, and individuals duly tried and convicted, to expect favored treatment and consideration in return for their silence or false testimony, or rewarding individuals for their silence or false testimony.

Finally, Trump’s declaration that “the people would revolt” if he were impeached, if not an implicit threat to stage a civil uprising, represents a perfect distillation of his authoritarian outlook. Ultimately, nothing matters in his mind because he controls the streets. If he sounds like thuggish autocrats like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, you can understand why he embraces such characters. He is one of them.