A trio of developments on Tuesday underscore that President Trump’s power, like sand through an hourglass, is steadily falling. All of the usual tricks (distraction, lying, photo ops) will not reverse the downward trend.
Perhaps the worst blow yet to Trump — and the aura of power that helps keep his cult-like following in a trance — occurred in a federal courtroom. In advance of his sentencing hearing, former national security adviser Michael Flynn suggested that U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan take into account the fact that he was not specifically told of the obligation to tell the truth. Flynn seemed to be hinting at the right-wing conspiracy-mongers who claim he was entrapped.
The judge was infuriated, noting that Flynn already pleaded guilty to deliberately giving false answers to the FBI agents investigating his contacts with Russia. The judge appeared ready to pull the plea, forcing Flynn to acknowledge in open court that he understood his obligation to tell the truth. The judge then let him have it, as The Post reports:
Flynn’s attorneys asked for the delay after U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan accused Flynn of acting as “an unregistered agent of a foreign country, while serving as the national security adviser to the president of the United States” — an allegation he later walked back. Sullivan granted the request and asked for a status report in 90 days, though he said he was “not making any promises” that he would view the matter differently in three months. ...
Sullivan also asked a prosecutor with the special counsel’s office whether Flynn could be charged with “treason.” ...
After reviewing some of the allegations against Flynn, including that he worked to advance the interests of the Turkish government in the United States, the judge pointed to an American flag behind him in the courtroom and said heatedly, “Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably you sold your country out."
Sullivan later corrected the record, acknowledging that Flynn’s consulting deal ended before he started work as national security adviser. Nevertheless, the judge postponed the sentencing for 90 days, leaving the distinct possibility that Flynn could face jail time. The shocking turn of events decimated the notion that Trump associates' crimes are small beans.
That wasn’t the only calamity of the day. Trump is in the process of folding on his border wall, for which he lacks political support. His press secretary declared, “At the end of the day we don’t want to shut down the government, we want to shut down the border.” Her boss had said otherwise. Sarah Sanders insisted the money could be found elsewhere. (“There are certainly a number of different funding sources that we’ve identified that we can use, that we can couple with money that would be given through congressional appropriations that would help us get to that $5 billion that the president needs in order to protect our border.”)
That’s a fairy tale aides or Congress might tell Trump, or he might tell himself. He cannot just do it. He needs Congress to authorize money that can be spent on his signature project. He cannot force them to do so. Likely House speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called his bluff. He blinked. He will not get the one specific item he vowed to deliver for his rabid anti-immigrant base. This is what losing looks like.
There was also bad news for the Trump White House from the New York state attorney general. The Post, which broke the story of misused Trump Foundation money, reports:
President Trump has agreed to shut down his embattled personal charity and to give away its remaining money amid allegations that he used the foundation for his personal and political benefit, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced Tuesday.
Underwood said that the Donald J. Trump Foundation is dissolving as her office pursues its lawsuit against the charity, Trump and his three eldest children.
The suit, filed in June, alleged “persistently illegal conduct” at the foundation and sought to have it shut down. Underwood is continuing to seek more than $2.8 million in restitution and has asked a judge to ban the Trumps temporarily from serving on the boards of other New York nonprofit organizations.
Underwood said Tuesday that her investigation found “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation — including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more.”
By agreeing to close the foundation, Trump seems to give credence to Underwood’s allegations.
Trump and his family are not out of legal hot water. If he commingled foundation and campaign funds, there may be other civil and criminal issues. (In combination with his hush-money payments, one does get the impression Trump was reckless, if not contemptuous, of campaign finance laws.)
Moreover, the attorney general is pursuing Trump and his children for repayment of $2.8 million.
The existence of an illegal slush fund would knock out most politicians. With Trump, it is one more instance of contempt for the rule of law and assertion of personal interests over public obligations.
In sum, today we saw just how little power Trump has over events. The prosecutors are closing in, his finances are being scrutinized, and he can’t even tell his base he delivered on the wall. Never has he looked so small and so weak.