On Sunday afternoon, after Attorney General William P. Barr released a four-page summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, President Trump took to Twitter to crow, claiming “Complete and Total EXONERATION.” Well, not exactly. The special counsel’s report, if we can take the summary offered us as truth, centered on a few questions: Did Trump collude with the Russian government to win the 2016 election, and did he obstruct the investigation into that? On the first, the answer is no. On the second, the charge is not proved or disproved.
The focus of Mueller’s investigation was incredibly narrow compared with the scope of Trump’s business and personal corruption, which is a problem that goes far beyond Trump. Many Democratic diehards came to believe that prosecutors, led by Mueller, could solve the Trump problem in a deus ex machina fashion. That fantasy permitted many to avoid facing the hard truth that Trump’s ascension to the presidency was the logical endgame of a culture that allowed worship of wealth and business success to overtake our society, and not simply the result of a sleazy bargain.
For Trump, the much-derided Trump University is the least of it. The Trump family, the New York Times reported, engaged in questionable tax practices for decades. There are documented ties to mafia figures going back to the 1970s. Reviews of his real estate empire reveal evidence of a range of questionable practices, including refusals to pay hundreds of small contractors for work performed and the Trump Organization’s routine exaggeration of sales numbers at company condo projects. His charitable foundation was, according to the state of New York, far from charitable — its beneficiary was Donald Trump himself.
Moreover, Trump has had long-standing links to shady Russian money. It was no secret that his real estate empire was blossoming, in part, due to funds from the former Soviet Union. In 2008, his son Donald Jr. said at a New York real estate conference, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” That’s the same year Russian billionaire oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev rampantly overpaid for a Trump estate in Palm Beach. Fast-forward nine years, and you can find Reuters determining thatRussians bought almost $100 million worth of property in seven Trump buildings in South Florida. Then, of course, there were the long-standing attempts by Trump to build a Trump-branded building in Moscow, a plan that continued well into the presidential campaign. These financial incentives can explain Trump’s all-but-servile slobbering over Russian President Vladimir Putin, without needing to turn to collusion as an explanation.
It’s possible that Trump obstructed justice and buried the truth about his relations with Russia over election interference. But we also need to acknowledge that Trump had a good motive for refusing to cooperate, and it didn’t require that he help fix the election. Trump has had a lifetime of dodgy behavior to hide, including the hush-money payoffs his former lawyer Michael Cohen alleges that Trump ordered him to make to Stormy Daniels, and his own shady business practices, up to and including discussions with the Russian government and business figures about building that Moscow hotel. With all this corruption in his background, why would he want anyone asking him uncomfortable questions?
The bigger question is, how did this go on as long as it did with relatively little comment? Until it became clear that Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination, no one besides the occasional bank or investigative journalist, such as David Cay Johnston or Bloomberg’s Timothy L. O’Brien, was taking much of a hard look at Trump at all. Why would they? Trump was simply part and parcel of our corrupt culture, barely worthy of comment.
We are, after all, a country in which millions of people lost their homes during the financial crisis, but not one single senior banker spent so much as an hour in jail as a result. A major pharmaceutical company set off an opioid epidemic in pursuit of profits, while the family who controlled that company went on to see their name slapped on many a building in exchange for philanthropic donations. Respected politicians and commentators who say that major health-care reform is impossible because the moneyed interests won’t allow it find themselves not condemned but congratulated by many for their sage wisdom.
So although Trump’s behavior is unique to him, the overall pattern of illegal, immoral and corrupt actions is not. This reality is beyond gross, and voters — if not politicians — know it. From the beginning, Trump’s appeal to his supporters was not that he was an honest businessman. It was the opposite. He was going to be an outsider’s insider, using all his knowledge of how crooked and warped the American system is to clean it up. Remember: Trump openly boasted that not paying taxes on his millions of dollars in annual income made him “smart,” and millions of voters didn’t consider that a disqualifying admission.
The Russia investigation allowed many in our political and media classes to avoid a reckoning with the reality of why Trump was elected president and why he continues, despite clear evidence of ongoing personal corruption in areas ranging from foreign emoluments to using the White House to shill for Trump Organization properties, to maintain a solid base of support. That’s been the real story and scandal all along, and will continue to be so until we do something about the epidemic of fraud, greed and lawlessness that has rotted our civic, political and economic cultures.