Just as Bill Clinton's 1998 State of the Union address is known as the speech after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Donald Trump's 2018 State of the Union address is likely to be remembered as the speech before Robert S. Mueller III's report arrived.
Clinton remains the gold standard in presidential scandal management: In public, stubbornly talk about "the people's business." Ruthlessly destroy the reputations of investigators and hostile witnesses. Tell delaying lies. And dismiss the controversy as a partisan matter — even a partisan conspiracy — to solidify support in your party and in Congress (where the Senate is potentially the impeachment jury).
Little about President Trump's response so far deviates from this playbook. The goal is not to provide refuting evidence to potential charges of collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. Rather, it is to shift the grounds of the political debate — making any charges against the president appear trivial, malicious and highly political.
The current president's practice of this strategy, however, is more disturbing and damaging than that of his predecessor.
Trump's sustained attack on the FBI's credibility ("in tatters," he claims) comes in the context of a broad assault on the integrity of American institutions. In a short political career, Trump has maligned the CIA (comparing it to the Nazis), the electoral system ("rigged"), the media ("fake news"), the federal judiciary (U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel is a "hater" and a "Mexican") and the Justice Department (harboring the "deep state"). Any institution that checks him is smeared. In the current case, Trump has reportedly demanded loyalty from law enforcement officials, attacked them after they refused, and suggested to the country that everyone in Washington is as cynical as he is (praising, for example, Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, because he "totally protected" President Barack Obama).
When Trump is temporarily tamed by a teleprompter, there are political benefits in talking about national unity. But Trump has built his scandal strategy on a foundation of conspiracy theories, targeted by partisan media to the most receptive. "We have a coup on our hands in America," said Fox News host Jesse Watters .
Does Trump believe this? Who knows? In this matter, sincerity is downright scary. It means we have a conspiracy-minded, 71-year-old Fox News viewer engaged in a strange feedback loop with conservative cable television — each encouraging the delusions of the other. In the process, Trump is further alienating an already-alienated segment of the population, making them more open to the suggestion that he is the victim — not of his own ineptness and corruption — but of sedition.
Why is this a danger to democracy? People who believe conspiracy theories cease to believe in the possibility of discourse and deliberation. When the whole game is rigged, debates can only be decided by power. At stake in our political moment is respect for the rule of law itself. A president who doesn't like being subject to the rules is attempting to discredit the enforcers of the rules. It has been tried before, but seldom with a heavier hand.
Perhaps most frightening is how enthusiastically some GOP members of Congress have taken to Trump's strategy — and how quickly this has intimidated most others in the caucus. There is, according to some Republicans, a "secret society" at work in the FBI, in a plot "worse than Watergate." In one of those shocking ironies that have become common in the Trump era, law-and-order Republicans call on America's leading law enforcement agency to be "purged" for political reasons. It is the triumph of partisanship over ideology. It is the triumph of partisanship over sanity.
No amount of presidential words can change the showdown that now seems inevitable. Based only on what we presently know, Trump's presidential campaign desired to collude with the Russians. The case for obstruction by the president — apparently demanding loyalty from then-FBI Director James B. Comey, pressing Comey to lay off Michael Flynn, firing Comey, boasting that the firing had relieved "great pressure" on him, and then pushing other administration officials to publicly clear him — seems strong. Actions by the special counsel also hint at the investigation of financial corruption.
What if Mueller comes out with a, say, 400-page report, along with five volumes of supporting material, detailing serious offenses in all these areas? Trump has made his response clear: If law enforcement does its job, it will be evidence of a conspiracy to abuse its power. One question, at that point, would dominate our politics: Will Republicans choose to live within this lie?
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