Trump is regularly described as a “disrupter.” Those who praised him for this believed he would disrupt ways of doing business in Washington that have frustrated the citizenry for decades. The political status quo was so awful, the idea went, that blowing up the system would inevitably be better than keeping it intact.
But we are discovering that Trump is destroying the very aspects of governing that prevent rash mistakes and hold abuses of power in check. Trump chooses to roll the dice on nuclear weapons, and rather than “drain the swamp,” he is on his way toward giving us one of the most corrupt periods in our history.
Of all the decisions Trump has made, abandoning the Iran agreement is the most dangerous and consequential. Trump has slapped our closest European allies in the face and walked away from defined limits on Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons in the empty hope that as the Great Negotiator, he could secure a better deal. In the process, he has brought us significantly closer to war in the Middle East — the very sort of conflict Trump repeatedly said the United States should avoid.
What ties together many of Trump’s choices (the kneecapping of the Affordable Care Act and the withdrawals from the Paris climate accord and the Iran deal) is a desire to eradicate President Barack Obama’s achievements. Alas, another of Obama’s achievements on Trump’s chopping block is the former president’s success in running an administration remarkably free of corruption.
Even before Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, released his explosive chronicle of firms that paid money into a shell company run by Trump’s lawyer/ fixer Michael Cohen, the president had torn down the guardrails against venality. It began with his refusal to release his tax returns and to separate himself completely from his own enterprises. There have been reports about members of Trump’s family mixing personal business with government business, and some of Trump’s Cabinet members — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt heads the list — seem to take their ethical guidance from the top.
The Avenatti memo, the reliability of which was confirmed by journalists’ inquiries and public statements from some of the entities on it, raises the issue of potential corruption to a new level. And the fact that one of the firms that paid into Cohen’s shell corporation was Columbus Nova brings the money question into direct contact with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The biggest client of Columbus Nova, which paid about $500,000 to Cohen’s Essential Consultants LLC, is a company controlled by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin. In a statement, Columbus Nova insisted that this consulting fee had nothing to do with Vekselberg, although exactly what Cohen has to offer beyond his relationship with Trump is, to be very polite about it, unclear.
And several corporations with business before the Trump administration also made payments into Cohen’s delightfully named (“Essential” to what?) operation. They included Novartis Investments, a subsidiary of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant; Korea Aerospace Industries; and AT&T. Again, it’s hard to imagine they were bowled over by Cohen’s genius. Perhaps it’s a tribute to entrepreneurship that Essential Consultants, formed on Oct. 17, 2016, to funnel a payoff to Daniels, has enjoyed such rapid growth.
Yes, there is much more to learn here, and we know by now never to assume that any development in this saga can be seen as the beginning of the end. We have no idea yet how this story will end or who, except perhaps for Mueller, will write its conclusion.
But we know enough to conclude that (1) the Russia connection to Trump World runs very deep, and Mueller is no doubt exploring its many tributaries; (2) if Trump is profoundly altering Washington, it is to make the most old-fashioned forms of influence-peddling more common and more blatant; (3) we need to figure out if any of the money sloshing around has found its way to Trump; and (4) Trump will play as fast and loose with fundamental changes in policy as he does with ethics and the truth.
All four are worrying. The last is also scary.
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