Watching the Downfall of a Presidency in Real Time

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Donald Trump Jr. at the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Donald Trump Jr.’s emails, Republican silence, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s last attempts to get a health-care bill passed.

After Donald Trump Jr.’s constantly shifting explanations for his meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, we now know that he, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort were eager to receive incriminating information about Hillary Clinton that was offered as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Is this the smoking gun investigators have been waiting for?
There will be no single smoking gun that will bring down this White House. It will be death by firing squad — or perhaps a sequence of firing squads — as the whole story inexorably pours out of the administration’s smoldering ruins. This week’s bombshell has the feel of gallows humor. Trump Jr.’s panicked release of the self-incriminating emails is tantamount to picking up a loaded gun and shooting himself in the head. Why did Little Donald not do what the Trumps always do in these situations — let the press (in this case the Times) go ahead and report its incriminating findings, rail against leakers, and then dismiss the latest incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing as “fake news”? Was Little Donald trying to protect his father from even worse revelations? To take down his brother-in-law even as his brother-in-law (a possible source of the emails) tried to take down him? To deliver a message from or to the Kremlin?

Some politicians, lawyers, and pundits are characterizing the emails as legal proof of perjury, the felonious solicitation of a campaign contribution from a foreign national, or even treason. But these are opinions, not the findings of judges or investigators. Even if the opinions are sound, they may hardly be the sum of the matter. For all we know, the released email chain may be only a small and relatively minor part of a much larger criminal web that stretches from Donald Trump’s tax returns to his and the Kushner family’s respective real-estate dealings in Russia and beyond. The authorities who matter — the investigators at the special counsel’s office and the FBI — are not telling us what they are up to. They may already know — or may soon know — of evidence far more incriminating than the revelations of the past 72 hours. Even this morning we are learning via McClatchy’s estimable Washington bureau that investigators are looking into possible coordination between the Jared Kushner–run Trump campaign digital operation and Russia’s “sophisticated voter targeting and fake-news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

The good news for those who want to see justice done is that this scandal not only resembles Watergate but also The Godfather — albeit a Godfather where every Corleone is a Fredo and not a single lawyer is as crafty as Tom Hagen, despite the fact that Little Donald’s private attorney has a history of defending clients from mob families. The level of stupidity of the conspirators is staggering: Not the least of the week’s news is that Kushner thought he could get away with omitting this Trump Tower meeting on the government questionnaire he filed to get his security clearance. (The $2.5 million that Charles Kushner donated to Harvard to gain his son admission was not money well spent.) My other favorite detail of the week (so far) is that Rob Goldstone, the former British tabloid writer and Miss Universe entrepreneur who served as the Trump campaign’s Russian middleman, posted on Facebook that he was “preparing for meeting” at Trump Tower on the day it took place.

Now it’s every man (and his lawyer) for himself as the president, having hidden from the press and the public ever since he returned home from his Yalta-themed tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin, escapes to France, of all places. His press secretary is also in hiding, as is his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who as recently as Sunday dismissed the Donald Jr. story as a “nothingburger” — Trumpspeak for the Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler’s designation of Watergate as a “third-rate burglary.” About the only administration stalwart not remaining silent is the vice-president, whose statement following the release of the Donald Jr. emails let it be known that he was “not aware” of the Trump Tower meeting and that it had taken place before he joined the campaign. Mike Pence has clearly been boning up on Gerald Ford, and may already be brooding about the risks entailed if he should eventually be in the position to pardon the 45th president.

Republicans in Congress have been slow to respond to this story, if they’ve commented at all. Is silence an effective strategy?
It’s not a strategy. It’s desperation. Much like their predecessors in the Nixon era, they keep hoping somehow it will all go away so they can get back to business as usual. After all, it was less than a month ago that David Brooks, writing in the Times, reassured them that there was “little evidence” of “any actual collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russians” and that “most voters don’t really care” anyway. Prominent Republicans continued to use this script after the release of the Trump Jr. emails, with Orrin Hatch calling the story “overblown,” Peter King characterizing the campaign-hierarchy meeting with the Kremlin-connected lawyer as “a one-off, inadvertent mistake,” and Bob Corker dismissing the whole affair as “politics.” Even the occasional Republican eminence who tried to take a stand this week could muster only the usual bland utterances that the latest revelations were “disturbing” and “problematic,” as Lindsey Graham put it. A furrowed brow is still what passes for bravery among Republican politicians these days.

They can run from reality and reporters, but they can’t hide indefinitely. As I’ve written before, the closer we get to the 2018 midterms, the faster Republicans in the House — and some of those up for reelection in the Senate — will scramble for the lifeboats. But by the time they wake up and see the looming iceberg, it may be too late to save their careers.

Also yesterday, Mitch McConnell delayed the Senate’s August recess by two weeks and announced that a new version of the Senate’s health-care bill will be revealed on Thursday, with a new Congressional Budget Office score to follow. Will he eke out a legislative accomplishment by the end of the summer?
Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were reading those pieces about the wily legislative genius of Mitch McConnell? Trapping the Senate in Washington is not going to lead to the passage of the latest rewrite of the Senate health-care bill (whatever is in it). What we are likely to get instead is two weeks’ worth of television shots of Republican senators scurrying down the halls or shutting their office doors to escape reporters. Other things not happening this summer: tax reform, an infrastructure initiative, or the raising of the federal debt ceiling. The vacuum will be filled by the steady drip, if not flood, of White House revelations that neither the president nor his Capitol Hill enablers, apologists, and collaborators can stop.

If McConnell were really canny, what he’d be doing right now is gaming out how his party will respond to the next looming constitutional crisis: Trump’s inevitable version of the Saturday Night Massacre, in which Robert Mueller is fired, and Rod Rosenstein along with him. For all of us, a little perspective is in order. Little Donald is not the story here any more than G. Gordon Liddy and those third-rate burglars were the story in Watergate. We are likely to reach a point when this week’s firestorm will be remembered mainly as a warm-up for conflagrations yet to come.

Watching the Downfall of a Presidency in Real Time