There was a sense among some this week that we had at last reached that golden “inflection point” when all of Trump’s lies, scams, cons, and crimes finally sink in with Republicans, and the cult begins to crack.
I tend to think something else is happening: that we are entering the most dangerous phase of Donald Trump’s presidency. We always knew this would happen — that the rule of law and Trump would at some point be unable to coexist — but we had no idea how it would specifically play out. Now we see the lay of the land a little more clearly.
Four Trump campaign officials and his longtime lawyer and fixer have now pleaded to or been convicted of felonies; Trump’s now-convicted campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, faces another trial shortly; his media fixer, David Pecker, is now cooperating with authorities, and has, The Wall Street Journal reported, been granted immunity; Trump’s White House counsel talked to the special counsel’s office for 30 hours, without Trump’s knowledge, and, according to the New York Times, because he feared Trump might try to make him a fall guy for obstruction of justice; and his chief fixer for years, Michael Cohen, has every interest in telling law enforcement everything he knows about Trump’s past mafia boss–style behavior.
What we’re about to find out is if Trump can pull off all his usual tricks, and face no serious political or legal consequences for this. I’d say that question remains nerve-rackingly open.
Perhaps the most significant fact of the last week was that the Department of Justice believed Michael Cohen when he told them that the president of the United States directed him to commit a federal crime. We have therefore, in the view of the DOJ, a criminal president. That’s where we’ve always been with Trump, of course, going right back to his enmeshment with shady Russian financing in New York City, Florida, and Moscow. (There’s a reason Trump has not relinquished his tax returns.) But the criminality has now become text rather than subtext. And what Cohen and Manafort and Pecker know about Trump must be tempting the president to break his famous sobriety.
And how has Trump responded to these developments? Not well. We are told by observers of the royal court that he has raged and vented and snapped at staff. His rally in West Virginia — where he barely mentioned the cascading bad news — was relatively subdued. And at 10:10 p.m. on Wednesday night, after news broke that even David Pecker, the National Enquirer Trump propagandist, had turned on him, Trump tweeted: “NO COLLUSION — RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” He now puts the word “Justice” in quotation marks when referring to his own Department of Justice. In the last few months, he has directly attacked Robert Mueller, accusing him of shilling for Democrats. He has called for an investigation of the Clinton campaign for collusion with Russia. He has railed against the FBI for being a “disgrace” and a Democratic Party front. He is still incensed at his attorney general Jeff Sessions for his recusal in an investigation of a campaign in which he would have been a witness. The entire notion that one of his appointees actually swears loyalty to the Constitution, rather than personal fealty to Trump, is incomprehensible — no, infuriating — to him. Almost every day, we are told, the tangerine tyrant vents about Sessions, one of his very first high-profile supporters, for following the rule of law and the norms of Western justice. (Trump’s first two congressional supporters, Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter are under indictment.)
As for Paul Manafort, a man convicted of massive tax fraud, a sleaze merchant of legendary proportions, now facing another trial for, in part, a conspiracy to defraud the United States? Here’s Trump’s response: “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him, and unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ — make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!” While Manafort awaits another trial, the president is not dismissing the idea that he could be pardoned, and in fact, reports surfaced that he had asked advisers about the possibility of pardoning Manafort some time ago. His statements this week are obviously an attempt to persuade Manafort to say nothing — an outrageous attempt at obstructing justice that at this point is merely white noise.
Trump has also revealed himself this week to regard Watergate hero John Dean as a “rat” for defending the rule of law under Nixon, a view that even Nixon never expressed in public. And he holds the views of a mob boss when it comes to the idea of plea bargains as a way of shutting down organized crime: “I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I’ve been watching flippers. Everything is wonderful and then they get ten years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go … It’s called ‘flipping’ and it almost ought to be illegal.” Almost.
Who else, by the way, do you know has spent four decades of his life “watching” the intricacies of mob round-ups? Yes, I know Trump made his fortune in part through the mob. They were regulars at his Taj Mahal casino, which was found to have “willfully violated” the money-laundering rules of the Bank Secrecy Act, was the subject of four separate IRS investigations for “repeated and significant” deviations from money-laundering laws, and was forced to pay what was then an industry record for the largest money-laundering fine. The Russian mob was critical to buying his real estate in secret as well. This is a president who has surrounded himself with criminals, especially Russian criminals, for decades. But still: the man who took an oath to enforce the laws of the land is openly touting the logic of mobsters in their battle with law enforcement. Before this presidency, that would have been inconceivable.
Fox News continues its extremely reckless habit of backing Trump’s assaults on the DOJ, the FBI, and Robert Mueller specifically. A view is emerging among the Republican base that much of law enforcement is rigged against them and in favor of the “elite globalists” who dominate “the swamp.” Even though both the DOJ and FBI are run by rock-ribbed Republicans — Mueller has always been one — they are shills for the opposition. “This is the new Department of Justice. This is the Democrats’ arm of law enforcement, that’s what’s happening right now,” Duncan Hunter, just indicted for corruption on 60 counts, including wire fraud and campaign finance violations, insisted this week. “It’s happening with Trump, and it’s happening with me.” It’s worth noting too how the Trump cult might also be spreading to jurors. A single one held out in the Manafort trial on ten charges, for what another Trump-supporting juror has said were inexplicable reasons.
A republic cannot be governed by a man who acts like a mafia boss, following mafia rules. The minute that happens, the corrosion begins. Every day such a crook holds the highest office in the land represents yet another crack in the law of the land. If this figure decides to wage an actual war on the rule of law, and retains the solid support of his own party, all bets are off. And it is a staggering fact that in the wake of this week’s verdicts and Trump’s responses, no Republican leaders have yet decisively called their president out, and no right-wing media outlet has sounded any kind of alarm. It has fallen to Jeff Sessions to issue a statement defending the DOJ.
To give us a hint of what’s coming, yesterday Senator Lindsey Graham, who had previously ruled out firing Sessions entirely — “there will be holy hell to pay” — announced a shift in his position: “The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice … Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.” On the same day, Senator Grassley also suggested that, after the midterms, his committee could find time to hold hearings for a new AG — one who would inevitably be tasked with firing Mueller or killing the investigation.
But this is the beginning, not the end. Everything we know about Trump would lead you to believe he will defend himself, like every other mafia boss, to the bitter end. His current strategy is to dismiss the recent convictions as nothing to do with him, and nothing to do with collusion with Russia. “NO COLLUSION.” And that may well work with his base — unless evidence does emerge of a knowing conspiracy with Russia, giving Mueller the goods without any serious doubt. Or unless we discover that Trump himself obviously used his constitutional powers to obstruct justice.
But if the evidence for one or both does come to light, that’s also when the implicit danger becomes explicit. At that point, Trump would have several options. He could fire Sessions and Rosenstein and others until he found someone who would fire Mueller. (And he has just signaled that that is exactly what he will do.) He could pardon everyone implicated by Mueller and declare the entire affair a travesty of justice.
But Trump could also launch a political campaign to purge the government of those he views as global elitists who have been trying to overturn the result of a democratic election since November 2016. He could perform, in other words, a mini-Erdogan, go to the country in 2020, and appeal for mass support against the “swamp.” He could double down on the populism. If impeached, he would encourage and foment what Rudy Giuliani called this week a “people’s revolt.”
He could also ratchet up the foul white-nationalist rhetoric he has been spouting for so long, seizing on events, such as the awful murder of Mollie Tibbetts, to generate anti-immigrant hysteria. Newt Gingrich, one of the most sinister figures in modern American politics, has openly mused about running a midterm campaign on fears of violence by brown illegal immigrants. Trump could tweet out scare stories about land reform in South Africa, raising classic fears of black violence against whites, in order to rally his base. He could openly allow Russia to interfere again with the elections, this time the midterms, and indeed his administration just blocked a vital new bill to provide support for election security.
He could launch a few missiles, or generate a wider trade war with China. He could direct a new attorney general — or merely an acting attorney general — to investigate the Clinton campaign for collusion with Russia. And in all this, he will have a completely shameless state propaganda network to amplify the message, and legitimize it.
I would like to believe that Trump would fail, and be removed from office, or, better still, voted decisively out of it. That would actually strengthen our liberal democracy. But it’s impossible to view the tribalism now defining our culture and the despicable character of this president and find this conclusion inevitable. The good news this week is that a poll shows growing support for the Mueller investigation, and a Democratic wave this November could force even this putrefying version of what was once the GOP to reconsider its options. But impeachment remains a very steep hill to climb and could easily backfire politically, if advanced prematurely or on dubious grounds. I still cannot believe that in this climate there would be 67 votes to convict the president in the Senate. I don’t believe any amount of evidence of even outright treason would be enough. The line will be a simple one: Yes, we knowingly got dirt on our opponent from the Russians. So what? Any campaign would do the same, given a chance.
Remember what he has already survived, largely unscathed. Trump’s remarkable consistency in the polls suggest that his base is highly unlikely to crack. His approve/disapprove in the spring of 2017 was around 42/53; in August 2018, after an avalanche of outrages and scandals, it’s around 42/53. The bond is a personal one, the cult is nonnegotiable, and the zeal more about the elites the heartland hates than the con man they support. As Salena Zito noted this week: “Right now the value of Trump to the Trump voter is he is all that stands between them and handing the keys to Washington back over to the people inside Washington. That’s it. He’s their only option. You’ve got to pick the insiders or him.”
But what if picking him over the insiders means picking autocracy over the rule of law? The next few months will tell us if enough Americans prefer a criminal president to a Democratic one. I’m genuinely afraid of what the answer may be.
Burning to Get Away
Toward the end of every summer, I stress out. It’s not just sadness that the season is changing or that I’ll soon migrate south again for the winter. And it’s not just the pressures of work, which have piled up this summer, or the social-media harassment, which at this point has become as boring as it is furious. It’s because one of my oldest and best friends ups his game of nagging me incessantly to go to Burning Man. I’m now 55 years old, and I feel peer-pressured like a teen. He’s kept it up for years and years. I’ve only been once before, had a blast, but it took me a couple of weeks to recover physically. I got my usual bronchial infection from physical exhaustion.
Here’s why: Most of the really fun stuff happens at night, when the playa is cool, even dipping into the 50s or 40s, the music is blasting, the art cars are slowly venturing onto the plain, and the art structures are lit up. (Elsewhere it’s total darkness. In fact, the darkness inside a porta-potty in the desert at 4 am is near total.)
And so you’re usually up all night, dancing, or cavorting, as I do, with other members of my camp, BAAAHS. (That stands for Big Ass Awesomely Amazing Homosexual Sheep. It’s a school bus turned into a massive sheep, which you enter through its butthole. (No I’m not saying any more.) And when you stagger back to your tent after dawn breaks, in order to crash and sleep, you get about a couple of hours until the heat and the sun force you to wake up from a dead sleep in a pool of sweat, and get up and about.
After a couple of days of this, it all becomes a bit of a blur. Looking back on my first time, I honestly only recall surreal images in my head, and the memory of dust invading every nook and cranny of my body and clothes and baggage. The idea of reconstructing any sort of chronology is beyond me. But I do remember some of the misery of surviving in a desert for nearly a week. I’ve never been so grateful for running water as soon as I reach civilization afterward. And air-conditioning. God I love air-conditioning. Sometimes I wonder if all the pharmaceutical experimenting out there is, by the end of the week, simply to take your mind away from how hot it is, how you are covered in layers of dust and sweat, how you haven’t had a good sleep in days, and are running entirely on adrenaline.
So my resolution this year is to sleep for at least two of the four nights I’m there, if my campmates allow me. I’m going to do a slow burn this time — as a man in his mid-50s really should. I gave in this week and agreed to show up, booked my flights yesterday, reserved my tent, secured a generator to fuel my sleep apnea machine, read all of Drudge’s annual shock-horror stories about the event, and prepped. Happily, there are several stores in Provincetown that sell tutus and wigs.
My mother asked me the other day why on earth I would ever go to such a thing, having caught a glimpse of it on the telly. Friendship mainly, I tell her, which is the truth. Four of my best buds will be there. But also a complete escape from the world right now. No iPhones, no web, no money, no Trump, and pure visual fantasy. “Oh, all right then,” she said. “I understand getting away from Trump.”
See you the Friday after.