Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s persistent self-incrimination, the ongoing trial of Paul Manafort, and the lessons of Ohio’s special election.
This weekend, Donald Trump changed his story once again about the infamous June 2016 meeting with Russians at Trump Tower, tweeting that its purpose was in fact to “get information” on Hillary Clinton. What does he get out of his continued potentially self-incriminating tweets?
A very good question. Part of me wonders if our president gets some kind of psychosexual thrill out of his repeated use of Twitter as a vehicle for reckless self-incrimination now that Playboy is no longer minting new Playmates for him to prey upon. He’s like the killer who keeps returning to the scene of the crime, ignoring the bloodhounds on his trail. There’s no method to his madness. It’s just madness.
To those of us in the reality-based community, after all, it’s self-evident that Trump has been building Robert Mueller’s obstruction case for him from the moment he gave self-contradictory explanations for his firing of James Comey. He’s only upped the ante since. Just a week ago, the president called for his own attorney general to shut down Mueller’s inquiry “right now.” Obstruction hardly gets balder than that.
Trump would argue that what we call self-incrimination he calls “fighting back,” just as what we call a criminal investigation he calls a “witch hunt.” It’s in this same Orwellian vein that he and his brilliant counsel, Rudy Giuliani, have also taken to declaring that “collusion” is not a crime (even as the president incessantly pleads innocent to this non-crime), and that both men keep maintaining a semantical charade about the ground rules under which Trump will sit voluntarily for an interview with the special counsel.
Spoiler alert: Trump will never submit to that interview. Mueller will be left with little choice but to subpoena him. That’s when all hell will break loose in a constitutional crisis such as we have not seen since the summer of 1974 in the Nixon endgame. To make this sequel even more hellish than the original, Trump’s new nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, if confirmed, could be the deciding vote in the showdown. If Paul Manafort thought he could get away with witness tampering, he’s a mere amateur next to Trump, who will think nothing of tampering with the nine jurors in the highest court in the land.
But in a way these legal issues are beside the point in understanding Trump’s modus operandi. He doesn’t mind making himself vulnerable to punishment under the law because he doesn’t believe the law is legitimate or as powerful as he is. To him, jurisprudence is just another adversary to be bullied and mowed down like Little Marco or Crooked Hillary. That’s why the possibility of implicating himself in an obstruction case doesn’t really concern him. His plan is to destroy the rule of law before any case gets far enough to put him in legal jeopardy. His goal is not to prove his innocence in a court of law but to discredit the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence agencies, and, of course, the special counsel before he ever gets to court. On a parallel track he’s out to destroy the news media that report on his flagrant lawlessness. He’s even persuaded 43 percent of Republicans, according to an Ipsos poll provided to the Daily Beast, that he should have the power to “close down news outlets” if he chooses.
After Nixon’s demise — brought about by his own vehicle for self-incrimination, the White House tapes — the consensus had it that the system worked. This time the system is being burned down before our eyes by its own chief executive. Given the complete and utter moral collapse of the Vichy Republicans in Washington, the only hope for rescuing it is for the Democrats to gain control of either or both chambers of Congress.
During testimony at the Manafort trial this week, Manafort deputy Rick Gates has testified that at his boss’s discretion he filed false tax returns and falsified applications for bank loans. Have his admissions changed anything about how we should think about the inner machinations of the Trump campaign, on which both Gates and Manafort served?
Not really. What’s being reinforced is what we already knew: Those in Trump’s orbit, including his son and son-in-law, were eager to collude with Vladimir Putin’s puppets, spies, and gangsters — or any other thug, regardless of national origin — who would help gain them entry into the White House. Their motive was not ideological but venal. Like Trump, his made men were eager both to cover up past financial transgressions and to plot new ones in a kleptocracy of their own design. Perhaps the most central revelation of the trial thus far is the sheer depth of the devotion of Trump’s former campaign manager, Manafort, and deputy campaign manager, Gates, to grand larceny. Not only did they steal from the federal government and their own clients but Gates stole from Manafort himself. “Honor among thieves” is yet another norm that has bitten the dust in the Trump era.
You have to wonder who in this administration is not a proven crook or an aspiring one. For Jared Kushner, himself the son of a convicted felon, the White House has been an opportunity to make deals to shore up a floundering real-estate empire in flagrant violation of government conflict-of-interest rules. Cabinet members like Tom Price and Scott Pruitt were in the market for royal trappings and first-class travel at taxpayers’ expense. Poor, humble Ben Carson settled merely for fancy dining room furniture for his office suite; the multimillionaire Steve Mnuchin wanted to use government jets as a personal taxi service.
This week Forbes reports that the secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, may be hiding out in the Trump White House, as Manafort and Gates aspired to do, as a means of deflecting attention from a sordid financial history that includes some alleged $120 million in ill-gotten gains before he landed in the Cabinet. Forbes says Ross may “rank among the biggest grifters in American history.” Didn’t Trump say he was going to staff his administration with the biggest winners? That makes it all the more baffling that he has yet to pardon Bernie Madoff and give him an administration perch appropriate to his talents.
What is to be learned from yesterday’s too-close-to-call Congressional election in Ohio?
With the proviso that it’s ridiculous to use any of these preliminary contests as a predictor for the hundreds of races on the ballot this November, the special election in Ohio’s 12th District is another encouraging sign for the Democrats even if the current margin holds and the Republican wins. The district has been held by the GOP since 1983. It is overwhelmingly white and went to Trump by a margin of 11 points in 2016; the then-incumbent Republican congressman, whose premature departure necessitated this election, won by 37 percent. It took millions of dollars in outside campaign cash, visits by both Trump and Pence, and a late endorsement by the NeverTrump Ohio governor, John Kasich, for his erstwhile GOP successor to eke out a less-than-one-percent victory, if it holds.
As James Hohmann of the Washington Post put it starkly this morning, “the GOP must defend seventy-two districts in November that are rated as less Republican than Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.” What endangered candidates do in the coming weeks, particularly those who try to distance themselves from Trump without somehow alienating his base, may be highly entertaining to devotees of political farce.
Still, the midterms’ fundamentals remain the same. Trump’s base, an overwhelming majority of the GOP but a minority in the country, is rabidly loyal. While their turnout was down in rural precincts in Ohio yesterday, they could yet rally in November. The burden is on Democrats to turn out too, in numbers exceeding their recent feckless record in off-year elections. If they aren’t motivated to go to the polls in full force this year, we can no longer say Trump’s America is not us. The debacle will belong to us all.