the national interest

Trump Is Trapped, and Trying to Protect Himself at All Costs

Donald Trump speaks during a White House press conference the day after the midterm elections. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

On November 7, President Trump woke up to a world in which Democrats had smashed through a gerrymandered map to win three dozen House seats, depriving him of both his legislative majority and his effective immunity from congressional oversight and accountability. He responded in the most Trumpian way: with an atavistic display of brute dominance. He insisted the election had been a triumph (“I thought it was a very close to complete victory”), belittled Republicans who had lost for declining his “embrace,” pulled the press pass from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, and warned Democrats not to investigate anything in his administration or he would refuse to work with them and have Senate Republicans investigate them back.

And he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose sole offense, in Trump’s eyes, was recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Trump maintains the attorney general’s job is to protect the president’s political interests, even if the president or his allies have committed serious crimes. In an interview with the New York Times last year, Trump explicated this belief. Barack Obama, according to Trump, had engaged in all manner of wrongdoing (as any Fox News addict could tell you), but Attorney General Eric Holder shielded him from investigation. Trump held up this imagined cover-up as admirable. “Holder protected the president,” he said. “And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”

Trump finally acted on this vision, skipping the normal chain of command and declaring Matthew Whitaker the acting attorney general. As recently as three years ago, Whitaker worked for a scam company that catered to customers with invention ideas and “provided almost no service in return,” according to the Federal Trade Commission. Whitaker’s role was to testify to the company’s integrity (“World Patent Marketing goes beyond making statements about doing business ‘ethically’ and translate [sic] those words into action”) and serve as legal muscle, firing off threatening letters to customers who complained they had been bilked.

Aside from his now highly relevant experience working for con men, Whitaker’s primary qualification to serve as the nation’s highest law-enforcement official is a fanatical adherence to the right-wing legal agenda. As an unsuccessful far-right Senate candidate in Iowa, Whitaker declared he would be “very concerned” about any judge with a “secular worldview” and should instead follow a “biblical view of justice.” Whitaker’s version of biblical justice blends harsh Old Testament punishments for Democrats with New Testament forgiveness for Republicans. Like Trump, he has argued that Hillary Clinton should have been indicted for using a personal email account, and has publicly opposed the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Whitaker’s hostility to the Mueller investigation is surely what recommended him to the president. He claimed Trump’s campaign had not colluded with Russia (“The truth is there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign”) at a time when such a defense could not possibly be known. He even denied that Russia interfered in the election at all, a conclusion directly at odds with what U.S. intelligence agencies have found. He has said Mueller has no right to probe Trump’s finances (which of course contain links to Russia) and called for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to curb the investigation. Trump had appointed Whitaker as Sessions’s chief of staff, a position that reportedly allowed him to serve as the president’s eyes and ears within the building.

Whitaker will have ample opportunity to undermine or quash Mueller’s investigation, but his authority over Mueller is not the only weapon at Whitaker’s disposal. Nor is the Mueller investigation the only threat to the president. Trump is a crook who is drawn to other crooks, and the potential criminal exposure across his administration is vast. We barely have a handle on the criminality that has already occurred — it has only been in the last few weeks that we learned, via the Times, that Trump committed systematic tax fraud over many decades. A lawsuit credibly accusing Trump of having run a variety of “fraudulent schemes” came out October 29 — nearly two years after his election.

Because Trump has benefited in office from a near-total Republican blockade on oversight of the Executive branch, it is difficult to estimate how much misconduct has escaped detection. Weeks before the election, congressional Republicans privately circulated a lengthy list of Trump scandals that would be investigated if Democrats won Congress. The list ranges from Trump’s tax returns (which Republicans had voted to keep hidden) to his acceptance of undisclosed payments from foreign and domestic interests while in office to more routine incompetence and sleaze, like lavish expenses by Cabinet members and the hurricane response in Puerto Rico.

In public, Republicans are warning that investigating any of these matters will backfire on Democrats. “The business of presidential harassment,” offered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “which we were deeply engaged in in the ’90s, improved the president’s approval ratings and tanked ours.”

It ought to be self-evident that McConnell is not actually expressing sincere concern for the political fortunes of the party with which he is engaged in zero-sum competition. Alas, it isn’t self-evident. The notion that rigorous oversight amounts to “harassment,” and can backfire on the congressional party, has taken hold in Establishment Washington. “There is scant evidence of a mandate for a scorched-earth pursuit of Trump,” two senior editors at Politico wrote the day after the election. In the Times, Nicholas Kristof warned that “Democrats jockeying for the presidential nomination in 2020 will tug the party toward impeachment talk or a blizzard of subpoenas — in ways that may help Trump.”

Yes, sometimes aggressive congressional oversight can backfire, like when Republicans fanatically pursued conspiracy theories like Benghazi and “IRS targeting” during the Obama years. The Republican investigation of Bill Clinton also created some blowback, although even that famous episode has a much less straightforward denouement than is widely understood. While hounding Clinton over his affair, Republicans lost the 1998 midterms, an outcome that suggests that there can be a price for going overboard in the pursuit of a scandal that is palpably unrelated to job performance. But the atmosphere of scandal and dysfunction still clung to the Clinton presidency, and it was that stink that allowed George W. Bush to make a case for change in 2000 in what was otherwise an atmosphere of peace and prosperity. As Fred Barnes reported at the time in The Weekly Standard, impeachment “played a historic role, holding Clinton accountable, seeking just punishment, and, not least, shaping the 2000 race and paving the way for a likely Republican victory.” A Bush adviser told him, “There are 13 people who are responsible for where we are now. They are the House impeachment managers.” The lesson seems clear: Even if Congress somehow overreaches in its pursuit of Trump — a prospect that is almost logistically impossible, given the staggering list of misconduct already in plain sight — it would still probably help the Democrats’$2 2020 presidential candidate run against the mess in Washington.

From the very beginning, when Donald Trump and his father ignored demands from the Nixon Justice Department that they stop discriminating against African-Americans, through his repeated tax fraud and financial scams, legal impunity has formed the through-line of his career. Holding him accountable serves not only Democrats’ self-interest but the rule of law. That process begins now.

*This article appears in the November 12, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Trump Is Trapped, and Trying to Protect Himself at All Costs