Donald Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors are often so blatant, they go unnoticed.
The president’s bid to coerce Ukraine into investigating the Biden family was public knowledge for months before it became grounds for an impeachment inquiry. Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told the New York Times in May, “We’re meddling in an investigation [in Ukraine] … because that information will be very, very helpful to my client.” Giuliani made clear that he was acting with the president’s “full support.” Thus, the Trump administration’s public position was that it was leveraging the power of the U.S. presidency to strong-arm a dependent state into launching a (baseless) investigation into one of its domestic political rivals. Using America’s finite diplomatic capital to advance the president’s personal political interests, in a manner that undermines democratic norms, is a straightforward abuse of power. But since the president’s lawyer was openly copping to it, our media and political class refused to recognize it as such. Only after a whistle-blower recoded the administration’s public policy as a concealed conspiracy (while adding a few exacerbating details) could they acknowledge what they already knew.
This was not abnormal. Throughout Trump’s presidency, our political elite has struggled to see all the malfeasance that he refuses to hide. In December 2017, Trump told the paper of record that he believed the attorney general’s first loyalty should be to him personally, rather than to the Constitution or ethics of the legal profession. The president explained that Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, “totally protected him,” helping Trump’s predecessor escape accountability for many illegal actions — a record of service that Trump couldn’t help but admire. “When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president,” Trump told the Times. “And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.” Nevertheless, we collectively pretended that we needed Robert Mueller to conduct a months-long, multimillion-dollar investigation in order to determine whether Donald Trump could be trusted to oversee federal law enforcement.
In October 2017, a Republican senator announced that the president’s recklessness risked putting America “on the path to World War III”; that he knew “for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him”; and that “the vast majority of our [Senate Republican] caucus” agreed with his assessment. Nevertheless, we collectively pretended that Bob Corker had not openly confessed his party’s willful complicity in keeping an intemperate man-child at the helm of the world’s most powerful military.
We lack the courage of our sensory perceptions. The unambiguous truth of our political situation — like that of our climate crisis — demands actions that we are too comfortable and cowardly to take. For congressional Republicans, internalizing that truth would require putting the preservation of constitutional government above the maintenance of conservative power. For the mainstream media, it would require privileging liberal democracy above the fiction that America still has two political parties committed to upholding that form of government. And for the rest of us, it would mean putting the duties of citizenship above the more immediate demands of our employers, family members, and Netflix queues.
So, Congress pretends that it needs an inquiry to determine whether Trump is upholding his oath of office, the political press pretends that the Republican Party isn’t a greater threat to American democracy than Vladimir Putin, and we all collectively pretend that the people of Hong Kong don’t put us to shame, as we watch the president’s bribery-intake facilities operate in peace.
These pretenses have held up under enormous strain. It would be foolish to bet against their durability. But the weight of our collective cognitive dissonance is getting heavier by the day.
On Wednesday morning, Politico’s Playbook read like a work of dystopian satire. One moment, the newsletter informs its readers that their president is compelling the Justice Department to “pursue his personal and political goals”; the next, it offers a GOP operative’s insights into how Trump can more effectively lie about his crimes. The Playbook tells us that the commander-in-chief recently ordered DHS officials to deter asylum seekers through extralegal violence, then provides a list of famous people who attended last night’s Washington Nationals game. The news that our republic is teetering on the brink of collapse and the revelation that Justice Elena Kagan scored tickets to a National League Wild Card game are relayed in the same chipper, knowing tone.
I don’t intend this as a dig at Politico — or at least, not primarily. The publication’s newsletter isn’t the source of its readers’ desensitization to America’s democratic crisis, only a reflection of their (our) numbness. The point is just that the perversity of this numbness was unusually conspicuous Wednesday, due to nature of the morning’s headlines.
As congressional Democrats edge closer to acknowledging the severity of Trump’s malfeasances, and the growing hordes of disaffected ex–White House officials spill more beans into reporters’ ears, the volume of damning, publicly available evidence of presidential misconduct is rapidly increasing.
In the last 48 hours, major news outlets have reported (or confirmed previous reports of) the following information:
• The president repeatedly ordered his subordinates to turn away any and all asylum seekers at the southern border, in defiance of federal and international law — and promised to pardon the head of Customs and Border Protection if following this illegal directive got him into any trouble.
• Trump wanted the soldiers he sent to the southern border to “shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down.” His aides informed him that this was illegal.
• Trump forced his advisers to look into what it would cost to build and maintain a border moat “stocked with snakes or alligators.”
• Trump’s DHS advisers resisted his calls for extralegal forms of deterrence, and were purged for that reason. (Thus, should migrant arrivals try the president’s patience again at some future date, the department may prove more amenable to his illegal ideas.)
• The Justice Department has made discrediting “a finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help [Trump] win” one of its top priorities — despite the fact that publicly disclosed emails indicate Donald Trump’s campaign knew that Russia did precisely this before virtually anyone else.
• The State Department is “investigating the email records of as many as 130 current and former department officials who sent messages to the private email account of Hillary Clinton,” a probe that one former senior U.S. official familiar describes as a scheme “to keep the Clinton email issue alive” and “tarnish a whole bunch of Democratic foreign policy people,” so as to purge disloyal elements from the deep state.
• Various interest groups, and at least one foreign government, have (allegedly) “tried to ingratiate themselves to President Donald Trump by booking rooms at his hotels but never staying in them.” Accepting such bribes would ostensibly put the president in violation of the Constitution.
In other words: A perusal of the day’s headlines indicate that we are living under the thumb of a corrupt, bloodthirsty tyrant.
But acting as though this is the case would be uncomfortable and inconvenient. So, let’s pretend the whistle-blower might tell us something about our president that we don’t already know, and/or process the day’s events with the undiscriminating stoicism of an antisocial alien. The president would like to drown migrants in a moat full of alligators. George Will attended a baseball game Tuesday night.