From the perspective of President Trump’s frustrated critics, the attempts to subject him to legal accountability have amounted to a long string of failures. Robert Mueller failed to produce a clear indictment of his dealings with Russia, and impeachment appears headed toward a partisan stalemate that will leave him in office.
But as Trump’s constant boil of rage attests, those efforts have hardly failed. The legal ring surrounding him is collectively producing a historic indictment of his endemic corruption and criminality.
Day two of the House impeachment hearings, featuring Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, may have appeared on the surface to focus on a sideshow. Yovanovitch was not directly involved in Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine for political advantage, the main charge he faces. What her testimony instead accomplished was to put the lie to Trump’s ludicrous defense that he was pursuing an anti-corruption agenda in Ukraine — that his demands that Kiev investigate his rivals were simply about cleaning the country up.
The lawyer for House Republicans asked Yovanovitch to affirm that “the president has long-standing concerns about corruption in the Ukraine.” Her response was savage: “That’s what he says.” Her testimony was devoted to proving the hypocrisy of Trump’s claim. She testified how she had worked in Ukraine to promote reform, how her efforts to do so alienated corrupt oligarchs there, and how those oligarchs then worked in tandem with Rudy Giuliani to foment a backlash against her. She explained that the fired Ukrainian prosecutor that Trump praised to Ukraine’s president in a July phone call was in fact totally corrupt.
Yovanovitch recounted that she learned of her firing while presenting an award for a Ukrainian attacked for her reform efforts, a completely fitting juxtaposition. Trump fired Yovanovitch because she stood in the way of the corruption he and his allies were promoting. To the extent corruption motivated Trump’s diplomatic posture in Ukraine, it was that he wanted to encourage more of it.
During Yovanovitch’s testimony, a federal court registered a guilty verdict on all seven counts for Trump’s adviser Roger Stone. Stone’s crimes involved lying and covering up Trump’s awareness of Democratic emails stolen by Russians. Rick Gates, Mr. Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, told investigators that he personally witnessed a July 31, 2016, phone call between Trump and Stone shortly after WikiLeaks published a tranche of stolen emails. After hanging up with Stone, Trump announced more information was on its way.
As president, Trump has enjoyed an advantage that in his days in business he could only have dreamed of: He can pardon anybody, giving him a powerful tool to induce his henchmen to avoid incriminating him. The two figures in his campaign who most directly colluded with Russia, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, both refused to cooperate with Mueller. Whatever they know about Trump’s full collusion with Russia’s campaign hacking will remain secret, probably forever.
And yet, even if he pardons Manafort and Stone, and all his other loyalists, the plain fact will remain that his inner circle is marked by endemic criminality. In addition to his close adviser Stone, his campaign manager (Manafort), his deputy campaign manager (Gates), his lawyer (Michael Cohen), and his national security adviser (Michael Flynn) have all been convicted of felonies. Trump may have persuaded his hard-core base that all these convictions represent a fraudulent witch hunt. But outside the Trump cult, which is not by itself large enough to win the election, being surrounded by criminals is not an admired quality.
In all probability, the parade of charges is probably not over. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is reportedly being investigated for a number of alleged federal crimes, including bribing foreign officials, conspiracy, violating federal campaign-finance laws, and failing to register as a foreign agent. The Wall Street Journal reports today that federal prosecutors are investigating whether Giuliani personally stood to profit from a natural-gas shakedown run by his partners, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.
Parnas and Fruman, two figures linked to the Russian mob who have been arrested, were helping Giuliani run his off-the-books diplomatic work in Ukraine. The benefit to Trump, who was not paying Giuliani anything, was getting muscle on the ground who would get the Ukrainians to understand a message regular diplomats had been too squeamish to convey directly: that Trump wanted investigations of his enemies. But at the same time they were doing this work for Trump, they were allegedly working to get themselves a taste of the proceeds from the shakedown. Parnas and Fruman were pushing Ukraine to give them some natural-gas importing business as a kind of payoff, and using their connection to Trump as clout.
If Rudy himself was involved in the gas shakedown, as the Journal story suggests, it would be an even deeper form of corruption. Trump’s lawyer and personal representative would have sent gangsters to extort Ukraine for Trump’s political gain and his own profit. The false accusations Trump has hurled against Biden are pale versions of the very real crimes Trump’s cronies have tried to carry out.
American politics has rarely been a pristine affair. Trump exploited widespread cynicism to indict the entire political Establishment in hyperbolic terms as wholly corrupt, presenting himself as a reformer from the outside. Surely nobody expected him to fulfill this promise literally. Yet the full scale of his betrayal is staggering. Trump will probably not become the first president to be impeached and removed from office, but he will go down in history as the most criminal president in American history.