‘Criminality at the highest levels’
The invention of the liberal state originally derived from the need for balance in the parts of government; the presence, as Locke put it, of an ‘umpire’ and the absence of any power capable of acting as the judge in its own cause. Yet for half a century now, there have been signs of a growing non-attachment to the rule of law at the heights of American politics. The Nixon pardon was only the clearest example. Think of the Iran-Contra pardons; Bill Clinton’s pardon of the most exorbitant tax defrauder in American history, Marc Rich (also a donor to the Clinton Presidential Library); or Obama’s refusal to prosecute anyone implicated in the financial collapse of 2007-8 or the torture regime of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Nixon befouled the 1968 election in a manner Putin could only have dreamed of – the facts are now established – by having Anna Chennault tell the leaders of South Vietnam not to negotiate. The Reagan campaign team appears to have done much the same in 1980 by bargaining to have the return of American hostages from Iran delayed until after the election: their release added a pleasant grace note to his inauguration day. Trump, it must be said, worked faster than his predecessors when he issued early pardons to I. Lewis Libby (convicted of lying to the FBI to conceal his outing of a CIA agent) and Dinesh D’Souza (convicted of illegal campaign contributions and false statements to the Federal Election Commission).
Criminality at the highest levels has been overlooked, redefined, extenuated and forgiven. Trump’s acts of a similar nature were thus condoned by anticipation, and a long train of bogus reversals has eased the way for his implied offer of pardons in the Russia scandal. Democrats are right to be haunted by the indications that in 2016 it happened again, but they are wrong to suppose there can be just one cause: that Trump stole the election by getting Russia to corrupt the system. They neglect the possibility that he is implicated in a general corruption by the variety and extent of his connections with people who did the work. Further back, from arrangements made twenty years ago and more, it stands to reason that Trump is deeply in debt to Russian oligarchs. He was in real estate, he always needed loans, he had become a pariah on Wall Street; and if you need big money in real estate and can’t get it at home and want to have it laundered, whom do you go to? Whether all this can be linked to the 2016 election is another story. Even as the facts grow harder to dodge – with even Trump saying, in early August, that Donald Jr met Russians in Trump Tower to get dirt on Hillary – Republicans are unlikely to make obstruction of justice an impeachment charge. Driven equally by cynicism and cowardice, they will continue on the collaboration path.
The trial in Virginia of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, is proceeding at a fast pace; and before the end of the year, Mueller is expected to conclude his indictments and submit his findings to the Justice Department. Almost a dozen advisers, helpers, cronies and fixers have been investigated – Manafort, Stone, Cohen, Papadopoulos, Kushner, Trump Jr, Page and Flynn, among others – but Trump may have given them a free hand with Russia while keeping himself plausibly in the dark. We now know that Manafort made $60 million working for the pro-Russian President Yanukovych in Ukraine. So the weights in the scale against Trump are heavy and getting heavier; he can feel the exposure coming. And the relationship of the lawmen to the president is as transparent as it is intricate: they know he knows they know. But defeating this presidency and preserving the rule of law are not two elements of a single undertaking. The tasks are distinct, and success in the first venture will depend on persistence in the second.