If you were to turn the clock back to 2009, and reveal to the world that Barack Obama’s first national security adviser, along with the manager of his campaign at the time of his nomination to the presidency, were unregistered agents of foreign governments, it would be nearly impossible to brace yourself for the ensuing political earthquake.
We inhabit the kind of disingenuous political environment in which a relatively trivial information-security and secrecy controversy—involving, say, a private email server—can be spun into an election-defining scandal, even if nobody can quite articulate what the stakes of the impropriety are. But the stakes of employing a campaign manager who’s been compromised by a foreign government—to say nothing of hiring a national security adviser who’s on the take from one or more—are hard to dispute and stunning to contemplate.
Before Donald Trump, it would very likely have ended a presidency.
And yet, this hypothetical state of affairs accurately describes Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
It is a testament to how thoroughly Donald Trump has degraded public expectations of appropriate political conduct—and to how extensive his misconduct in office has been—that these documented facts register at a lower wattage not just than his administration’s own budding email controversy, but than run-of-the-mill scandals like cabinet secretaries spending too much money on routine travel.
That Manafort and Flynn both face serious legal jeopardy is astonishing, but it has blended into the chaos surrounding the Trump administration so gently that the reasons the public should care typically go unmentioned in the stories written about them.
This may simply reflect the fact that a scandal like this was essentially impossible to fathom until now. If the stakes of Hillary Clinton’s email practices went unmentioned because they were understood to be relatively small, the stakes of the Manafort and Flynn scandal go unmentioned because they are difficult to process mentally.
But it is worth grappling with the meaning of the Manafort and Flynn investigations, because even a generous read paints Trump in an irredeemable light.
Part of the reason that these stories have not been all consuming media fixations is that the question of Trump’s direct involvement in the corruption of his own campaign remains open. We can thus learn that Manafort used his job in the Trump campaign—which he accepted on a pro bono basis—to curry favor with Russian oligarchs connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it only registers as a bombshell to an elite subset of reporters. Why sweat the campaign manager and the national security adviser (both already deposed) if the conspiracy goes all the way to the top?
But the story isn’t much better, and is in some ways worse, if you take Trump’s innocence or naivete for granted.
Let’s return for argument’s sake to the thought experiment in which candidate Barack Obama somehow hired an unregistered foreign agent, in debt to shady oligarchs, to run his campaign. This would have dogged Obama for his entire presidency, and might ultimately have cut it short, but the damage in his case would probably have been rather limited. In a normal campaign, the campaign manager is heavily vetted, and known to the candidate, or to the candidates most loyal advisers. But if a compromised individual somehow escaped detection in the vetting process, it wouldn’t go unnoticed when he sought to advance the interests of his foreign clients at the candidate’s political expense. Obama viewed the goal of rapprochement with the Russian government as an appealing one, but if his campaign manager had a single-minded obsession with that issue, or had connived to sneak controversial foreign policy changes into the party platform at the nominating convention, it would have raised red flags up and down the staff.
In a normal campaign, the fact that a figure with Manafort’s conflicts and ulterior motives had managed to infiltrate the principal’s inner circle might have triggered a massive shakeup. Trump, by contrast, only fired Manafort—and Manafort alone—when his foreign financial entanglements became public, and continued to rely upon his counsel for months, through the inauguration, until lawyers for both men put a stop to it.
This isn’t only damning if Trump turns out to be party to whatever games Manafort was playing.
There are clear political reasons a candidate for high office wouldn’t want a heavily conflicted individual in charge of his campaign. But there are civic-minded reasons to avoid this kind of corruption as well. A presidential campaign isn’t discontinuous with the administration that follows in victory. It is a seedbed for what could easily become the government of the United States. The promises presidential candidates make, the deals they cut, aren’t binding in any legal sense, but they are heavily confining.
A politician with a more-than-superficial commitment to the public interest would want to be confident his assurances were rooted in a basis more principled and defensible than helping his campaign manager extinguish his foreign debts. For more obvious reasons, he’d certainly want to be confident his national security adviser wasn’t an unregistered agent of a foreign government. It is no mystery why bad actors seek out powerful politicians, and attempt to influence them. It is in some ways more alarming to ponder the possibility that Trump is oblivious to, or unconcerned about, the character and motives of the people around him, than that Trump is directly compromised himself. It would imply that the scope of his vulnerability to manipulation was essentially boundless.
And this, again, is the benign interpretation of what we know.