The most widely teased passage of former FBI Director James Comey’s book is plucked from a scene set after the election, when intelligence community leaders, including Comey himself, traveled to Trump Tower in Manhattan to brief the incoming administration on the intelligence community’s conclusions about the scope and purpose of Russian interference.
Comey writes that Donald Trump and his advisers couldn’t have been less interested in the substantive implications of Russia’s efforts to interfere with American democracy—it was a messaging problem in their minds, and one they expected the assembled spies and counterspies to help them solve.
“I sat there thinking, Holy crap, they are trying to make each of us ‘amica nostra’—friend of ours. To draw us in,” Comey writes. “As crazy as it sounds, I suddenly had the feeling that, in the blink of an eye, the president-elect was trying to make us all part of the same family and that Team Trump had made it a ‘thing of ours.’”
By January 2017, this was already a tired insight into Trump’s ethics, and it is even less explosive now. Trump behaves like a mobster (or at least the way he imagines mobsters act) all the time. A handful of reporters working on the periphery of the campaign beat in 2015 and 2016 resurfaced Trump’s business ties to known mafiosi, and anyone curious enough to learn knows Trump has been in league with crooks, oligarchs, and money launderers for years. Comey’s epiphany will come as no surprise even to Trump’s staunchest defenders, including Steve Bannon, who rightly sees the special counsel’s investigation as a “Gambino-style roll-up.”
But Comey’s epiphany is timely nevertheless. Trump’s political method mixes mass tribalism with the kind of mob-like conscription of notionally ethical elite individuals that Comey describes in his book. He used this method to co-opt and compromise Republicans in Congress during the election, and has used it as president to avoid congressional oversight and to discredit law enforcement officers investigating him. Those who resist his recruitment efforts, like Comey and a handful of elected GOP officials, get fired, or attacked, or driven out of political life. And with the rule of law closing in on him from multiple directions now, he will use the same method in an attempt to save his presidency, even if it means permanently corrupting the political system of the United States.
Trump is now ensnared in at least two federal criminal investigations, both of which seemingly encompass his conduct as head of the Trump Organization. The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson, who has studied the Trump Organization closely, argued this weekend that when the FBI seized Trump-fixer Michael Cohen’s personal and business records, it marked the beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency.
“Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its partners around the world,” Davidson writes, “he was chief consigliere and dealmaker throughout its period of expansion into global partnerships with sketchy oligarchs. He wasn’t a slick politico who showed up for a few months. He knows everything, he recorded much of it, and now prosecutors will know it, too. It seems inevitable that much will be made public…. [I]t seems likely that, when we look back on this week, we will see it as a turning point. We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency.”
Davidson’s piece invited backlash from critics who detected in it a strain of the hubris that defined most political punditry in 2016. Journalists have identified dozens career-ending Trump scandals that turned out not to be career-ending, and at a glance, Davidson’s article scans as yet another entry in that genre.
But the article is more of a Rorschach test than a specific prediction of the future. Davidson does not define “end stage” in his article. The closest he comes is by comparing the inevitability of this political “end stage” to calamities like the 2008 financial crisis and the Iraq war, which were identifiable in advance by people who were paying close enough attention. A hopeful interpretation of his analysis is that Trump’s legal problems will become so all-consuming that support for him within his own political party will collapse, and Trump will resign or be impeached. But that’s not the only interpretation available, and the Iraq and Wall Street analogies don’t point in any obvious way to a happy ending.
The Russia and Cohen investigations expose Trump and his campaign and his business organization to such serious legal jeopardy that it is difficult to fathom a future in which criminality and corruption aren’t the traits that define Trump’s presidency. That’s one way to conceive of Davdison’s “end stage.” But it doesn’t mean his presidency couldn’t limp along for years, hobbled by its legal woes. A zombie presidency, but a presidency nonetheless, with many mighty instruments of power still at his disposal. What we know to a near certainty is that as the heat increases, Trump will try to enlist more and more people into “this thing of his” as his only means of political survival—and perhaps as his only means of sparing those friends of his from justice.
He will extort support from the ranks of Republican officialdom, which may already be too tainted by allegiance to Trump to credibly sever ties with its criminal leader.
Most corrosively, he will conscript more and more of his supporters into the ethical netherworld of Trumpism, convincing millions of Americans to scoff at ethics and law, and serve instead as a human-political shield around him, so that he can’t be removed from office. This process would serve to normalize his gangster ethic across large swaths of the country, among a radicalized pro-Trump cohort that will be around to poison civic life in America long after Trump has exited the stage.
And the terrifying thing about it is he might succeed. Reaching the beginning of the end doesn’t imply that justice will prevail swiftly, or even that it will prevail at all. It only implies that Trump’s path to redemption is closed and the best he can do is hang on for dear life. The end stage of Trump’s presidency is upon us, but it isn’t one in which he ultimately loses. It may turn out to be one in which we all do.