Shortly after announcing he would not seek re-election in 2018, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) attributed his decision to the fact that the Republican Party had become amoral in its pursuit of power.
“The end justifies the means; you gotta win,” he told Vice News in an interview. “And we’ve convinced ourselves that we have to win because the country will go to Hades in a hand basket if my team doesn’t win.”
Asked what he made of the GOP’s purpose in 2018, the best he could say was “the goal is to win.”
As chairman of the House oversight committee, Gowdy has nearly endless jurisdiction to investigate the conduct of the executive branch. By unburdening himself in this very public way, many political observers wondered whether Gowdy would, in a better-late-than-never way, spend his final months in Congress discharging his obligation to check the Trump administration honorably.
Nobody expected Gowdy would use his powers to bloody Donald Trump over imagined infractions, the way he bloodied Hillary Clinton as chairman of the Benghazi committee before the election. But he at least created the impression that he had reached a breaking point with the see-no-evil code he had enforced up until that point.
Being a principled oversight chairman, moreover, isn’t necessarily incompatible with winning at all costs, at least not in every case. Trump is awash in scandals, at least some of which could in theory be put to rest with greater transparency. Is Trump trying to bail out a Chinese telecommunications company, ZTE, because the Chinese government bribed him by loaning a Trump-involved Indonesian development project hundreds of millions of dollars? Or will some larger public interest ultimately be served by this decision? If the latter, then Gowdy would be doing Trump and the GOP a solid by getting to the bottom of it.
On Tuesday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) decried Gowdy’s apparent indifference to Trump scandals as an abdication of his oversight responsibility. “Though he brought us those endless Benghazi investigations,” Schiff said, “he has now decided that, now that the Clintons are no longer a target, there really isn’t any point in conducting investigations on that committee.”
The fact that Gowdy is taking no steps to investigate Trump’s efforts to bail out ZTE is worse than an abdication. Taken together with the GOP’s “ends justifies the means” approach he confessed to, it is circumstantial evidence that Trump’s ZTE intervention is as corrupt as it looks.
It is a common temptation in the Trump era to seek “normal” explanations for extraordinary conduct—reflexive partisanship or inexperience rather than guilt and corruption—even when the normal explanations strain credulity. Most of that conduct is exactly what it looks like, and only by letting go of normal explanations does all of this seemingly inexplicable behavior begin to make sense.
On Wednesday, the Office of Government Ethics referred Trump to the Justice Department for omitting porn-star-hush-money debt to Michael Cohen from his 2017 financial disclosure, which is a crime. How OGE caught Trump is no mystery: Trump reimbursed Cohen last year, disclosed the reimbursement on this year’s financial disclosure, and OGE noticed the mismatch. Why OGE was able to catch Trump—why Trump would fail to disclose his debt to Cohen, but then voluntarily disclose the reimbursement—is a different matter, and one commentators have struggled to explain.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani is telling reporters that Trump disclosed the reimbursement because he was required to, and that the looming disclosure deadline drove their decision to come clean about the reimbursement publicly. CNN’s Chris Cillizza among others found this explanation persuasive.
It is not persuasive.
Even if you ignore Trump’s historic opacity and unrivaled lying, it doesn’t explain the discrepancy between this year’s disclosure and last year’s. Trump omitted the debt in the first instance despite an essentially identical disclosure requirement, and he did so for a reason.
What changed in between is that continuing the omission became untenable. Early this year, the Wall Street Journal learned about the hush money payment and reported it publicly for the first time. Initially, Cohen lead reporters to believe he’d bought Stormy Daniels’ silence with his own money. When campaign legal experts identified this as a likely campaign finance violation, stories began to change. The Journal learned that Cohen had complained widely about the fact that Trump had not reimbursed him. Trump continued to hang the whole thing on Cohen, creating palpable tension between the two. But when the FBI raided Cohen’s home, office, and other places, the cover story carried added legal jeopardy, because federal agents would notice any discrepancies between Trump’s sworn attestations and Cohen’s actual financial records. Disclosure became Trump’s least bad option, but his web of lies was so tangled by that point he didn’t realize he had trapped himself the moment he signed his name to a disclosure form he knew to be inaccurate.
The “normal” explanation is a complete garble, but if you assume Trump was serious about covering up his affair with Stormy Daniels, and would have continued to lie about his arrangement with her had neither the Journal nor the FBI intervened, everything falls into place.
Which is, in turn, why Trey Gowdy and Republicans in Congress won’t touch the story. House Speaker Paul Ryan punted it to the Federal Elections Commission. If there were some exculpatory context they could bring to light, they would. Republicans would be better off if Trump weren’t caught in a conspiracy to mislead the government. Their abdication is consciousness of Trump’s guilt.
It goes on like this. In the past few days, we’ve seen reporters interpret what looks exactly like money laundering to the Trump boys’ imagined aversion to real estate debt, and wonder aloud why the Trump campaign (which was in knowing receipt of Russian election assistance) didn’t call the FBI when approached by Russians offering election assistance.
Late Wednesday, New Yorker‘s Ronan Farrow published a story based on an interview with an anonymous federal investigator, who, under penalty of imprisonment, leaked Cohen’s confidential banking information (contained in a so-called suspicious activity report) last week, after he discovered that two other Cohen-related SARs had disappeared from the government’s files. This source blew the whistle because he worried someone, or some people, in the government were engaged in a coverup of unfathomable dimensions.
As both this whistleblower and experts Farrow interviewed acknowledged, it’s possible that the records weren’t suppressed maliciously. They could have been removed from the system temporarily by request of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, or the U.S. attorney’s office for the southern district of New York, or for other legitimate, though highly unusual, reasons.
Here again we have a scandal that’s ideally suited for congressional overseers who want to both do their jobs well and also make one of Trump’s problems go away. If there’s an innocent explanation, Republicans with subpoena power are better placed than anyone else in the country to figure out what it is, and get that information to the public.
Suspicions will mount until we know one way or another. It’s inconceivable to me that the truth of the matter won’t eventually come out, with or without Trey Gowdy’s help, and I can’t claim to know what we’ll learn when that happens. But the best reason to suspect something is amiss here is the GOP’s indifference to it as an investigatory matter. Confronted with an opportunity to prove that a deep state agent illegally violated Michael Cohen’s civil rights based on unfounded suspicions, and in a way that harmed Trump badly, Republicans have instead said nothing.
The innocuous explanation in this case may actually be correct here, and very smart people with great insight into how federal law enforcement works are tempted by that explanation. But this is Trump. We’d be dumb to bet against this being exactly what it appears to be.