It is hard to imagine a pattern of misconduct and recriminations more all consuming than the one engulfing Donald Trump’s administration today. But it is possible that the vastness of the scandal, which continues to develop before our eyes, is helping Trump withstand its potential lethality, like the many maladies of Montgomery Burns.
The question of how many people in Trump’s campaign helped facilitate a foreign espionage attack on Hillary Clinton and the Democrats looms so toweringly over politics, it scrambles our sense of proportion for the fact that Trump’s campaign manager and his national security adviser were both criminal agents of foreign governments, or that Trump and his allies are now openly pondering plans to kneecap or quash the federal investigation of those crimes.
First consider the basic uncertainty Trump has thrust into the equation. By firing an FBI director in an ill-fated attempt to obstruct this investigation, Trump has conditioned everyone to wonder whether he will try again—by firing special counsel Robert Mueller or otherwise conniving to undermine him. Most observers have adapted to this conditioning by dropping their jaws to the floor, but Trump’s GOP and conservative media allies are actively angling to influence Trump’s actual conduct.
Now consider a comparably harmless scandal that nevertheless defined last year’s election. I’m quite certain that if President Barack Obama’s closest political allies had conspired openly to quash the Justice Department’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email practices, they would have met fierce resistance and indignation from all corners of politics. The galling impropriety, rather than the tally of differing appeals, would have been the story.
We don’t even really have to imagine. When Bill Clinton strolled on to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s airplane in June of last year, and struck up what was by all accounts a benign tarmac conversation, the press was quite understandably stunned.
Conservatives in particular assumed the worst. They floated baseless theories, accusing Clinton and Lynch of conspiring to absolve Hillary, and pretended to be scandalized by the very idea of conspiring to obstruct a law enforcement investigation.
Today, it’s Republicans who find themselves in the crosshairs of a federal investigation, but this time the obstruction conspiracy is real, and happening out in the clear.
According to Vanity Fair and other outlets, Trump’s former top political aide, and regular phone buddy, Steve Bannon is advising Trump that Mueller “must be contested and checked.’
Roger Stone, the leathery Republican ratfucker who still advises Trump, and may face legal exposure himself, is telling Trump to demand a special prosecutor investigation of a fabricated Hillary Clinton scandal—itself a horrifyingly authoritarian idea—as a naked pretext for making Mueller’s job impossible.
“[A] special prosecutor looking into Uranium One would also have to investigate the F.B.I.’s role in approving the deal, thereby making Mueller—who was in charge of the bureau at the time—a target,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman. “‘You would immediately have to inform Mueller, Comey, and [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein that they are under federal investigation,’ Stone said. ‘Trump can’t afford to fire Mueller politically. But this pushes him aside.”
Republican congressional leaders have, of course, already greenlit Clinton investigations, to muddy the waters of the Russia scandal and discredit Mueller in the hope of making him expendable.
“I think,” said Devin Nunes, the compromised chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “the next focus is going to be on whether or not did the FBI use this dossier to get any warrants, did they use it to open a counterintelligence investigation and if they did, if they’re using unverified information to open up inquiries into American citizens.”
But instead of experiencing the open conspiracy to obstruct an investigation of Trump as a scandal in its own right, we are treated to endless reporting on whether the conspiracy is coming together or not.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the conspirators have made little headway, as “Trump resists mounting pressure from Bannon and others to fight Mueller.”
The Daily Beast noted that Bannon et al are running into resistance from Trump’s legal team.
These are interesting and important reports so far as they go, but they belie the fact that the conspiring itself is an enormously troubling fact. Had Clinton appealed to Obama to order DOJ to drop the email investigation, and had Obama had given the request serious consideration, Republicans would have impeached him, and the Justice Department might well have charged Clinton with obstruction. The Bill Clinton, Loretta Lynch encounter, we were told, “provokes political furor.”
There’s no shortage of furor today. Democrats in Congress have implored Republicans to combine forces in defense of Mueller’s investigation. Republicans have insouciantly rebuffed them in favor of helping Trump refocus the public on other matters. More important scandals do lie elsewhere, but they are the ones Mueller is investigating. If Mueller eventually lays out a wide-ranging conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, running all the way to the tops of both enterprises, we’ll all possess the proper vocabulary to describe the moment. The fact that Trump and his Republican allies are contemplating how best to keep Mueller from ever getting there is the outrage in front of our noses we’re all struggling to see.