As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump would brush aside scrutiny of his corruption by characterizing it as wile, and promising to deploy his wiliness on behalf of the public.
During his first debate against Hillary Clinton, he parried an attack on his history of avoiding taxes, and his unprecedented refusal to disclose his tax returns, by saying “that makes me smart.”
Of course, Trump’s contempt for public ethics, well-documented at the time, extended far beyond clever accounting and general opacity. Trump ran a scam real estate seminar that cheated financially desperate people out of their savings. He settled both money laundering and housing discrimination cases with the federal government. He used bankruptcy proceedings to screw over investors in his projects while personally pocketing millions.
When he ran for president he glossed over all of this unsavoriness with a blanket pledge meant to turn what should have been massive political liabilities into assets. “”My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy, I grabbed all the money I can get,” he would say. “Now I want to be greedy for the United States.” I may have been an asshole, but as president I’ll be your asshole.
Trump’s promise to advocate for working people was, unsurprisingly, no more credible than his promise to help Average Joes become real estate magnates. His victory in the election has served largely to demonstrate just how damaging it is be to seat someone with complete disdain for ethical behavior in the highest realm of public service. Thanks to Republicans in Congress, the damage is proving more extensive than most observers imagined it would be.
Shortly after the 2016 election, I argued that the best way to understand how Trump had conducted himself in business life and as a candidate—all the malevolence and incompetence that would come to define his conduct in high office—stemmed from his sense of his own impunity.
This week’s revelations about the lawlessness of Trump’s data firm, Cambridge Analytica, are stunning in their own right but blend seamlessly into the culture of impunity Trump has built around himself.
Pluck nearly any Trump-administration outrage out of the litany—his self-enrichment and openness to bribery, his cabinet full of grifters bilking the public for ludicrous travel perks and other dubious expenses, his campaign’s collaboration with Russians subverting the election—and it fits a picture of continued indifference to rules and the wellbeing of people outside his family. The pivot to serving the public interest never happened.
Against this backdrop it is no surprise that Trump is behaving most recklessly toward the one institution that threatens to puncture this impunity: the Justice Department, and its special counsel investigation in particular. His dedication to ruining deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe’s life in order to impeach McCabe’s credibility as a witness, his efforts to end the investigation entirely, his somewhat frenzied search for new lawyers (presumably lawyers who will tolerate his meddling in the investigation) all speak to the importance Trump places on staving off true accountability.
Republicans in Congress are begging Trump (literally) not to tip the country into an acute Constitutional crisis. But their primary concern isn’t the integrity of rule of law. It’s that Trump might call their bluff and draw the entire nation’s attention to their capitulation.
In this realm as in every other, Republicans have turned a blind eye to Trump’s corruption, increasing a general sense that the corruption really does “make him smart.” They are teaching millions of Americans just how far you can get in life on the strength of what should be the most disreputable kind of behavior, perhaps dooming us to a crisis of public ethics that will plague American society for a generation. There is very little (short of the elections Trump is refusing to protect from outside sabotage) that can serve as a rebuke to this toxic impunity. Mueller, the person currently best situated to deliver that rebuke, is trying to determine whether Trump has a corrupt relationship with the foreign government that tipped the election to him; he has already indicted and obtained guilty pleas from nearly 20 individuals. The problem Republicans are trying as hard as possible to ignore is that Trump’s impunity encompasses both the power and the desire to fire him.