The real Trump scandals are perfectly legal
In Washington, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Trump’s most valuable political asset right now is Russiagate.
I’m not kidding.
Without that percolating pot of potential scandals and treasons, all attention would be on the far more consequential abuses, sins and blunders Donald Trump has wittingly and openly committed as president — otherwise known as his policies and positions. The greedy and perhaps traitorous escapades of a cadre of Trump aides and leeches, repulsive as they might be, are distractions from what Trump himself is doing in the full light of day, every day, as president.
This is not to minimize the potential crimes related to Russiagate, not at all. But I suspect we already know what the biggest of those allegations is: President Trump’s interfering with the FBI investigation by leaning on James Comey and then firing him. If true, that is a Nixonian abuse of power.
Next to that, the details of which Russian oligarchs and spies Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort might have met with, pimped for or were played by are small potatoes. All that needs to be investigated and perhaps prosecuted. Robert Mueller will do that. But I would be very surprised if Mueller or any congressional investigation finds that Trump himself knowingly collaborated or did anything treasonous. If he did, he’ll be toast soon enough. More likely Trump was totally reckless about whom he hired and associated with, just as he has been reckless in so many of his actions, foreign and domestic, as president.
There is a truism that has been around for a long time: In Washington, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal.
Was it illegal for Trump to talk to Comey about the Russia investigations and then fire him? Maybe. It could be obstruction of justice depending on the details. But based on what we already know, it was an abuse of power and position and certainly scandalous for Trump to even broach the topic with Comey. That is far more important than the incremental details of Russiagate that seem to consume the press and the Democratic opposition.
Was it illegal for President Bill Clinton to have has sex with an intern barely out of her teens in the actual Oval Office? No. But it was certainly scandalous. I felt then that he should have resigned and I still feel that way.
Despite the sordid audaciousness of Clinton’s behavior, there was still a quest to nail him with something technically illegal, like lying to a grand jury. There was something absurd about the whole drama.
His wife suffered a reverse fate. Republicans never caught Hillary Clinton in a real scandal or abuse, so they tried desperately to find some shard of evidence that she did something illegal related to Benghazi or her e-mails. They failed, but certainly crippled her as a presidential candidate.
Trump is protected by a shield of absurdity.
The man lies almost every day. Is that a scandal? It should be but it isn’t treated that way. His lies apparently haven’t broken the letter of the law — yet.
Trump has coddled authoritarian regimes in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia while provoking and insulting our best allies and neighbors and threatening national security and prosperity. But Trump’s foreign policy is a second-tier story for the press. The consequences are immense, but it isn’t a scandal story. So the cable networks give it far less coverage than whether Trump’s son-in-law met with a Putin crony. The proportions are off, as is our judgment.
Trump has made a mockery of the long held ethical standards we apply to presidents and other elected officials. For example, he hasn’t released his taxes, provided details of his financial interests or separated himself from those interests in any meaningful way. He has brought relatives with their own financial entanglements into the White House as his closest advisers.
Trump has also made a mockery of presidential dignity, manners and example. He uses his pulpit to be a bully, insulting opposition politicians, foreign leaders, journalists and other enemies of his state. He tweets out conspiracy theories, insults and nonsense. Any of that would be a scandal for any prior president. We’re numbed to Trump’s antics, however. And they aren’t illegal or secretive. They’re overt, not covert.
The danger — well, one of many dangers — is that Russiagate will turn into even more of a distraction than it is, leeching energy and attention away from vitally important policy battles. Trump’s opponents hope that Russiagate is the stake through Dracula’s heart. That is probably wishful thinking.
What we have learned in Trump’s first months in office is that his administration seems to be too incompetent to pass any legislation. In this sense, our system of checks and balances is working.
But we have also learned that his appetite for making global mischief is gluttonous and in this arena he has unilateral powers — to disrupt, alienate and antagonize. The system of checks and balances isn’t working well in that regard. And that is a scandal more important than Russiagate.
As bad as Russiagate might turn out to be, President Trump is brewing other scandals that will do far more harm to the American people, the world and the environment. But those scandals seem to be perfectly legal.