The latest bombshells in the New York Times, showing that President Donald Trump’s inner circle knowingly met with Russian government representatives to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, indicate both a staggering level of corruption inside this administration and a cavalier willingness to obscure the truth until caught.
Although it may be tempting to see the White House as one enormous undifferentiated scandal soufflé, there is still utility in considering each layer separately and pursuing investigations or remedies for each. For ethical or legal failures like those reported by the Times, law enforcement inquiries followed by prosecution make the most sense. For governance failures, like those involving the travel ban, health care, or diplomacy, there are mostly political remedies. Lumping all these issues together may actually be counterproductive, for overreaching could enable Trump and his team to skirt both legal and political accountability.
Nearly six months into the Trump presidency, there appear to be at least four separate scandals percolating at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The first relates to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, broader Russian espionage activity in the United States, and the degree to which the Trump campaign and/or administration may have colluded with the Russians to affect the outcome of the election.
Thanks to incredible reporting by the Times, we now have documentary evidence that at the height of the campaign Trump’s inner circle knowingly met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, an attorney purportedly representing the Russian government. The purpose of this meeting was to obtain negative information about Clinton and the Democrats. President Trump was conspicuously absent from the meeting (although he was apparently in New York City that day), but three of his top lieutenants—son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort—did attend.
The extent of Veselnitskaya’s ties to the Russian regime remain an open question (although she denies them, naturally). However, based on Trump Jr.’s email, it appears the Trump team took the meeting believing she represented the Russian government. Whether you call it coordination, collusion, or mere kibbitzing, the public facts about this meeting suggest that one of several crimes may have occurred, including conspiracy to steal trade secrets (one way to characterize theft of Democratic National Committee emails), conspiracy to take unlawful foreign contributions, or conspiracy to commit some other election-related offense. Based on this information, this scandal looks like a matter for the Justice Department and will most likely fall under the jurisdiction of special counsel Robert Mueller, because it closely relates to his ongoing Russia-related inquiry.
The ultimate question in this contemporary inquiry may come to echo Sen. Howard Baker’s penultimate query of recently fired White House counsel John Dean on June 29, 1973: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” As of now, there are no publicly known pieces of evidence that directly link President Trump to the June 9 meeting with Veselnitskaya. However, it’s reasonable for investigators to ask this question, given what we know now about the involvement of Trump’s inner circle, Trump’s businesses, and Trump’s personal proximity to the meeting that day in New York.
Second, there are those business and personal conflicts of interest that now appear to be intertwined with the Trump administration’s Russia ties. The Trump Jr./Manafort/Kushner meeting was instigated by a publicist, Rob Goldstone, linked to Russians who supported the Trump Organization’s 2013 Miss Universe pageant. We first learned of this meeting because Kushner reported it on a revised security clearance questionnaire. Kushner also reported that he’d “had over 100 calls or meetings with representatives of more than 20 countries” during the campaign and transition.
Trump’s vast global business interests create conflicts of interest on many levels, setting a poor example for integrity within the executive branch and potentially affecting myriad policy decisions. The Trump Organization’s tentacles, as well as those of the Kushner business empire, also provide vectors for influence and intrigue, as shown here. These conflicts of interest and shadowy ties also deserve full investigation and possibly prosecution.
The third piece of the scandal soufflé relates to the corrupt activity of the first two but is bigger than just a violation of the law: It is the extent to which Russia is waging an uncontested political and intelligence warfare campaign against the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. intelligence community is unanimous in its belief that this campaign affected the 2016 election. More recently, this campaign grew to include clandestine cyberattacks on U.S. energy companies.
Trump’s resetting of the American relationship with Russia is a scandal in its own right. It defies American interests, contradicts our values, and goes against the considered judgment of nearly every national security professional who has opined on the matter. And yet Trump continues to court Putin and give him victory after victory in the foreign policy arena. This past weekend’s lackluster performance by Trump at the G-20 summit—and the reactions of world leaders, including erstwhile American allies—illustrates the damage wrought already by Trump’s flawed approach. Although Trump may have campaigned on a promise to put America first, in his words and deeds he appears to be putting Russia first whenever the two nations’ interests intersect.
The fourth and last scandal is the biggest of all, because it’s a catchall for every bit of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance committed by the Trump team. From signing an unconstitutional travel ban to threatening 23 million Americans with the loss of their health care to failing to staff his agencies, the Trump administration is failing America. Early in the team’s tenure, Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon told a conservative audience he and his people planned to pursue the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Bannon and his team have kept their word. Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun to roll back years of environmental regulations. The Republicans in Congress are working on a bill that would eviscerate health care options for America’s middle class and working class, while handing a tax boon to America’s wealthy. Even those buoyed by Trump’s policies and budgets, like the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs, appear to have gotten insufficient funding under the Trump plan. And the federal government continues to labor with just 23 percent of Senate-confirmed leaders even nominated, let alone confirmed, thanks to Trump’s neglect of the presidential appointment process.
Although there is a role for the special counsel and for congressional oversight with regard to these last two scandals, the remedies here are more political than legal. In handing America to Putin on a silver platter, Trump is putting our national security in jeopardy. In neglecting his duties as president, Trump is hurting the American economy and much more, too. These failures don’t break the law so much as they break the public trust that we place in our political leaders. As such, our recourse is to seek redress through congressional action and also by denying Trump re-election in 2020.
There is no quick remedy here. Criminal investigations and congressional inquiries move slowly and deliberately; the wheels of political process move at an even more glacial pace. In the weeks, months, and years ahead, the best strategy will likely be the one envisioned by the Constitution’s framers: checks and balances. Congress should act, and the courts have a duty to balance the power of an imperial and unwise president like Donald Trump, at least until such time that Congress or the people decide he is unfit to serve as president.