In the almost two years since he became a public figure, Donald Trump has demonstrated one unique political skill-the ability to evade consequences for one scandal, outrageous statement or illegal act simply by rushing into the next, frequently worse, one. It is difficult to know whether this strategy is the result of political calculus, instinct or dumb luck on Trump’s part, but it has helped him avoid being held accountable for what are now dozens of incidents that would have either torpedoed most political campaigns or been sufficiently damaging to result in impeachment for most presidents.
Trump’s insulting and racist remarks in the summer of 2016 about Gonzalo Curiel a Mexican American judge, his menacing body language towards Hillary Clinton during the campaign debates and his planning a military strike over dessert in an unsecured location are all examples of scandals that turned into two-day stories and then were forgotten by most Americans. The one issue that Trump has not been able to turn into a similar two-day story is his relationship with Russia. There have been specific sub-stories that have been quickly forgotten, such as his calling for Russia to release more emails, or his disturbing ties to shady investors in the former Soviet Union, but the bigger picture questions remain.
As the Mueller investigation continues, it is becoming more evident that, at the very least, Donald Trump was involved in complex business dealings, that were in a legal gray area with various Russians with strong ties to the Kremlin and that Russia, sought to help make Trump President. It remains very possible that the reality is much worse and that Trump campaign personnel at the highest levels knew about this and either tacitly encouraged it or actively supported those efforts. If this is true, and there is ample reason to believe it is, then the Trump-Russia scandal, with apologies to Watergate nostalgics, is the biggest political scandal in American history and should result in impeachment and jail time for many in and around the White House.
For better or for worse, there is a large gap between what should happen and what likely will happen with regard to Trump and Russia. Therein lies the second piece of Trump’s, perhaps accidental, political genius. It is also the reason that as long as the Republican Party controls Congress, or at the very least, has enough votes, only 34 are needed, in the Senate to block impeachment, Trump is very unlikely to be removed from office. Trump’s most brilliant stroke, or luckiest break, is that from the moment Republican leaders in Congress were briefed on Russia’s role in the US election, back in the summer of 2016, and decided to do nothing, they became co-conspirators in this scandal.
By doing that, these Republican leaders expanded the scope of the scandal to include not just the possibility of a President who is compromised by an unsavory relationship with a hostile foreign power, but a major political party that has been actively involved in concealing that from the American people since before the election. Thus, the scandal is so big that following it to its conclusion will not simply bring down a President, but will destroy one of our political parties and very possibly substantially damage other political institutions as well.
In this context, occasional statements by the people like Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) that if the President fired Robert Mueller, it would be the beginning of the end of his presidency or by the office of the Speaker Paul Ryan urging Trump to let Mueller finish his job, should not be taken at face value. These are not principled statements by patriotic Americans. Rather they are last ditch efforts by ethically broken politicians to salvage their reputations by words that, if the last two years teach us anything, are extremely unlikely to be backed up by meaningful action.
The Russia scandal has been a constant of the Trump presidency, but its intensity has waxed and waned and will continue to do that in the coming months. This is the one scandal, or outrage, from which Donald Trump has not been able to distract the American people and his political opponents, but he has succeeded in pushing it into the background with some frequency. Trump has been aided in this not only by Republican politicians who lack the integrity to challenge the leader of their party, but also by some on the left who inanely think that Democrats are spending too much time on a minor thing like a foreign power subverting our electoral processes, very possibly enough so as to change the outcome, and holding significant influence over our President.
The firing of Andrew McCabe, the latest Tweets by prominent Republicans who are, for the moment, displeased with Trump, the possibility of Robert Mueller being fired, Trump’s phone call to Putin congratulating him on winning reelection and the drumbeat from Republican loyalists, willing to sacrifice their country on the altar of fealty to a morally corrupt megalomaniac, that the investigation is little more than partisan chicanery, have brought Russia back into focus this week, but they have not brought Trump meaningfully closer to justice or brought our country on the path to restoring democracy.