We’ve Reached the Breaking PointDavid Frum
In June, President Donald Trump was enjoying a rare respite from scandal. He had successfully squelched Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Mueller had agreed to abide by Department of Justice guidance that the president could not be indicted for violating any criminal law. Since Mueller had also limited his examination of “collusion” to potential violations of criminal law, the Mueller investigation had marched itself into a dead end of predetermined futility.
Trump celebrated by granting a rare non–Fox News interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos asked him: What if another foreign government offered him dirt on an opponent in 2020? What would Trump do?
“I think you might want to listen; there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” he said. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘We have information on your opponent’—oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
And: “It’s not an interference. They have information—I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI—if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research. ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”
So don’t say you weren’t warned. Trump got away with it the first time. The lesson he learned was to try again.
Back in the early days of the Trump presidency, Trump’s enablers wistfully suggested that he might grow into the job as he learned not to do corrupt things.
In June 2017, news broke that Trump had demanded FBI Director James Comey go easy on Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. “The president’s new at this,” then–House Speaker Paul Ryan said at the time. “He’s new to government. So he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He’s just new to this.”
Give him time, Ryan seemed to suggest, and Trump might stop acting like a criminal in office.
Trump drew a very different conclusion from the one to which Ryan had hoped to nudge him. He concluded: Nobody is going to stop me.
The breathtaking thing about Trump’s latest abuse is how many people knew about some, or all, of it as it happened. Vice President Mike Pence personally spoke to the Ukrainian president about the importance of “corruption”—which in Trump-speak means the importance of doing more of it, not less.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney relayed the order to block the distribution of congressionally voted-on funds to Ukraine.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extracted statements from Ukrainian officials, in what seems like an effort to shield Trump from the scandal.
And all of this happened in plain sight. Everybody could see the money being withheld for months after Congress had voted on it. Everybody knew that Trump’s personal emissary Rudy Giuliani had traveled to Ukraine to seek dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden. Giuliani appeared on TV to talk about it!
There’s no mystery; there’s never been a mystery. There’s been only impunity, and there continues to be impunity.
Trump has never been furtive. He commits his wrongs in the full glare of publicity. Bribes to Trump are not delivered by shadowy men in underground garages. They are collected right on Pennsylvania Avenue, in a garish hotel with Trump’s name right on the door. Trump does not stealthily embezzle Republican donations. The party simply books its events on his premises, every misappropriated dollar counted and disclosed. When Trump invited Russia to hack his opponent and deliver her emails to him, he did it on live television.
Trump takes advantage of a human tendency to think, If he’s not ashamed, maybe he did nothing wrong. Normal people are taken aback by pathological people, and Trump is the most pathological president in American history.
But we’re at the breaking point. The Ukraine story confirms that Trump will do anything. Anything. Everything.
He relies on everybody around him being too dazed, too psychologically weak to resist him and uphold even the most basic legality and decency. So far, he’s gambled right. It’s time—way past time—to prove him wrong.