The Only Way Back

Democrats must promise to investigate every aspect of the Trump administration, even if it takes decades.

Adam Schiff, Donald Trump.
Adam Schiff and Donald Trump.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images and Molly Riley/Getty Images.

Because I was sentient 100 days ago, I’m old enough to remember a time when American presidents were expected, as a matter of course, not to have paid foreign agents among their senior staff. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama’s national security adviser were revealed to have recently been on the payroll of Turkey’s Islamist government, as Donald Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was. And what if we’d learned that a onetime campaign manager of Obama was a foreign agent of pro-Russian political interests in Ukraine, like Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort? And that he appeared to have kept this entanglement secret, in violation of the law? How about if one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers had admitted to passing documents to a Russian spy, like Trump campaign adviser Carter Page? We’d either have an impeachment, armed right-wing militias marching on the capital, or both. Quotidian political life would, at the very least, have ground to a halt.

It should be grinding to a halt now. But instead, 100 days into Donald Trump’s terrible presidency, a strange miasma has settled over American politics. It’s like a nightmare where you know something hideous is happening, but your legs are leaden and you can’t scream. Certainly, the anti-Trump resistance is working its heart out, but few talk about avoiding the normalization of Trump anymore. The president’s main 100-day accomplishment—besides sticking a reactionary on the Supreme Court—has been to make previously inconceivable levels of corruption and staggering breaches of national security appear normal.

On both the left and the right, people discuss the Russia scandal as something that may or may not be proved. Speaking for many left-leaning skeptics, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi writes, “[I]t might be a good idea to wait for evidence of collusion before those of us in the media jump in the story with both feet.” This attitude shows how dramatically political standards have changed since Trump’s election. Certainly, it’s true that we don’t know if the Kremlin is blackmailing Trump with a tape of a peeing prostitute. We’re also far from understanding exactly how many millions of dollars various Russian oligarchs may have funneled to Trump, and what they might have expected in return. We know that Trump publicly urged Russia to hack his opponent, but we don’t know if he also did so privately.

But even if we never get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding Trump and Russia—mysteries that will haunt American culture, like JFK’s assassination, for the rest of our lives—we already know enough to conclude that the Russia scandal is big. Let’s look at what we’ve learned, over these past three months, about Manafort. We now know, thanks to an April New York Times story, that he went out of his way to insinuate himself into the Trump campaign, offering, for reasons that have never been explained, to work without pay. (Trump, a famous cheapskate, accepted.) And we know that earlier this month, Manafort’s spokesman said he would retroactively register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent of pro–Russian Ukrainian political interests, a tacit admission that he’d improperly failed to disclose this connection earlier. Whatever Trump’s other ties to Russia, whatever aid he accepted from the Kremlin, he let a paid agent of an unfriendly country run his campaign. That alone should threaten to end his presidency.

Flynn, we learned on Tuesday, may have violated the law in accepting payments from Turkey as well as from Russia. The White House’s failure to properly vet Flynn before giving him one of the country’s most sensitive national-security jobs should, again, be treated as a massive dereliction, and investigated thoroughly.

We also now know that one of Trump’s foreign-policy advisers, Carter Page, has been suspected by American intelligence of being a Russian intelligence asset, and admitted to BuzzFeed that he’d given documents about the energy business to a Russian intelligence operative. Yes, Page’s influence in the campaign appears to have been minor, but he was privy to internal meetings. A hundred days ago, there was an expectation that American presidents would keep people who might be compromised by Russian spies off their foreign-policy teams. If one managed to slip through, there would be urgent calls to find out who was responsible.

One could list 100 things that Trump has done—one for each debased day of his wretched presidency—that would be enough to impeach a Democrat. (Not all of Trump’s violations involve Russia, of course, though a bizarre number of them do.) Bill Clinton’s entire presidency was haunted by multiple investigations into Whitewater, a 1978 Arkansas real estate deal in which he and his wife lost money, and no wrongdoing was ever uncovered. In 2008, a Russian oligarch massively overpaid for a Palm Beach mansion owned by Trump, and it’s at best a political footnote.

That’s because Trump’s presidency, like his campaign, is a lowlife carnival; there are so many macabre sideshows and freakish violations of normal political behavior that we’re left stunned and dazed. Much of the mainstream media, and almost all elected Republicans, act as if the horror of this presidency were less than the sum of its parts. The outrages cancel each other out rather than accumulating. This massive inflation in what constitutes a scandal has the potential to be permanently corrupting.

Trump has not created this dynamic on his own. The Republican Party, convinced of its right to rule, has been ethically unbound since Richard Nixon. There is no Democratic equivalent of Watergate, or Iran–Contra, or the deceit of George W. Bush’s administration in selling the Iraq war. (The closest proximate thing was Bill Clinton’s lies about sexual relations with an intern in the Oval Office.) Over the past 50 years, Republican presidencies have been consistently more corrupt than Democratic ones. Yet Republicans have also treated our past two Democratic administrations as illegitimate and have undermined them with endless investigations into phony scandals like Whitewater and Benghazi. The result is that Democrats and Republicans operate under entirely different standards of appropriate political behavior.

This double standard was determinative in electing Trump. On April 22, the New York Times published a long look into FBI Director James Comey’s pivotal role in the 2016 election. It explains why Comey broke protocol to go public, just days before the election, with the FBI’s decision to reopen its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, even as he kept the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties secret. Essentially, Comey bent over backward to avoid any hint of covering for Clinton, because he feared Republicans’ capacity to create a political uproar. “Congressional Republicans were preparing for years of hearings during a Clinton presidency,” said the Times. “If Mr. Comey became the subject of those hearings, F.B.I. officials feared, it would hobble the agency and harm its reputation.” Comey apparently had no similar fear of Democrats, even when he thought that they might control the White House.

Every day, Trump shows us what politics look like when the rules only apply to one party. Already, because of Trump, America is a more cynical, corrupt, lawless place than it was 100 days ago. There is only one way back from this, and that is to make sure that someday, when Democrats retake at least one chamber of Congress, they investigate every shady thing that Trump, his cronies, and his relatives have done either in achieving or using public power, even if it takes decades. We don’t need Democrats chanting “lock them up” at rallies, but progressive activists should demand that politicians hoping to represent them promise to end Republican impunity. And then, when and if Democrats wrest back some measure of power from Republicans, activists should hold these politicians to their promises.

We’re going to need a subcommittee—maybe more than one—on foreign emoluments. We should have one specifically devoted to Ivanka Trump’s foreign businesses, as well as to the fund she’s starting to invest in female entrepreneurs, since unlike her father, she’s not exempt from federal conflict of interest statutes. (According to Axios, Ivanka already started soliciting foreign contributions to her fund—a move that’s almost comically hypocritical, given the Trump campaign’s attacks on foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.) We’re going to have to understand everything that went on at Mar-a-Lago—how Trump sold access to himself, and to whom, and what sort of security protocols were in place while he did so. Not only do we need a full, comprehensive airing of Flynn’s ties to Turkey and Russia, we also need to examine what the administration knew about the ways he might have been compromised. Comey should become the subject of protracted hearings over the political calculus that went into his decision-making during the campaign, just like he feared. The Russia investigation alone should dog Trump for the rest of his days.

One hundred days has not been enough time to fully grapple with how much damage Trump is doing to this country, and to figure out how handsomely he and his family are profiting from their rule. It is enough time to know that the project of holding him and his enablers accountable should stretch far into the American future, assuming that, after Trump, there is one.