Not long after the FBI raid on Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen’s office and home, journalist Adam Davidson made a bold prediction in the New Yorker: “We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency.”
Cohen, Trump’s behind-the-scenes fixer, mostly stayed out of the spotlight until early this year. That’s when his role in making an October 2016 payment of US$130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels to prevent her from publishing her story of a 2006 affair with Trump came to light.
Since the FBI raids, Daniels’ own attorney Michael Avenatti has revealed a whole raft of transactions that make Cohen’s payoff to Daniels seem the least consequential.
Major multinational corporations, including AT&T, Novartis and Korean Aerospace, have been caught — and admitted to — paying Cohen millions of dollars for “services” that seem little more than influence-peddling.
What’s most noteworthy about the latest revelations that have tumbled out is there’s very little that has an obvious connection to the ongoing Justice Department investigation, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence services during the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen’s influence-peddling scheme is an easy-to-understand case of political corruption. In contrast, the Trump-Russia story revolves around obscure links between Trump’s entourage and shadowy Russia-connected entities. The Stormy Daniels payoff story, for its part, seems the stuff of tabloid sensationalism.
Cohen may be a 21st century version of old-time political fixers like Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt, who justified his “honest graft” with the quip: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
But Cohen is far from alone in what is probably the most openly corrupt presidency since Warren G. Harding’s interior secretary took oil company bribes to lease federal lands in sweetheart deals during the 1920s.
At the top sits a man whose pre-White House career was less that of a business genius than a con man, as profiled in David Cay Johnson’s The Making of Donald Trump.
And the sleaze certainly didn’t stop when he took over the Oval Office. Trump properties have already made $15.1 million from GOP political committees, industry groups and government business, while the Trump Organization is trading on the president's position to score deals overseas.
Trump has been more brazen than any previous president in making money from his office, but much of this is standard-issue corruption. But it’s important to bear two things in mind.
First, most of the outrageous fleecing of the public by the Trump administration is accomplished through perfectly legal means that don’t make the headlines.
According to ProPublica, Trump has installed as many as 187 former corporate lobbyists in positions in which they are able to rewrite government policy in favour of their industries. Dozens have special statuses, under which they can simultaneously work as government consultants and in the private sector.
At least 125 Trump appointees came directly from conservative think tanks. Implementing their deregulatory agenda has ended a ban on federal coal leasing, repealed the Clean Power Act requirements, an end to “net neutrality” for internet consumers and the cancelling of arbitration rules under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Second, much of what is under investigation today is not “garden-variety” corruption that we’ve seen before.
Trump and others in his campaign and company may have been engaged in serious criminal wrongdoing, which the raid on Cohen’s office may provide evidence for.
In his book Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff quoted Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon connecting the dots about the direction of Mueller’s investigation: “This is all about money laundering ... Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner ... It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit.
“The Kushner shit is greasy. They’re going to go right through that. They’re going to roll those two guys up, and say play me or trade me.”
So will Mueller save us all?
Elite Washington — particularly the Democratic Party and its acolytes in the liberal opinion-making media — hopes that Mueller’s Justice Department investigation will end the Trump nightmare.
Their glee was practically audible last December when Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. The provisions of Flynn’s plea bargain strongly suggested he had provided sufficient evidence to Mueller to implicate more senior people in the Trump orbit, even the president.
It’s unclear exactly in what crimes the Trump team is implicated. So far, Mueller has secured guilty pleas that amount to admissions of perjury.
It is an article of faith in Democratic circles that Trump colluded with a Russian intelligence operation to “hack” the US elections. Evidence may emerge that conclusively confirms this, but for now, the Democrats’ faith is entirely based on supposition.
For elite Democrats, this is a convenient excuse. If the Russians are really responsible for Trump, then there’s no need to examine the real reasons — primarily a candidate standing for a status quo, hawkish, neoliberal agenda — that important Democratic base constituencies deserted them in 2016.
Receiving material support from non-US entities is illegal under US election law, but it’s not the first time that such charges have been alleged. A number of fundraisers for Democratic President Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996 were prosecuted for what many Clinton opponents alleged was a Chinese intelligence operation to influence the election.
Both Nixon and Reagan have also been accused of doing deals with foreign powers before coming to power.
If the Trump campaign accepted help from a foreign power or made overtures to it before it was officially entitled to, this hardly sets it far beyond the mainstream of US statecraft.
According to the unanimous assessment of all Obama-era US intelligence agencies, the Russian state did engage in a multifaceted campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.
But there are conflicting opinions. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald insists that no solid evidence has been produced to justify these intelligence assessments. On the other hand, another Pulitzer Prize-winning Intercept journalist, James Risen, has moved from being a sceptic on Trump-Russia collusion story to believing the evidence points to collusion.
Whatever ultimately proves true, it definitely appears that various members of the Trump entourage had ongoing contacts with Russian government figures, which they have wanted to conceal since the election. But the purpose for this isn’t known.
And Trump may ultimately be more vulnerable to “obstruction of justice” charges for his ham-fisted attempts to shut down the investigation, starting with his firing of FBI Director James Comey.
The Trump-Russia investigation may be, in part, the national security establishment’s revenge against a leadership team whose “America First” foreign policy challenges the multilateralist, free-trade agenda that has guided the US for decades.
But the Trump-Russia affair also illustrates the deep rot in Washington’s bipartisan political class. This rot has now allowed a band of grifters, incompetents, money launderers and conspiracy theorists to end up in a position to influence US foreign policy.
For US strategists without a stake in the Trump administration, it stands to reason that you can’t be a successful imperial power if you allow a second-rate adversary to penetrate your institutions.
Yet they can’t erase the fact that US global power is waning. Trump may be accelerating the decline, but he’s not the cause.
In any event, the Mueller investigation will continue to be a “sword of Damocles” hanging over the Trump administration. And if it does threaten Trump’s downfall, it’s likely that Trump would move to end the investigation, provoking a constitutional crisis by firing Mueller or some other manoeuvre.
Over the past two years, Trump has overcome numerous crises and outrages that would have sunk the careers of other politicians. He’s been able to do so because people in high places have been willing to indulge him in the hopes that he’ll deliver for them.
So before we get too far ahead of events and prepare for a President Mike Pence, let’s remember that there are plenty of political and business leaders who are willing to prop up the administration.
As political scientists Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen showed, Trump benefited from a flood of “dark” corporate money at the end of his 2016 campaign, and business used donations to the 2017 inauguration committee as a way to curry favour with the administration. Reportedly, Mueller has been looking into donations to the Trump inaugural for months.
So the idea that US institutions, politicians or businesses will shift en masse to ditch Trump is premature.
It is also wrong to assume the end of the Trump presidency will reset US politics back to “normal”.
That’s because “normal” is still a place where right-wing billionaires can buy politicians and policy, and where the two major political parties implement versions of neoliberalism that continue to erode ordinary people’s living standards.
It’s a place where a government structure dating from the 18th century empowers conservative and unrepresentative minorities, even when they lose the election.
Trump and his team may be the most cartoonishly corrupt group to run the US state in a century, but they are symptoms of a much deeper corrosion of the political system.
[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]