Trump's Moral Holiday

The permissiveness of Republican leaders who acquiesce to violence, collusion, and corruption is encouraging more of the same.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In the annals of the Trump era, May 25, 2017, will deserve a special mark. Four remarkable things happened on Thursday, each of which marks a way that this presidency is changing the nation.

The first remarkable thing was President Trump’s speech at the NATO summit in Brussels. Many European governments had hoped—which is a polite way to say that they had suggested and expected—that Trump would reaffirm the American commitment to defend NATO members if attacked. This is the point of the whole enterprise after all! Here’s how it was done by President Obama at the NATO summit after the Russian invasion of Crimea:

First and foremost, we have reaffirmed the central mission of the Alliance.  Article 5 enshrines our solemn duty to each other—“an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all.” This is a binding, treaty obligation.  It is non-negotiable. And here in Wales, we’ve left absolutely no doubt—we will defend every Ally.

Here’s how George W. Bush expressed that same thought after NATO expansion in 2002.

Nations in the family of NATO, old or new, know this: Anyone who would choose you for an enemy also chooses us for an enemy. Never again in the face of aggression will you stand alone.

As a candidate, Donald Trump had expressed doubt about the point of both NATO  and Article 5. His pro-Putin tilt is notorious, culminating in blurting highly secret information to the Russian foreign minister in an Oval Office meeting from which American media were barred. On May 25, he was literally speaking at the dedication of—in words that appeared at the top of his printed text—the unveiling of a memorial to Article 5 at NATO’s new headquarters. And here is all he had to say on that score: "We will never forsake the friends who stood by our side.” That’s a sweet thought, but it’s not a guarantee.

The second remarkable thing that happened that day was the publication by The Wall Street Journal of a report detailing direct contacts between a Republican political operative and Russian hackers. The Florida-based Republican, Aaron Nevins, received and published Russian-hacked material—and in return, advised the hackers how to release their material to increase its damage to Democratic candidates. Nevins was not himself a high-ranking person in the Republican world. But the information Nevins obtained from Guccifer 2.0 was used by other Republican campaigns, including the national Republican congressional effort and Paul Ryan’s own super PAC. The earlier claim that Republicans were purely passive and unwitting beneficiaries of Russian espionage in the 2016 election has now been pierced. In at least one instance, the cooperation was active, conscious, and initiated on the American side, not the Russian: collusion, in a word.

On May 25, NBC and The Washington Post reported, and other outlets quickly confirmed, that presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner was indeed the FBI’s “person of interest” inside the Trump inner circle. Trump biographer Timothy L. O’Brien has explained why this might be so.

The FBI is focusing on a series of conversations that Kushner had in December with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

At the time, Kushner had already spent months trying to arrange fresh financing for a troubled building his family owns, 666 Fifth Avenue.

After one of those meetings, Kislyak arranged a meeting between Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, the powerful chief executive of a major Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, also known as VEB.

The U.S. had imposed financial sanctions on VEB because of Russian President Vladimir Putin's military incursions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. (During this period the Russians were also meeting with Flynn, Trump's incoming national security adviser.)

VEB has close ties to the Kremlin, and Gorkov attended a training academy for members of Russia's security and intelligence services. A Trump spokeswoman has described Kushner's meetings with the Russians as routine, which they may have been given his role at the time as Trump's liaison to foreign powers.

But given the significance of 666 Fifth Avenue to Kushner and his family's fortunes, it's also possible that he saw the Russians as potential investors.

Fourth and finally, May 25 witnessed the “day after” reaction of Republican and conservative talkers and politicians to the violent assault on a reporter by the Republican candidate in the Montana special House election, Greg Gianforte. A remarkable number of those talkers condoned the attack, either outright or by pointing to other bad things that have happened elsewhere on earth at various points in the past. Rush Limbaugh went furthest, theatrically condemning the attack—but denigrating the reporter as a “smug and arrogant" Millennial “pajama boy” (a hugely derisive term in the conservative political lexicon) and praising Gianforte as “manly and studly.” (It’s hard to miss in some of the commentary from Trump’s elderly base a nostalgic yearning for lost physical prowess—and intense resentment of the vitality of younger generations with different views.)

Half a century ago, conservative commentators often blamed the riots of the 1960s on the “moral holiday” declared by permissive authorities. Leaders who might have delegitimized violence instead acquiesced in it, thus inviting more of it. For many conservatives, May 25 was a moral holiday of their own.

These four events each represent one of the great themes of the Trump era:

  • The anti-alliance pro-Russia tilt of administration policy
  • Collusion with hostile foreign nations for domestic political advantage
  • Use of political power for personal financial advantage
  • The breakdown of inhibitions and the weakening of sanctions against political violence.

On May 25, one bright burst of news illuminated who Trump is—what he has done—and where he is trying to lead the nation. Will he succeed in taking America to that place? He and his supporters have repeatedly tested the limits of political impunity, and thus far they have survived. Yes, the FBI continues to function, pending the appointment of its next director. Yes too, the special counsel continues to investigate, subject to whatever action the attorney general and president may take against him. But Greg Gianforte is headed to Congress. Jared Kushner and Donald Trump will soon return to the West Wing. There, they’ll continue to deploy the powers of the presidency to protect themselves. They’ll leverage dark and dangerous forces in American society to help them. Someday, maybe, they will cease to get away with it. But not yet.