Day by day, revelation after revelation, the legitimacy of the Trump presidency is seeping away. The question of what to do about this loss is becoming ever more urgent and frightening.
The already thick cloud of discredit over the Trump presidency thickened deeper Friday, June 23. The Washington Post reported that the CIA told President Obama last year that Vladimir Putin had personally and specifically instructed his intelligence agencies to intervene in the U.S. presidential election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.
Whether the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated its activities with the Russians remains uncertain. The Trump campaign may have been a wholly passive and unwitting beneficiary. Yes, it’s curious that the Russians allegedly directed their resources to the Rust Belt states also targeted by the Trump campaign. But it’s conceivable they were all just reading the same polls on FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics.
Trump himself passionately denounces the whole thing as a monstrous hoax, a “made-up story.” He has not yet lost all his true believers. But those believers do not include very many of the leading Republicans in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agrees it happened. So does House Speaker Paul Ryan. The House number two, Kevin McCarthy, has even joked that Russia pays Trump.
It’s not seriously disputed by anyone in a position of authority in the U.S. government—apart from the president himself—that Donald Trump holds his high office in considerable part because a foreign spy agency helped place him there. So now what?
Trump’s advisers urge the country to shrug the matter off, to focus on jobs and healthcare and let this compromised president continue to receive the most secret intelligence and control the nation’s armed forces. Another story in The Washington Post quoted this response to the latest shocking revelations from Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway:
“As his detractors suffer from this never-ending ‘Russian concussion,’ the president has been tending to business as usual — bilateral meetings, progress on health care, tax and infrastructure reform, and job creation. Conjecture about the mood and momentum of the West Wing is inaccurate and overwrought. The pace is breakneck, the trajectory upward.”
Business as usual? How would that work? It obviously cannot. And in fact, it is not.
The U.S. government is already osmotically working around the presidency, a process enabled by the president’s visible distaste for the work of governance. The National Security Council staff is increasingly a double-headed institution, a zone of struggle between Kushner-Flynn-Bannon types on one side, and a growing staff of capable, experienced, and Russia-skeptical functionaries on the other. The Senate has voted 97-2 to restrict the president’s authority to relax Russia sanctions. It seems the president has been persuaded to take himself out of the chain of command in the escalating military operations in Afghanistan. National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster recently assured the nation that Trump could not have done much harm when he blabbed a vital secret to the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, precisely because the president was not briefed on crucial “sources and methods” information.
In their way, these workarounds are almost as dangerous to the American system of government as the Trump presidency itself. They tend to reduce the president to the status of an absentee emperor while promoting his subordinates into shoguns who exercise power in his name. Maybe that is the least-bad practicable solution to the unprecedented threat of a presidency-under-suspicion. But what a terrible price for the failure of so many American institutions—not least the voters!—to protect the country in 2016 from Russia’s attack on its election and its democracy.