The sheer volume of Trump scandals can seem difficult to keep track of.
There’s the ongoing special-counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign aided a Russian campaign to aid Trump’s candidacy and defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton; there’s the associated inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice when he fired former FBI Director James Comey, whom he had asked not to investigate his former national-security adviser; there are the president’s hush-money payments to women with whom he allegedly had extramarital affairs, made through his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and facilitated by corporate cash paid to influence the White House; there is his ongoing effort to interfere with the Russia inquiry and politicize federal law enforcement; there are the foreign governments that seem to be utilizing the president’s properties as vehicles for influencing administration policy; there’s the emerging evidence that Trump campaign officials sought aid not only from Russia, but from other foreign countries, which may have affected Trump’s foreign policy; there are the ongoing revelations of the president’s Cabinet officials’ misusing taxpayer funds; there is the accumulating evidence that administration decisions are made at the behest of private industry, in particular those in which Republican donors have significant interests.
The preceding wall of text may appear to some as an abridged list of the Trump administration’s scandals, but this is an illusion created by the perception that these are all separate affairs. Viewed as such, the various Trump scandals can seem multifarious and overpowering, and difficult to fathom.
There are not many Trump scandals. There is one Trump scandal. Singular: the corruption of the American government by the president and his associates, who are using their official power for personal and financial gain rather than for the welfare of the American people, and their attempts to shield that corruption from political consequences, public scrutiny, or legal accountability.
Take recent developments: There’s the president’s attempt to aid the Chinese telecom company ZTE, mere hours after the Chinese government approved funding for a project in the vicinity of a Trump property in Indonesia. There’s the millions of dollars corporations paid to Cohen after the election in an attempt to influence administration policy in their favor. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, also the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, urged banks to pay off politicians in an effort to weaken the CFPB’s powers legislatively—since taking the helm of CFPB, Mulvaney has dropped a number of cases against payday lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates, after taking thousands from the industry as a congressman. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s own mini-universe of scandals stems from his improper relationships with industry figures, his misuse of taxpayer funds, and his attempts to obscure the truth about both. Trump attempted to pressure the Postmaster General to increase fees on Amazon in order to punish The Washington Post, which has published many stories detailing wrongdoing and misbehavior on the part of the Trump administration, and the Trump campaign before that. Not long after The New York Times reported that Trump officials may have solicited campaign help not just from Russia, but also from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the president “demanded” that the Justice Department launch an inquiry into whether the FBI improperly investigated a campaign that was eagerly soliciting international aid to swing the election in its favor.
In each of these cases, the president or one of his associates was seeking to profit, personally or financially, from their official duties and powers. When that conduct has potentially run afoul of the law, Trump has sought to bend federal law enforcement to his whim, the better to protect himself and his associates from legal accountability. The president’s ongoing chastising of his own Justice Department, and his war of words with current and former FBI officials, stem less from any coherent ideological principle than from Trump’s desperate need to protect himself. An authoritarian model of law enforcement, where the president personally decides who is prosecuted and who is not based on his own political agenda, is simply the best way for Trump to shield himself and his inner circle from legal consequences.
The president’s opponents have yet to craft a coherent narrative about the Trump administration’s corruption, even though the only major legislative accomplishment Trump has to his name is cutting his own taxes. But his supporters have, ironically, crafted an overarching explanation to account for how the president they voted for, who came to office promising to eliminate official corruption, has come to embody it. The “Deep State” narrative is no more complicated than an attempt to explain the accumulating evidence of misbehavior on the part of the administration as a wide-ranging conspiracy to frame the president. The more evidence of wrongdoing that comes to light, the more certain they are that the conspiracy theory is true. In their own way, Trump supporters have recognized that Trump’s burgeoning list of scandals is made of branches from the same twisted tree.
The latest Trumptown fable, that the FBI inquiry into the Trump campaign was meant to aid Clinton’s campaign, is as incoherent as it is absurd. The FBI properly kept the Russia inquiry under wraps while high-ranking FBI officials defied Justice Department rules and made public statements about two inquiries into Clinton prior to election day. Neither of those inquiries led to indictments or guilty pleas; the special-counsel inquiry has led to more than 20 so far. Had the FBI been motivated by a political vendetta against Trump, leaking the fact of the inquiry on its own, even if it uncovered no malfeasance at all, would have been enough to damage his candidacy. The essential quality of pro-Trump punditry however, is that their perception of reality must be warped to conform to the latest Trump proclamation, even if it contradicts previous Trump pronouncements or established facts. Trump dictates reality, and his supporters rush to justify whatever has been decreed. In this way, Trump manages to corrupt not just those in his immediate orbit or inner circle, but even those who have never met him, who endeavor to reconcile the insurmountable gap between his words and the world as it exists.
I want to emphasize that not everything the administration is doing that I believe is bad is a scandal, which I am defining as official wrongdoing or corruption. The president’s ongoing immigration policy, an attempt to displace, through aggressive deportations of otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants, and the cancellation of Temporary Protected Status and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is a moral travesty but not necessarily a misuse of his official powers. Trump’s immigration policy is a reflection of his belief that these people from “shithole countries” are inferior, and therefore offer little to the United States. He is hardly the first president to pursue such a policy on such a basis; but a policy can be morally repugnant without being a scandal.
The president’s unwavering commitment to this ethnonationalism persuades his followers that he is incorruptible, despite his use of his own powers for personal gain and profit. “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened,” the segregationist George Wallace once said of his rise to power. “And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.” (These days, they stomp the floor for “son of a bitch” or “animals.”) Any effective hustle persuades the mark that they’re the ones profiting.
For those Americans unmoved by such appeals, the ongoing corruption of the official powers of the U.S. government on behalf of ego, avarice, and impunity should not be seen as separate stories. They are the same story, and it is the story of the Trump presidency.