While the unfolding saga of Donald Trump and his associates’ ties to Russia has riveted millions of Americans for months, millions more find the media’s fascination with it bizarre or even perverse. At the end of the day, one might reasonably ask, what does this have to do with my life? The answer is: quite a lot.
The investigation is important for American foreign policy, of course. But the scandal implicates something more far-reaching and consequential — whether wealthy and powerful people will be held accountable for their actions or whether a long-simmering culture of impunity is about to boil over and leave ordinary people defenseless.
There’s a reason the same president who’s spent months trying to block an investigation of Russian hacking also has the State Department spending $15,000 at his Vancouver hotel, has the Secret Service spending $35,000 renting golf carts from his Palm Beach resort, and is collecting millions of dollars in conflict of interest revenue through his DC hotel. There’s a reason that same president decided to ignore the American Academy of Pediatrics and reject the government’s own science and let chemical companies keep selling a pesticide that doctors say is poisoning young children’s brains. There’s a reason his health care bill breaks his promises to protect Medicaid and lower deductibles and that his budget breaks his promise to protect Social Security.
Donald Trump is a president who cares only about himself. That, fundamentally, is what the Russia scandal is about, and it’s what his whole presidency is about too. The investigation, conversely, is about accountability and whether anything can force Trump to acknowledge an obligation to serve the public rather than to have the levers of government serve his narrow self-interest.
Russian hackers committed serious crimes
It’s easy to forget amid the partisan tumult and talk of possible “collusion” between the Trump campaign and a foreign power, but this whole story started with a rather straightforward crime. Someone — later identified by American intelligence and law enforcement officials as the Russian government — hacked first the Democratic National Committee internal email and then the Gmail inbox of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair. They then posted the entirety of the stolen emails online for the world to see.
That’s a crime.
The purpose of the crime was to hurt Hillary Clinton. And in a secondary sense, the hacks hurt Podesta, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and other high-ranking Democratic Party officials.
But on an incidental basis, hundreds if not thousands of more or less random Americans had their privacy invaded by Russian hackers. Emails posted to WikiLeaks included a birth announcement, a wedding invitation, some baby pictures, jokes about UFOs, a question about risotto, and an invitation to a rooftop cocktail party in 2009. Lots of people, it turns out, have emailed Podesta about something or other — often totally unrelated to the politics — over the years, and they ended up with details of their private lives, often including addresses and phone numbers, out on the internet.
One of the core functions of government is to attempt to catch and punish criminals in order to deter crimes. But Trump clearly has had no interest in catching, punishing, and deterring the perpetrators of this crime.
Trump’s response has ranged from gleeful embrace of the crime (“I love WikiLeaks”) to blaming Barack Obama, suggesting Russia is maybe innocent, comparing the CIA to Nazis, and — of course — dismissing the whole thing as “fake news.” Never once has he expressed any kind of outrage on behalf of the victims of the crimes — even third parties with tenuous connections to Clinton — or any kind of interest in punishing the perpetrators. In the end, the important thing is that it helped him win. At best, he sees the whole thing through the lens of an effort to undermine his legitimacy. But in his mind, the hacks are good because they assisted in putting him in the White House. The collateral damage is irrelevant.
The United States of What’s Good for Trump
“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” Trump said in one of his most effective moments on the campaign trail. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.”
It’s a nice idea. At a certain point in his life, Bill Gates stepped down from his role as CEO of Microsoft and dedicated himself full time to philanthropy. But the Gates Foundation’s work, like so much of the work of the latest generation of billionaires, is focused on quintessential “globalist” problems like public health in sub-Saharan African. Trump wasn’t Bill Gates rich, but he was certainly rich, and he was promising to step away from his life of moneymaking and focus on improving life not for people in distant countries but right here in the United States of America.
That was a key premise of his campaign. He’s here for us, as a president should be.
The truth, however, is that Trump is still just plain old-fashioned greedy. He spends his time in office relentlessly promoting properties he owns. He encourages industry groups that want to curry favor with his administration to book events at his DC hotel. He offers preferential access to top decision-makers to fee-paying members of his private Mar-a-Lago club. He has the federal government spending thousands of dollars a month on fees and equipment rental at Trump-branded properties. He holds Republican Party fundraisers at his own properties so he can get a personal cut of all contributions.
And the stated reason given by his legal team for why he can’t divest himself of his business assets and create a genuine blind trust that would comply with normal ethics rules is that it would be impossible for him to receive fair market value for his own brand. In other words, to sell would cost him money. And he’s not willing to take less money in order to advance the interests of the American people any more than he’s willing to punish hackers whose crimes advanced the interests of the Trump campaign. He’s been greedy his whole life, and that continues.
The upshot is that a president who once marketed himself as wealthy enough to be beyond the control of the billionaire donor class has, in practice, set up the most flagrantly up-for-sale administration of all time. Along the way, he’s managed to propose an absurd “small business” tax cut that does nothing at all for business owners with annual take-home incomes under $700,000 but delivers an enormous amount of money to him personally.
Meanwhile, under cover of populist rhetoric the Trump administration has:
- Made it easier for financial advisers to rip off their clients without consequences.
- Reopened a corporate tax loophole that makes it easier for global businesses to stash profits in overseas tax havens.
- Decided to let phone and cable companies sell user data about your web browsing habits.
- Adopted an approach to pharmaceutical pricing that Bloomberg’s Max Nisen describes as “more like a pharma wish list than a menu of onerous demands.”
- Come out in favor of weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and making bank bailouts more likely.
- Trump’s skepticism about climate change is well-known, but his Environmental Protection Agency is also on the side of pesticides that are harmful to children and making it easier to pollute drinking water. There’s nothing specific to climate change or coal about his environmental agenda, in other words; it’s whatever business wants.
On issue after issue after issue on down the line, the Trump agenda is the big-money agenda because the big money filters into Trump’s pockets and Trump has no moral or ideological compass beyond his narrow self-interest. Even when the White House does, on occasion, suggest they will buck the donor class — as when officials hint that approving the AT&T–Time Warner merger may be contingent on CNN covering Trump more favorably — they are quite open about saying it’s a shakedown designed to advance Trump’s personal interests.
It’s an administration with no commitment to anything — not free market ideas, not populist ideas, not Trump’s campaign ideas — other than Trump. Which is why he thinks hacks that helped him win should go un-investigated and FBI directors who defy his desire to block the investigation should be fired.
Russia is where the rubber hits the road
What truly kicked the Trump-Russia story into high gear, however, was when the president went from dismissive tweets about the ongoing FBI investigation to firing the FBI director, having his administration lie about why he’d fired the FBI director, and then going on national television and admitting to NBC News’s Lester Holt that “when I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’”
The implications of the James Comey firing go well beyond the specifics of the Russia case because despite the appointment of a special counsel, Congress still allowed Trump to hand-pick a new FBI director.
This has critical chilling consequences for every law enforcement and regulatory official in the country, especially those who don’t have Comey’s network of professional contacts and substantial nest egg to fall back on.
Of all the many potential lines of inquiry into Trump’s conduct as president, Russia is the one we have an official investigation of, not because it’s the only topic that matters but because it’s the one topic that a handful of Republican Russia hawks in Congress care about enough to provide some check on Trump’s power.
But even if you don’t care about the specifics, the question it raises — can the president act as, at best, an accessory after the fact to crimes that hurt his political adversaries while blocking investigations into potential criminal conduct on the part of his friends — is quite general. It’s the question, in effect, of whether the American government works for the American people or works for Trump personally. The view that it works for Trump personally underwrites everything from his tax proposals to his indifference to his own health care promises to his casual day-to-day marination in obvious financial conflicts of interest.
Russia, in part through happenstance, happens to be where the rubber is hitting the road. But the whole truck is riding on those tires.