Three strains of executive incompetence and self-immolation came to a head this week. First, on the policy front, the administration’s absent leadership and ham-fisted threats continued its unbroken string of legislative futility as the Senate failed to pass its promised healthcare bill. Second, the wild and revolting West Wing drama cultivated by President Trump reached new heights as newly hired (and now newly fired) communications director Anthony Scaramucci caused Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Preibus to resign, while embarrassing himself with unhinged, confusing, and vulgar statements to the media. And third, the President escalated his assault on the rule of law by assailing his own Attorney General for recusing himself from overseeing the Department of Justice’s Russia investigation due to unavoidable conflicts just as powerful evidence between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin came to light.
Yes, it has been an unnerving few weeks for the country (to say nothing of the last six months, or the last two years). What seems to make it all the more unsettling, though, is the sense—that heavy, dank, oppressive feeling—that that there will be no consequences. The sense that the rules have changed, that none of this will make a difference, and that these monsters will get away with everything. Certainly, this fear has informed and shaped much of the media coverage, with our weekly check ins on whether the Trump diehards are holding fast (newsflash: they are!).
This aura of invincibility that many across the spectrum—left, right, middle, and the media alike—perceive enveloping President Trump is understandable. There’s a legitimate concern that our politics are so polarized, and that the Republican Party is so radicalized, that Trump will survive all outrages and abuses and stand a decent chance of reelection should the economy continue rolling along. Perhaps in the short term this view is correct; Trump will hold most Republicans and the hearts of its most active supporters, and in turn the congressional GOP will muddle along, leaving him unchecked. But the problem with applying the “Teflon Don” theory to all things Trump—including his piques of obstructionist rage and the assorted sordid happenings of son Donnie Jr.—is that it imposes a cable TV framework to legal and policy worlds unconcerned with political theatre. A criminal investigation is not a news cycle.
Which brings us to the glaring, obvious truth that we’ve been known for months before getting distracted by the tawdry irrelevancies of the never-ending White House psychodrama. The president has confessed to committing serious crimes. Indeed, he is still committing them, while telling us all about it as he’s doing so. It seems Trump’s reality TV days are not yet behind him.
This is no hyperbole. As Watergate historian Tim Weiner said in an interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner last week, “there is a major criminal case of a conspiracy to obstruct justice that involves the president and some of his closest aides, that is already on the record.” Just look at that record. Trump explicitly told NBC News’s Lester Holt in a television interview that he decided to fire former FBI Director James Comey because of “this Russia thing.” It was Trump himself, as documented in official White House contemporaneous notes taken by officials within the Oval Office, who told the Russian Ambassador to the United States “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” And now, in an interview with the New York Times and several follow-up tweets, the president admitted that he wanted Attorney General Sessions to help him obstruct the Russia investigation and threatened Sessions, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe.
We heard these things, we debated them, we were outraged and disgusted by them, and then we moved on from them. That’s how everyday humans react to the news. But for investigators, these statements are evidence—and very potent evidence at that. They go directly to state of mind, to Trump’s intent. Though Comey’s firing and his subsequent Senate testimony are powerful indeed, Trump could still dispute the purpose behind his actions and Comey’s interpretation of them. That’s much harder to do with public, defiant exclamations that the whole world can analyze for themselves. Trump is live-tweeting his own obstruction of justice.
Trump has “survived” these headlines only in the sense that our 140-character attention spans have lurched toward new sensationalism at Trump’s every turn. But here’s the thing. Robert Mueller isn’t a swing voter. He’s not part of a Midwestern focus group. And he doesn’t give a damn about what’s on CNN. When investigating a crime, prosecutors don’t make a case public after the first damning piece of evidence, or even after there is enough evidence to indict. This is especially true when the target is bending over backwards to help build their case. Mueller is investigating Trump for obstruction of justice, and with this much material, there is no reason to wrap up. We may filter legal developments through a hyper-partisan, cable TV debate framework. But when the president threatens the Special Counsel and publicly comments on the investigatory process and his preferred results, those tweets and interview transcripts will not get washed away in the news cycle. There is now very little doubt that President Trump will face serious legal jeopardy over the Russian investigation and his part in it, whether now or after he leaves office. No amount of distraction can save him from that.