The US president’s links to Russia reflect the depth of the political crisis. This is a scandal of the entire American right
By Jonathan Freedland / The Guardian / March 3, 2017
Who’s the villain here? Naturally our rage focuses on Donald Trump, a pantomime baddie drawn, as he would put it, from central casting. But behind him stand many others, and it’s about time they shared in the opprobrium.
Start with the unfolding scandal over Trumpworld’s links with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the increasingly close parallel with the Watergate affair that toppled Richard Nixon. Both episodes, then and now, began with an election-year break-in at Democratic party headquarters. In 1972, that involved burglars with torches. In 2016, it was hackers and passwords. But in each case, real and virtual, the apparent objective was the same: the acquisition of damaging political intelligence. In 1972, the culprits were taking their orders from the American president. In 2016, at least according to 17 US intelligence agencies, the orders came from the president of Russia.
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Watergate spawned the now-cliched maxim that “it’s never the crime, it’s always the cover-up”. In the current case, it’s correct that had Trump’s associates told the truth immediately about their contacts with Moscow, they would now be confronting controversy rather than scandal. If attorney general Jeff Sessions had admitted that he had met Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, twice last year, he’d have prompted raised eyebrows rather than calls for his head.
And by lying under oath, insisting he’d had no such meetings, Sessions has made his position as head of the US criminal justice system morally untenable. But even if he survives, Sessions has raised suspicions about what, exactly, he was so keen to cover up.
The same goes for the meeting Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn are now known to have had with Kislyak after the election and before the inauguration. That encounter, too, was never disclosed and would have remained secret had journalists not discovered it. Indeed, with a camera permanently stationed in the lobby at Trump Tower, Kislyak must have been spirited in via a back entrance. If it was a perfectly legitimate diplomatic meeting, why the secrecy?
It’s becoming a pattern. Senior Trump officials from the president downwards deny all contact with the Russians – only to be contradicted by the facts. They then have to explain why they lied, behaviour unacceptable even to those who might otherwise be relaxed about dialogue with Moscow. As Watergate showed, a first lie can spawn hundreds of others – and it’s those that get you.
Watergate spawned the now-cliched maxim that ‘It’s never the crime, it’s always the cover-up’
But there is one big, dispiriting difference between the scandal unfolding now and the one that unseated Nixon. Four decades ago, Nixon was forced to resign because Republicans in Congress deserted him. They put their partisan allegiance aside in order to act against a president who they saw as endangering the republic. This time, the picture is very different.
Sure, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham vow to hold Trump to account. But the rest of them are profiles in moral weakness, prepared to turn two blind eyes to the actions of the president simply because he wears the right party colours. So Devin Nunes, chair of the House intelligence committee, which should be investigating all this, says “there’s nothing there”. His colleague Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the House oversight committee, declined to look into the Flynn affair because “it’s taking care of itself”. Oversight, it seems, is precisely the right word. But please don’t get the impression that Chaffetz is lethargic in his supervisory duties. On the contrary, there’s one scandal he’s very keen to investigate even now: Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Remember that? “Lock her up,” the Republicans chanted throughout 2016, believing that Clinton had put sensitive information at risk. The email affair dominated coverage and fatally damaged her campaign. Well, it turns out that as governor of Indiana, vice-president Mike Pence also used a private email accountto conduct state business, including sensitive security matters and counter-terrorism, and that account was promptly hacked. Pence kept strangely quiet about that.
You see, it’s not just Trump. This week Republicans waved through yet more of the president’s absurd cabinet appointments. In comes Ben Carson, who had earlier declared himself unfit to head any department because he had “no experience”: he will be in charge of housing and urban development. Republicans also ratified Rick Perry as energy secretary: Perry famously forgot, in a 2011 presidential debate, that energy was one of the departments he wanted to abolish.
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It’s Republicans who are making a mockery of Trump’s claim to speak for the forgotten millions by planning a tax cut that will send billions of dollars into the pockets of the very richest. It’s Republicans who devoted years to denouncing Obamacare, promising to replace it with a system that would miraculously provide better healthcare to more people for less money. Now that they’re in charge, that’s been exposed as the magical thinking it always was. Trump is the face of that idiocy – saying this week that, “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated”, when in fact everybody but him and the blowhards on Fox News knew precisely that many, many years ago.
But we can’t just point the finger at, and pray for the downfall of, Donald Trump. He is merely the face of a deeper Republican malaise. The hypocrisies he embodies extend far beyond him. For decades, Republicans cast themselves as the party of family values, wagging their finger at anyone who had fallen short of the moral standards they set. But when Trump came along, promising them the tax cuts and seats on the supreme court they craved, all that went out of the window. Suddenly they were prepared to embrace a thrice-married worshipper of mammon who brags about sexually assaulting women and was happy to assess his own daughter as “a piece of ass”. Note the polling on white evangelical Christians. In 2011 they were the group least likely to accept that a candidate guilty of immoral behaviour in their personal life might nevertheless be able to act ethically as a leader. Now they are the by 2017 to become the most forgiving on that score.
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Consider the way Republicans used to claim “freedom” as their own, posing as liberty’s champions. Now it emerges that fewer than half of all Republican voters believe news organisations should be free to criticise political leaders – a freedom that is surely fundamental.
And of course, for decades Republicans wrapped themselves in the flag, claiming a monopoly on patriotism, casting themselves as the heirs to Ronald Reagan and all those who stood strong against Russian authoritarianism. Yet now, delegates to the CPAC ultra-conservative conference will happily wave little Russian flags, so long as they have Trump’s name on them.
It’s natural to direct our fury at Trump and to want to see him gone. But it was the wider American right that, over more than two decades, feasted on bigotry, ignorance and contempt for science, facts and the compromises required by democratic governance – it was that right that incubated Trump and Trumpism. If impeachment and removal from office are ever to be more than a fantasy, it will be Republicans who will have to make it happen. And that will require them to do more than change a president. They will have to change themselves.