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