I haven’t seen anything yet to convince me that the Putin-Trump collaboration was a big deal. Ugly and unprincipled, sure, but politically consequential, probably not.
A contrary view, expressed by Harry Litman in today’s New York Times, is that this is the beginning of the end for the Trumpster. The evidence is accumulating that, between his election in November of last year and his inauguration on January 20 of this one, Trump and his inner coterie worked back channels to undermine Obama’s foreign policy. Litman characterizes these efforts as “abuses of power arguably well beyond those in the Watergate and Iran-contra affairs.” He further sees the possibility that Trump will be cited for obstruction of justice in his attempts to keep these activities secret.
I’m not convinced. On the face of it, Trump intervening in foreign policy after his election is less condemnable than Nixon’s secret disruption of a Vietnam peace deal during the 1968 campaign. The Nixon escapade was an open secret almost from the beginning, and he got away with it. Iran-Contra was nasty stuff, but Reagan made it through intact, as did his Nicaragua policy, and even the underlings caught red-handed survived and prospered.
But let’s not compare Trump to Nixon and Reagan; that just shows how old some of us are. Let’s speculate on the political fallout from a potential prosecutor’s report that Trump cut deals with Putin before taking office. Litman says this is something “that nobody on either side of the aisle could possibly defend.” Why not? What happens if the Republicans in the House and Senate say, hey, it’s just a bureaucratic detail, since he was already elected? And why wouldn’t they say this? How would that be any more outrageous than anything else they’ve said or done in recent memory? Who would stop them?
The “who would stop them” thing is what it’s all about. Modern movement conservatism is about winning, period. To worry about honesty, consistency or any other check on your political options is to be a loser. This is why we hear made-up stories about the effect of taxes and voter fraud laws, when the ones promulgating them know they’re false and know you and I know they’re false. They don’t care, except about winning, which they’ve become good at. Give me a scenario in which the Republican congressional establishment shrugs off a report against Trump, and some other force pushes Trump out anyway. Oh right, there will be editorials in the New York Times screaming bloody murder; that should do it.
Trump is not invulnerable, and scandal may drag him down, but it won’t be over points of law that matter only to people who believe in the rule of law. The 2018 election could change that, but only if it breaks a lot bluer than currently expected. A damning report against Trump could influence the vote, but only if it appears in the last week or two of the campaign, before tribal cohesion reestablishes itself.
The underlying problem with the Times piece and similar obsessions with the l’Affaire Russe is that they are based on the belief that what we need is some additional bit of evidence—of foreign meddling, the effect of tax cuts on inequality and revenues, the impact of climate change on storms or our coastline, something the Right “can’t ignore”—to turn things around, but it won’t. What our side needs is not more evidence but more power. This is not to defend unscrupulousness—we do want to be on the side of the evidence—but simply to recognize the true deficit we face.