Former FBI director James Comey’s testimony was excellent television, but on balance did little more than push most Americans further into their political corners. Supporters of Trump are now even more convinced that a Democratic Party-deep state-mainstream media triad is conspiring to undermine their President, while critics of Trump now believe that the evidence of obstruction of justice and collusion with Moscow is too overwhelming to ignore. Both sides are right to an extent-the Democratic Party indeed wants to undermine the President; and many hard-working honest civil servants, recently renamed the deep state by both the far left and the far right, believe the President has violated norms of democracy and possibly laws as well. Similarly, Comey’s testimony makes it extremely difficult to ignore the evidence of obstruction of justice and Russia’s role in our election.
Comey’s remarks have led to a spate of discussions about what constitutes obstruction of justice, whether the President obstructed justice and how this concept applies to a sitting president. These are questions with which better legal minds than mine should wrestle. However, they are not important at the moment because with regards to Donald Trump, the definition of obstruction of justice is very clear. Obstruction of justice, or any other abuse of power or illegal contact with Russia, are what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell say it is. That is good news for the President as Congress continues to be very loyal to the President with whom they share a party affiliation.
This means that it remains extremely unlikely that President Trump will be impeached or charged with obstructing justice., but by now everybody should recognize that it is equally unlikely that this President will ever conduct himself like a normal President, or even for that matter a normal member of our species. This is the stalemate that will frame American politics probably at least until 2020. Trump may eventually learn to work more effectively with Congress to pass retrograde and reactionary legislation, but the basic criminal, corrupt, venal, erratic and incompetent character of his administration will remain. There will probably be more hearings, more moments when many believe the end is near and further revelations, but little will change.
The big picture question this raises is how American democracy will survive in this context. There is no question that American democracy has driven, or perhaps been driven, into a political ditch. While democracy may eventually be reinvigorated in the US, the crisis is profoundly real. Part of the problem is that the measures that have worked in the past, congressional investigations, principled people placing national interests above partisan interests, political reforms and the like are unimaginable in the current environment.
If each revelation about the connection between the Trump presidency, and candidacy, and Russia is met not with a consensus that something has gone terribly awry with American politics, but simply a hardening of partisan positions, there is little chance of ever moving forward. Moreover, as every tactic of American politics becomes simply another way to reinforce partisan positions, it will become considerably more difficult to address the underlying scandal. That is the core of the dilemma we now confront.
The Trump-Russia scandal is complex and multi-layered. Identifying all the links between the Trump real estate, business and political projects and Moscow could take months or even years of investigation, but the bigger scandal may be the extent to which Republican leadership has studiously ignored, or been in denial, about all of this for at least a year now. That Republican negligence made the assist Russia gave to Trump’s election victory possible and has now made it all but impossible to determine the extent to which Russia still has influence over the President.
Comey’s testimony and the investigation led by Robert Mueller that is just getting under way are certainly important. They will provide opportunities for the American people to hear and learn more about the Trump-Russia links and contacts. Mueller’s investigations may even lead to some indictments, but it is hard to imagine, in this political climate, that it will lead to any significant consequences for the President.
This is the dilemma facing those who are concerned about the Trump-Russia connection. On the one hand, it is imperative both to get to the bottom of what actually happened as well as to make sure it cannot happen again, but the scandal itself has been taken over by partisanship and become essentially just another point of disagreement between the left and the right, like climate change or marriage equality. Those are important issues but the Russia scandal threatens the very core of our democracy and may well have led to illegitimate election victory for Donald Trump last November. However, we no longer have the political tools to resolve this while many lack the political courage to recognize this.
Photo: cc/Tony Kennick