The first time we didn't quite notice. The second time is different.
We now know the president asked America’s No. 1 geopolitical rival to “investigate” Joe Biden and his family. CNN reported the news on the same day Donald Trump said on the White House lawn in front of TV cameras that China ought to “look into” the Bidens. To me, it seems quite plausible that he knew his June 18 call would leak at some point. So he got out in front of it to make his crimes appear all too normal.
They are not normal, of course. They are crimes whether in diplomacy with President Xi and in nationally broadcast remarks at home. They are crimes whether we see them or not, because it is criminal to harness the government to frame one’s enemies for serial crimes one is committing. The president is banking on his great gift for limitless lying so we no longer believe the evidence of our eyes. He’s turning “unreality,” to use Jason Stanley’s term,” into reality, turning himself into the only source of truth. He believes he can break the law in front of us, and we won’t notice.
According to the Washington Post, the president acknowledged, tacitly, in 2017 that the Kremlin helped him defeat his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
But I think we overlook something if we remain focused on the bits and pieces of criminality that are now coming out. We must try, as much as we can, to compose a larger picture of what’s happening. We must contend with the possibility—actually, the likelihood—that this president has been seeking favors from international friends and adversaries for a lot longer than he’s been president. In the process of putting this picture together, I hope we understand that what we are seeing now illuminates what we could not see in the recent past but that was nevertheless unfolding in plain sight.
Here’s what I mean.
With Ukraine, Australia and now China, the president is colluding (or trying to) with international powers in an effort to defraud the American people. That’s what’s happening. But let’s be honest with ourselves. This is probably not the first time.
We know it isn’t. On July 27, 2016, during a press conference, then candidate Donald Trump said on national television: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” He was referring to the scandal of the time involving Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.
That same day Russian agents hacked into email accounts associated with Clinton’s personal office. Ultimately, this was one of many fronts in which the Kremlin prosecuted a secret years-long cyberwar against the US in the run-up to the 2016 election. Along with distributing stolen Democratic National Committee files, defrauding users of Facebook and Twitter, and reaching out to Trump campaign staffers, Vladimir Putin, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter, “fulfilled the dream of every Soviet leader—to stick it to the United States.”
It doesn’t take collusion per se to be found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud. It takes merely accepting something you should not accept. In Trump’s case, he welcomed Russian sabotage, as it was, according to the special counsel’s report, entirely bent on undercutting Hillary Clinton’s White House bid. Trump was the sole beneficiary of Putin’s putsch, but he has denied, to this day, that he’s ever been any such thing.
Put this all together, and you have a picture of a president who cheated to win in 2016 and is preparing to cheat again, because he must.
He has denied it, but he knows it’s true. According to a report last Friday in the Washington Post, the president told Russian emissaries during a 2017 meeting in the Oval Office he was not concerned about the Kremlin’s interference in 2016. Trump said that the US “did the same in other countries, an assertion that prompted alarmed White House officials to limit access to the remarks to an unusually small number of people, according to three former officials with knowledge of the matter.”
The report goes on to explain the context of his remarks—FBI Director James Comey’s firing, for one thing—as well as Trump’s nihilism. Unsaid, however, is that in saying that all countries meddle, the president acknowledged, tacitly, that the Russians did, too. Knowing the Kremlin helped him defeat Clinton, it seems unlikely that he would not seek aid and assistance from other countries, friend or foe, to win again in 2020.
Put this all together, and you have a picture of a president who cheated to win and is preparing to cheat again, because he must. None of us quite had the courage three years ago to see the evidence of our own eyes. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to believe anyone would ask Russia for help to win. But now, the idea that Trump would cheat isn’t strange. In a sense, it’s normal, something we expect the president to do.
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