In a sentencing memo explaining why they believe Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen should get substantial jail time, federal prosecutors contended on Friday that the president of the United States directed a scheme to violate election laws by making large unreported payments to buy the silence of two women who say they had affairs with him. Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller argued for leniency, hinting at more revelations to come regarding Russia: “Cohen provided the [special counsel’s office] with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with [Trump Organization] executives during the campaign,” Mueller wrote.
As extraordinary as it is to hear prosecutors make this accusation in an official document, you might not have greeted them with the shock they deserve, since we’ve know about the story in broad terms for a while. But it was inevitable that we’d wind up here, with Trump in a deepening scandal, hounded by the law, and desperately claiming his own innocence while begging his supporters to close their eyes to the truth.
Really: Could anything different have happened?
Each presidential administration has its own set of scandals. At one end you have something like the Nixon administration, with a criminal conspiracy involving dozens of officials and the direct involvement of the president; at the other end you have an administration like Barack Obama’s, with only the most minor molehills the opposition party unsuccessfully attempted to turn into mountains, none of which ever got anywhere near a president whose own behavior seemed without ethical blemish.
And then there’s Trump. Even before we began to understand the breadth of the Russia scandal, the payoffs to models, or the business shenanigans, we knew, or at least should have known, that there was simply no way he’d get through a term in office without being caught up in a scandal to rival Watergate or Iran-Contra.
It isn’t simply that on a personal basis Trump is so deeply corrupt, though that may have been a necessary condition. It continues to amaze that someone who spent a lifetime skating away from the law, stiffing creditors, and running scams like Trump University could actually be elected to the highest post in the land. His corruption is so profound that two months ago The New York Times published an extraordinary exposé documenting that Trump and his family engaged in a years-long scheme to defraud the U.S. government of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, and it was news for about a day and a half. When we learn that the great opponent of illegal immigration is himself employing undocumented immigrants at his properties, it barely makes a blip in the news because precisely no one is surprised.
In some alternate universe, at some point in 2015 Trump would have said to himself, “OK, I’m running for president now—I’ve got to clean up my act and make sure I only have ethical people around me.” That isn’t what he did, of course, for two reasons. First, he seems to be attracted to grifters, scammers, and con artists, people who don’t care where the ethical lines are and agree with him that if you cooperate with the authorities you’re a dirty snitch. Second, those are precisely the kind of people who are attracted to him. You weren’t going to find too many upstanding citizens in the pile of résumés at Trump Tower.
And to repeat, we saw this before he got elected. For instance, most presidential candidates trumpet endorsements from retired generals and admirals, but Trump could find precious few who would publicly support him. The one who did? Michael Flynn, someone with a long resume but a crackpot’s temperament, given to insane conspiracy theorizing and, as it turned out, some flexible ideas about obeying the law. It isn’t just the crime to which Flynn pleaded guilty (lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials) but things like the fact that he was working for the Trump campaign while secretly on the payroll of a foreign country (Turkey) that made him such a good match for Trump.
We could have known something fishy was up when Trump chose as his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, long known in Washington as probably the most ethically challenged member of the lobbyist profession (no small feat), legendary for representing some of the world’s worst dictators and, as it turned out, guilty of an astonishingly long list of crimes.
Then there’s Trump’s “personal lawyer” and factotum Michael Cohen, who wound up facing the prospect of years behind bars as soon as prosecutors started examining his business affairs, including his work for the Trump organization. Perhaps you might have had to be insightful to have watched one of Cohen’s 2016 TV appearances advocating for Trump and said, “Before this is all over, that guy is definitely going to wind up in jail.” But not that insightful. He reeked of it.
It was obvious that none of the people around Trump were the top-notch, platinum quality personnel he claimed to hire; instead, it was as though he sought to gather around him the worst people he could find.
Which may have been exactly what was necessary to do business, both commercial and political, the way he wanted. If you were a person of the highest ethical standards, you wouldn’t last a week in Trump’s employ before quitting in disgust, and very possibly calling the authorities to report what you’d seen or been asked to participate in. Trump needs people of low character, or at the very least people with a tolerance for transgressions being committed around them.
Maybe what happened in 2016 was that Trump’s most dramatic personality flaws—his repulsive misogyny, his appalling ignorance, his naked bigotry—distracted us from how corrupt he was, so that when we imagined him as president we thought he’d abuse women, target minorities, bumble around incompetently, and generally act like a boorish halfwit, but we didn’t quite consider the certainty of scandal.
We don’t even know the full extent of it; Robert Mueller obviously has many more cards to play. But if it wasn’t Russia, it would have been something else. With Donald Trump as president, a historic scandal was always inevitable.