Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 in part because voters perceived his opponent, Hillary Clinton, to be a dishonest, self-dealing phony.
Trump has now pulled off the improbable: He makes Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill look like ethical exemplars, compared with the corruption endemic in Trump’s administration.
Whatever you think of Trump, there was legitimacy to his call, back in 2016, to “drain the swamp” and bring fresh blood to Washington. Team Clinton, it turned out, was the perfect foil for Trump, thanks to Hillary Clinton’s six-figure Wall Street speechmaking, her shifty explanations for violating government policy by using a private email server, and the money flowing into the Clinton Foundation from shady dealmakers undoubtedly hoping for favors once Hillary ascended to the White House.
How quaint those Clinton controversies seem, compared with the Trump presidency.
Trump’s knifing of American law-enforcement agencies, while on a podium at the Helsinki “summit” with American enemy Vladimir Putin, visibly raised the possibility that Trump might sell out his own country to appease a ruthless dictator who at this moment is working to manipulate the upcoming U.S. elections. Trump is now going even further to aid Russian attacks against the United States, by saying Russia is no longer targeting U.S. elections. Intelligence officials contradict Trump and say Russia is still at it. The president of the United States is defending a foreign government that’s attacking the United States. Right now.
Before Trump’s capitulation to Putin, the president deserved the benefit of the doubt from rational observers on the question of Russian aid for his 2016 campaign, because there was no public evidence that Trump knowingly solicited or accepted any Russian help. But Trump’s defense of Putin is now evidence in itself. What does Putin have on Trump that would compel the American president to turn on his own country? Everybody wants to know, as Trump might say.
Self above country
It’s now undeniably clear that Trump puts self above country, self above party and self above voter. Is Trump’s alliance with Putin an act of self-preservation? Is it personal opportunism? Is Trump doing Putin a favor in exchange for return favors? We don’t know, yet, but if there’s a trail of illegal Russian money in the Trump presidential campaign, or in Trump’s far-flung business empire, it’s likely that special prosecutor Robert Mueller knows about it, which means the public will, eventually. It’s now obvious why Trump has been trying for months to torpedo Mueller’s investigation, even though Trump claims to have done nothing wrong: If anybody knows the real reason Trump fawns over Putin, it’s Mueller.
Americans expect politicians to be self-serving. Trump doesn’t disappoint. But if you voted for Trump as a repudiation of Billary-style greasiness, you got duped. Team Trump is abusing its power in ways Hillary Clinton couldn’t even dream of – perhaps even to cover up crimes by the man elected to run it.
Then there are the more routine forms of corruption. Three Trump Cabinet members have resigned, so far, for abusing the perks of office. Former EPA commissioner Scott Pruitt stayed on the job for months after a vast pattern of grifting emerged, as if Trump saw no problem and was simply waiting for the flap to die down. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, meanwhile, has violated government stock-ownership rules meant to prevent top officials from benefiting from their own policy decisions. It might be an honest mistake, but there’s so much mendacity in the Trump administration that it is time to presume guilt rather than innocence.
Boy Wonder Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House factotum, has violated government ethics guidelines by retaining ownership in his family’s real-estate company while working for the government. There’s some evidence Kushner’s privately owned company has already enjoyed favored treatment from lenders and other business partners because of Kushner’s newfound access to power. Kushner had no experience in government before Trump became president, and he’s only at the White House because he fulfills Trump’s loyalty requirement. Competence and capabilities are irrelevant.
The Treasury Department just changed disclosure rules for some political groups in a way that will allow more rich donors to contribute anonymously to organizations that lobby for favored candidates and causes. Just what America needs: more opportunities for powerful people, including foreigners, to secretly manipulate U.S. elections. There’s much more, including unqualified companies getting government business because of personal friendships with Trump officials.
Trump has Clintonized the White House, and gone much further. He certainly matches Bill Clinton’s sneaky infidelity, with his porn-star affairs and secret hush payments. He one-upped Bill Clinton’s notorious “meaning of is” doublespeak dodge with his “would-wouldn’t” obfuscation regarding Putin’s election hacking.
Hillary Clinton alienated voters by, among other things, shirking responsibility for her mistakes and rarely taking the blame for anything gone wrong. But she was an amateur compared with Trump, who lies every day, calls his own statements “fake news” and now courts a dictator associated with numerous assassinations. Even the Clinton Foundation, which took money from every opportunist hoping to get an audience with a Clinton, didn’t stoop that low.
This isn’t a defense of Hillary Clinton. She lost the 2016 election because of her own arrogance and mistakes. But it’s time for those who thought they were getting something better, in Trump, to realize they were wrong.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman