Yeomans Work

The Incredible Shrinking President

February 20, 2018

Even by the standards of the Trump era, the past week has been stunning. It has also been enormously instructive. Here are just a few of the consequential things revealed by recent events.

The Russia Investigation is no hoax.

Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russian individuals and one organization on Friday should lay to rest any contention the Russia investigation is a politically motivated witch hunt. The indictment lays out in 37 pages of rich detail a conspiracy to defraud the United States by corrupting its election process.

The conspiracy involved the use of paid and unpaid social media on platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. The messaging started in 2014 as an effort to disrupt the election generally, but by early 2016 had morphed into an effort to support Donald Trump through the Republican primaries and general election and simultaneously to defeat Hillary Clinton. A central element of the conspiracy was to convince targeted groups that might be expected to turn out for Clinton – especially African Americans – to stay home. Estimates are that the Russian-generated messaging reached some 160 million Americans. The conspirators also traveled to the United States to collect intelligence and organized rallies for Trump, sometimes working with unwitting Trump campaign officials.

The indictments address a discrete portion of the investigation involving the Russian social media attack. We don’t yet know, but it is possible no Americans will be charged with cooperating with this conspiracy. The legal structure of the indictments, however, leaves that possibility open. Any American who knowingly cooperated with the Russian conspiracy can be charged.

The past week also produced reports that Rick Gates, former Trump deputy campaign manager, is likely to plead guilty soon and agree to cooperate. Gates’ plea will increase pressure on Manafort to do the same. Between the two of them, they know a great deal about the inner workings of the campaign and any ties to Russia.

The indictments say nothing about the hacks of the DNC’s and John Podesta’s emails, their distribution through Wikileaks, obstruction of justice, the financial relationship between Russians and Trump or his family, or the allegations that Russians hold other compromising material on Trump. Stay tuned.

Mueller has more time.

The effort by Trump and his allies to undermine the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation has been slowed severely by the indictment. A major concern has been that by the time Mueller produced substantive results, political and public opposition to the investigation would diminish the force of his work. He now has more time. The big indictment, as well as the unexpected indictment of Alex Van Der Zwaan for making false statements and the imminence of a Gates plea, suggest that the investigation is moving quickly.

Trump will not grow in office.

Trump’s response to the indictment of Russians focused entirely on self-preservation. He unleashed a furious flurry of weekend tweets from Mar-a-Lago filled with the usual lies, distortions, and deflections. To sum up, they promoted two contentions. First, nothing in the indictment alleged that Russian interference accounted for Trump’s victory. These tweets reveal Trump’s monumental insecurity. He cannot escape the fear (his own belief?) that his election was illegitimate. Additionally, he pushed the fact that the indictment did not charge members of his campaign with colluding with the Russians. In fact, the indictment did describe the unwitting involvement of his campaign in assisting the Russian efforts. And Trump’s celebration that none of his campaign members were charged with crimes may prove premature. His tweets presented a very weak response from a very small, self-absorbed, insecure man.

The country lacks a commander-in-chief.

Surely, the most chilling fact to emerge from the past week is that the commander-in-chief is missing. Not one of the thirteen tweets Trump issued over the weekend that mentioned Russia offered any criticism of Russia or Putin. Not one called on people to rally to the defense of the country. Not one discussed means of rebuffing the attack. Not one called for planning to protect this year’s elections from attack.

There are two possible explanations for Trump’s inability to respond. The first is his massive insecurity. Any hostile words toward Russia would legitimize Mueller’s investigation and feed doubts about whether Trump was duly elected. Or, he is compromised in some way. Either his financial indebtedness to Russia or some compromising material the Russians possess makes it impossible for him to speak out against his masters. Either possibility is devastating for the nation. And either possibility is inconsistent with Trump’s fulfillment of his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

The rot in the White House has spread from top to bottom.

The departure of Rob Porter from the White House last week, because his wife-beating made it impossible for him to get a permanent security clearance, revealed the moral rot and epic dysfunction of Trump’s White House. It was revealed that some 130 Trump staffers lack permanent security clearances over a year into the administration. Many of these people have been given access to the nation’s Top Secret/SCI material. While employment pursuant to a temporary clearance is common at the start of an administration, everybody who qualifies for a permanent clearance should have it after a year. Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn almost certainly knew about the Porter situation and failed to act. The continued employment of a large number of people who appear unlikely to qualify for permanent clearances speaks volumes about the quality of people Trump has hired and debunks any notion that Kelly and McGahn are capable of bringing basic order or integrity to the White House. Both should go. The big question is how Trump will deal with Jared Kushner, who does not have a permanent clearance after numerous amendments to his application. He likely does not qualify for a permanent clearance because of matters that are currently under investigation by Mueller.

Trump has been selected as worst president ever.

The latest ranking of presidents by historians has Trump dead last, having replaced James Buchanan, the man who presided over our descent into civil war. In fairness to Trump, it is early. On the other hand, he has shown no indication that he is capable of growth. He is our incredible shrinking president.

Sign up to get Yeomans Work in your inbox!

Bill Yeomans is the Senior Justice Fellow at Alliance for Justice. He currently serves as Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and previously taught constitutional law, civil rights, and legislation at American University Washington College of Law. He also served for 26 years in the Department of Justice, where he litigated cases involving voting rights and discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and prosecuted police officers and racially motivated violent offenders before assuming a series of management positions, including acting Assistant Attorney General. For three years, Bill served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has also held positions at AFJ and the American Constitution Society. The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Alliance for Justice.