The wheels are not off the bus. The kids, and the rest of us, are going to be all right. Come the new year, the country will switch from the Trump Show, where our president hears voices on Fox TV and does what they say, and move to Court TV. That channel will play a police procedural akin to Law & Order where an elite squad of dedicated detectives, known as the Special Counsel’s unit, investigates especially heinous crimes and a team of attorneys prosecute the offenders. The rule of law, not the vagaries of politics or Ann Coulter, triumphs.
In this setting, the president’s tweets can and will be used against him. Throw shade on law enforcement (they’re all enemies out to get the White House), poison the jury pool (Michael Cohen’s a rat, Michael Flynn’s a patriot), and otherwise flick sand into the wheels of justice (appoint attorneys general who’ve pre-judged the case), but justice will still grind on. There is always decorum in the court. One lie, much less 7,000, can send you to prison.
With the first phase of police work just about over—the search for the real colluder, or colluders, hundreds of hours of FBI interviews with all the lying under oath that suggests, grand jury appearances, arrests and indictments, witness flips and plea deals—the main action moves to court.
The A story is the sentencing of small fish like George Papadopoulos, aka the coffee boy. The B story the trial of big fish, campaign manager Paul Manafort, who threw in the towel, along with a couple mansions and an ostrich coat, and agreed to cooperate with Mueller. The C story will find Trump’s nefarious advisers, Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi, in Mueller’s crosshairs.
The most riveting storyline was the aborted sentencing hearing of Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn just before Christmas, which augurs badly for others to come. It went so poorly Flynn bought himself another hearing in the new year when he returns to court to try to undo the self-inflicted wound of his first. He suffered a relapse, falling back under the influence of Trump and Rudy Giuliani and a cockamamie entrapment defense. They convinced him to argue that it’s okay to lie if the FBI hasn’t explicitly warned you not to every time you open your mouth.
That twisted logic may explain Trump’s needlepoint pillow, which says honesty is the second-best policy. But it can’t explain why Flynn would jeopardize his deal for leniency from Mueller by adopting it. Flynn completely misread U.S. federal district court Judge Emmet Sullivan’s rulings in the wrongful conviction of Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 for taking bribes from an oil lobbyist.
Alarmed by prosecutors’ conduct, Sullivan, appointed to ever-higher judgeships by Republicans and Democrats, ordered a post-verdict investigation, which confirmed his suspicion that prosecutors had willfully withheld crucial exculpatory evidence. The findings didn’t come in time to save Stevens. He was killed in a plane crash on his way to a fishing vacation he wouldn’t have been taking if he’d still been in the Senate. But it did make Sullivan the poster judge for censuring overzealous prosecutors.
Problem for Flynn was that Sullivan can tell the difference between out-of-control prosecutors and Robert Mueller, who is completely in control. In the Trump investigation, all the misconduct is on the defense side, with the president’s unconscionable attacks on the FBI, cooperating witnesses, and Mueller’s staff, whom he labels as biased Democratic hacks.
Flynn walked into Sullivan’s courtroom a nearly free man and left humiliated. As he climbed into his black SUV, you could hear chants of “lock him up.” He and others should take note. You’re no longer in Trump’s alternate universe. There will be order in the court.
Sullivan won’t hear all Trump-related cases, but he’s involved in many. When he learned last spring that a mother and child were being flown out of the country while their case for asylum was pending, he ordered prosecutors to “turn that plane around.” And he threw a wrench into Trump’s unilateral changes to our asylum laws at the end of December.
In a 107-page opinion, Sullivan said the president’s actions deciding who qualifies for protection and who doesn’t were “contrary to law.” He ordered the government to bring back those deported whose claims of fleeing violence in their native countries were deemed credible. He also ruled that a lawsuit that accuses the president of violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause by benefiting from payments from foreign countries who stay at his Washington hotel could proceed. Stone and Corsi may be on his docket soon.
Trump will soon find himself as burdened by the law and order as he is by Democrats refusing to build his wall. His foundation has been charged in New York as a slush fund that took money in but gave not much away. He was wrongly enriched by his transition office, his inaugural committee, and the presidency, even though he promised to put his business in a blind trust once elected.
We’ve also reached the point in the story where we realize that everyone’s in on it. The whole family is living off the West Wing. Exhibit One is a picture of Ivanka Trump, beaming as she holds up a life-size check as if it were actually a donation to a worthy cause.
We long for justice. It was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. The press tries mightily but it’s impossible to expose every wrong, to keep a light shining on each tragedy. Even the death of a child who should find protection in America but instead dies for want of a sip of water fades as Trump creates other crises.
One day Trump’s telling a 7-year old there is no Santa Claus. Another he’s pushing out Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis because he couldn’t support the president’s impulsive withdrawal of troops from Syria or countenance his sending armed troops to the border. Republicans in Congress are no help, preferring to win the next election over protecting the next generation. If not around the hearth this Yuletide, someday they will need to tell the children what they were doing during the Trump administration.
Although our founding fathers were unlikely to imagine a frequently bankrupt casino mogul as president, they protected us against him. They didn’t stop at two branches of government. In their enduring wisdom, they created a third, which sits astride the law and punishes those who think they are above it but are not.
It’s too early to say our national nightmare is over in a world in such disarray. Thank John Marshall, Emmet Sullivan, and the rule of law for giving us the hope that 2019 could be a happier year than the one now ending.