The nominees for “Most Shocking Thing Said by Donald Trump” constitute a list so long we can’t even remember half of them, but as of June 12, 2019, there’s a hands-down winner and nothing else comes anywhere close to close.
For a president of the United States to say, as Trump said to George Stephanopoulos, that he’d accept foreign intelligence or information about his Democratic opponent is way beyond shocking. Maybe it’s not surprising after we all heard him “joke” about having the Russians hack Hillary Clinton emails when he was running for president the first time, but this is the commander in chief speaking, and it’s sickening and appalling and lawless.
And you know what else it is? It’s true. This is one of the rare occasions on which Trump actually spoke the truth.
He’d do in a heartbeat if he thought Russia could help him win. And he’d do it right in front of our eyes. Again. And you know what else?
Unless the Republican Party finds that conscience that’s been in storage for long enough now they may not remember where it is, he’d probably get away with it.
“It's not an interference, they have information—I think I'd take it,” Trump said in reply to Stephanopoulos’ artfully phrased question. “If I thought there was something wrong, I'd go maybe to the FBI—if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘oh let's call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn't have enough agents to take care of it. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it, they always have, and that's the way it is. It's called oppo research.”
First of all, no. It’s not oppo research. Oppo research is conducted by Americans against other Americans they happen to be campaigning against. Oppo research is people on a candidate’s campaign staff, or working for some firm that specializes in the black arts, digging up dirt. It is not foreign nationals and foreign governments trying to influence American elections.
Trump knows this. He’s a nincompoop, but he isn’t that stupid. No one’s that stupid, not even Trump. So what he’s saying—directly to Russia—is: Guys, I’m gonna need your help next year. Can you imagine how they reacted in the Kremlin when they heard this? When the flunky who’s assigned to watch American cable news on a more-or-less sleepy Wednesday night (early Thursday morning over there) saw that clip and heard Trump say those words? That guy spit his borscht halfway across the room.
Trump usually says whatever he thinks will get him through the next 10 minutes. But this? This was different. This was said with intent. I may need to cheat to win, he said. But I will do it. And just watch—no one will stop me.
And no one will stop him. Or will they? This, now, is a specific and concrete test for everyone who so far has tried to defend and explain away his outrages.
What will Bill Barr say when he is asked about this? The chief law enforcement officer of the United States, in theory. Will he say what an attorney general should say? Or will he produce another 19-page memo defending it?
FBI Director Christopher Wray. Trump took a direct shot at the FBI in that interview. They don’t have enough agents, anyway, the president seemed to say, so why bother telling them in the first place? What will Wray have to say about this?
Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy. Please. I think we know what they’ll say.
Trump has said and done a hundred things that make it clear that his respect for the law is zero. But he’s never been as brazen as this. I will break the law to win. That is what he said, in essence. It’s just beyond belief.
When his presidency started, a lot of people said things like: Yes, this will be bad. But our institutions are stronger than Donald Trump. In the end, we’ll be fine.
But in the ensuing two-plus years, we’ve learned something about our institutions that no one wanted then, or maybe still wants, to admit. Our institutions are only as strong as the people in them.
The Department of Justice is supposed to be a brake on presidential lawlessness. But what if the person running it decides otherwise?
The FBI is supposed to stop this kind of thing. But what happens when a former director, James Comey, decides in October 2016 not to make the bureau’s probe of the Trump campaign public, basically because he fears the wrath of the GOP, even as he does make public the reopening of the Hillary Clinton investigation, basically because he does not fear the wrath of the Democrats? And what happens if and when the current director just quietly goes along with a statement like this, if that’s what he does, to hold onto his job?
The legislative branch is supposed to be the ultimate guard against presidential lawlessness. But what happens to that institution when the Republicans in it decide to look the other way, say nothing, go on their state propaganda TV network and repeat the ghastly spin that it’s all just oppo research?
The institutions break down is what happens. The demagogue wins. The person who knows no shame wins when the people who know better and have the power to stop him say nothing.
That’s what we’re living through, and it’s worse even than Trump is. Yes, the founders did make a provision for the appearance of someone like Trump. But that provision depended on the people inside the checking-and-balancing institutions doing their jobs. But what if they refuse to?
Watch closely today and tomorrow to see what these people say. I’d like to leave you with a more comforting thought, but: The republic is in their hands.