In January 1998, after Bill Clinton lied publicly about his brief affair with Monica Lewinsky, he also lied privately. He told his lawyer, David Kendall, that he had not suborned perjury or obstructed justice, but as far as coming clean went, that was it. He told the White House staff and his Cabinet secretaries—and his wife—that the affair never happened.
He knew, as he wrote in My Life, that he’d have to confess someday. But he calculated—as it turned out, accurately—that after the initial hysteria subsided, the public would focus more on Ken Starr’s inquisitorial tactics than on his relatively minor transgression, and he’d survive.
Clinton lied to his people for one reason: He knew that if he told the truth, they would abandon him. His support within his party would collapse, he knew, if he acknowledged having sullied the presidency in that way. He’d have faced mass resignations from his staff and Cabinet members, and on Capitol Hill, support among Democrats would have dwindled down to the real diehards. There is no question about it: He would have had to resign. (I’m not defending his lie, just laying out his reasoning for it.)
Twenty years later, and with a different political party in the White House, we have a very different situation on our hands. Donald Trump has done things as candidate and president, regarding alleged affairs and matters of much greater importance, that make Clinton’s wrong but legal liaison look like a high-school date in the malt shop. But he can do anything, literally anything so far, and the people around him and in his political party, and on his state propaganda TV network, will lie for him, cover up his possible crimes, smear his critics, and set fire to the laws and the Constitution in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Let’s just take stock of the very recent developments:
●Attorney General Bill Barr clearly lied for Trump in his four-page summary of the Mueller report, and he continues to play games about when and how much of the report he’ll release to a public that overwhelmingly wants to see the full document (75 percent, in this poll). It’s old hat now to call Barr Trump’s new Roy Cohn. He’s more like one of Stalin’s Politburo loyalists (complete, no doubt, with the inevitable purge that will come if and when Barr finally locates his conscience and defies the boss).
●Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney taunted Democrats that there was no way they’d ever see Trump’s tax returns; he surely knows full well that the law couldn’t be clearer that their request is legal.
●Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig weren’t as brazen as Mulvaney but they’ve taken essentially the same position, even as they know that blocking House Democrats’ request is itself a crime, as David Cay Johnston reported for the Beast last week.
●Meanwhile, Trump told Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Patrol, that he’d pardon McAleenan if he broke the law and refused entry to migrants at the border. Trump denied this, but “senior administration officials” leaked it, no doubt hoping to impress the base. Quietly, border agents have decided to obey the law, which means disobeying the president. (Read that sentence again.)
●Trump confirmed Friday that he’d push ahead with his “revenge on Sanctuary Cities” relocation policy, even though we know that the administration was told in February that the policy was of dubious legality.
●Trump sent out that shocking-even-for-him tweet with video cross-cutting between Ilhan Omar’s controversial single sentence and the World Trade towers aflame. Sunday, Sarah Sanders of course defended this, saying it was a “good thing” the president called Omar out and that he “certainly” wished no violence upon her.
I could go on. Every week is like this. But the point is this: None of this could be happening without the full assent and cooperation of the Republican Party from top to bottom. The chairwoman of the Republican Party (top), aside from thinking $5 billion times 20 is $100 trillion, has gone well out of her way to be one of Trump’s attack puppies, doing things her job in no way demands to prove the all-consuming nature of her sycophancy. And the MAGA base (bottom), we know all about.
And in between? Republican office holders who say nothing. It’s possible I missed a few tweets from members of Congress objecting to Trump’s Omar tweet, I don’t know. But even if there were a few such tweets, it hardly matters. What matters is the overall silence. The president of the United States incited violence against a member of Congress. Every member of Congress should denounce that, regardless of party.
Republican office holders who say nothing, and Cabinet members who defend and back up Trump’s illegalities, with respect to both good-government matters (hiding his taxes) and policy (ordering agents to break the law). And watch the pushback this week if Barr actually does release the Mueller Report. Watch in particular Lindsey Graham, who now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and who will use that committee between now and the next election, with Mitch McConnell’s encouragement, for entirely political purposes—to advance the theory of a deep-state conspiracy to get Trump.
None of this could be happening without their assent and participation. Trump could not be getting away with any of these things if the Republicans were a normal political party, as the Democrats were in 1998 when Bill Clinton knew he was on the cusp of losing them en bloc. They—Republican office holders, the hard-core Trump base, the cable news opinion-shapers, and the billionaires who finance it all—are something new in American history. Their behavior is less like that of an American political party and far more like that of a Leninist vanguard (without the violence, at least so far, although as we know Alex Jones and Roger Stone have promised an armed uprising under certain conditions).
This vanguard sees the Democratic Party and fair competition with it as illegitimate. (The way they went after Clinton was an early warning sign of where this was headed). They no longer want to compete with and merely defeat liberalism on a level democratic playing field. They want to destroy it.
You cannot understand their behavior vis a vis Trump if you don’t understand this. Anyone who doesn’t accept this isn’t looking at the real world. Florida Republicans are trying to essentially undo a felon reenfranchisement measure that the state’s voters passed last fall with almost two-thirds of their votes. There’s only one reason they’d do that, and we all know what it is.
This—what the GOP has become—is our real problem. Trump is and always has been just a manifestation of it. He has taken Republicans to unimaginable lows. But they’ve been demonstrating for years that they were delighted to go there.