President Trump's scandal in plain sight

by Rachel Morris / 23 May, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Trump scandal

Former FBI Director James Comey and President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

It took 18 months for Watergate to create a political crisis. Trump got there in just four months.

A self-conscious reverence for democracy has always been a far more prominent feature of political life in the US than in New Zealand. America’s Founding Fathers are near-mythic figures (and now the subjects of the juggernaut Broadway musical Hamilton) and the Constitution is a hallowed document that is also regularly referred to in daily life.

Right now, though, Donald Trump is providing a masterclass in democracy’s fragility. Many of its protections against corruption and abuse of power aren’t guaranteed by yellowed foundational texts, acts of Congress, Supreme Court decisions or constitutional amendments. They’re norms and traditions, enshrined nowhere, and Trump is riding a monster truck over them.

By far the most damaging example is Trump’s decision this month to fire FBI director James Comey. In one impulsive move, Trump has struck a dangerous blow against the delicately balanced institutions that make up America’s justice system. This has always been the crumbliest part of the edifice.

The Justice Department (to which the FBI belongs) reports to the President. But to prevent him from misusing the department’s near-limitless powers for political ends, certain safeguards have been developed over the years. The President isn’t supposed to direct the Justice Department to pursue (or drop) cases. The FBI and Justice Department aren’t supposed to discuss their work with the White House. Unlike nearly every other senior official, the FBI director serves a 10-year term, so as to maintain his independence.

These are all admirable restrictions, but the whole thing depends on the participants respecting the honour system. It was a year and a half before the Watergate scandal threw this arrangement into crisis; Trump got there in just four months.

It would be considered a crisis if a president attempted to interfere with any active investigation at the Justice Department or FBI. Much worse is that Trump fired Comey to stymie an investigation into his own campaign and associates. We know this because he said it on national television. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” he told NBC.

A spokeswoman later affirmed that the Administration wanted the FBI’s Russia investigation to “come to its conclusion”. She added, “We think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”

In theory, Trump could now be vulnerable to prosecution for obstruction of justice, although it’s highly doubtful that either the Attorney General (Trump loyalist Jeff Sessions, himself entangled in the Russia inquiry) or the Republican-controlled Congress will take this step. And in a bizarre way, the brazenness of Trump’s admission may help shield him.

Revelations like these usually emerge from newspaper scoops, explosive congressional showdowns or clandestine meetings in parking garages. But Trump’s complete openness is disorienting; it’s as if the press and politicians don’t know how to deal with a scandal that’s out in the open from the very beginning, not a dirty secret that’s been exposed.

And this is what makes Trump so dangerous: he doesn’t know the lines that aren’t meant to be crossed. He barely seems aware of the core concepts underpinning US democracy: the rule of law, separate branches of government, independent public officials. And right now, there is almost nothing reining him in – no political opposition in Congress, no aides capable of curbing his worst impulses, no personal sense that there are things he just can’t do.

John Dean, who was White House counsel to Richard Nixon, told the Atlantic that he had been having recurring nightmares about Trump: “He is going to test our democracy as it has never been tested.”

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

@nzlistener @nzlistenermag @nzlistener


Dear Oliver: A son's poignant tribute to his mother
93895 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Books

Dear Oliver: A son's poignant tribute to his mothe…

by Peter Wells

A reminder that nothing can really prepare us for the death of a beloved parent.

Read more
Big Little Lies author does it again in Nine Perfect Strangers
100041 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Books

Big Little Lies author does it again in Nine Perfe…

by Catherine Woulfe

The new book by Liane Moriarty can induce cravings despite its health retreat setting.

Read more
Barbershop confidential: Nelson's Man Cave offers more than just haircuts
99534 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Psychology

Barbershop confidential: Nelson's Man Cave offers …

by Fiona Terry

In Nelson, there’s a place where modern “cavemen” can go to be groomed, chill out to music, and find someone to tell their troubles to.

Read more
The Listener's 50 Best Champagnes of 2018
100190 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Wine

The Listener's 50 Best Champagnes of 2018

by Michael Cooper

Celebrate the festive season with sparkling wines from Central Otago to Champagne, priced from $10 to $125.

Read more
Win a double pass to Vice, the new Dick Cheney movie
100368 2018-12-12 10:44:10Z Win

Win a double pass to Vice, the new Dick Cheney mov…

by The Listener

Oscar-winning writer-director Adam McKay brings his trademark wit to the true story of US Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice.

Read more
End of an era: Auckland's independent film library Videon to shut its doors
100360 2018-12-12 10:00:59Z Small business

End of an era: Auckland's independent film library…

by Alex Blackwood

An iconic Auckland store is closing.

Read more
Michael Moore takes on Trump with fire and fury in Fahrenheit 11/9
100230 2018-12-12 00:00:00Z Movies

Michael Moore takes on Trump with fire and fury in…

by James Robins

The conflagration that gave the US President Trump is traced to September 2001.

Read more
10 ideas for the perfect summer Christmas menu
100210 2018-12-12 00:00:00Z Food

10 ideas for the perfect summer Christmas menu

by Lauraine Jacobs

Seafood stars in the entrée courses before turkey takes centre stage, with all the trimmings, to be followed by a fantastic fruity pudding.

Read more