Don't Expect the Trump Scandals to Tie Up Neatly

(Sipa via AP Images)

Trump speaks to reporters while departing from the White House on May 4, 2018.

The Trump omniscandal—which is really four or five separate but related scandals swirling around each other in a boiling stew of venal criminality—is slowly coming into focus. When that process is complete, it may wind up being simultaneously less than many believe, and more appalling than we could have imagined.

It's important to keep that in mind, because as we get each new revelation we have a tendency to measure it against our expectations of what a real scandal ought to look like, expectations that may make it harder to come to grips with all the places these investigations are taking us.

Specifically, we yearn for a kind of narrative coherence in which motivations are simple, individuals' actions make sense, and the whole thing has at least some measure of organization to it. We've been taught by innumerable movies and TV shows what a conspiracy looks like, and one of its characteristics is that things become more clear as you move along. What had seemed like a random collection of events turns out to have been directed from above, and eventually the entire plot is revealed. It may be thwarted, but it's always carefully planned.

But that's seldom how things go in the real world. Not that there aren't sometimes conspiracies, because they do happen. But more often than not, somebody's attempt at a conspiracy—colluding with a foreign power, keeping an extramarital affair quiet, sabotaging an investigation—winds up being a series of pratfalls.

That doesn't mean it isn't a genuine scandal or that laws weren't broken. But the more we learn about the actions of Donald Trump and those around him, the clearer it becomes that this collection of nincompoops couldn't run an effective conspiracy to change a tire.

So it's fitting that Trump is now relying on Rudy Giuliani to represent him, and that every time he goes on TV, Giuliani seems to put Trump in more legal and political jeopardy. A few decades ago Giuliani was a capable prosecutor, but these days he's some combination of the world's worst lawyer and the world's worst public spokesman.

To paraphrase something the president once said, when Donald Trump finds people to work for him, he's not getting our best. While there may be some competent professionals currently in his employ, by and large those who go to work for Trump are grifters, scammers, and crooks, people who look at Trump in all his degenerate glory and see a model for their own lives. And the closer someone is to him, the more likely that person will have abandoned all ethics and morals, if they ever had any to begin with.

But they are also a collection of mediocrities and has-beens. It's why Paul Manafort, a man up to his eyeballs in personal desperation, connections to shady characters, and potentially criminal activity, could waltz in and become chairman of Trump's campaign on the absurd rationale that he had skillfully engineered the nomination of Gerald Ford at the 1976 GOP convention, a mere 40 years prior. It's why Michael Cohen, a wannabe tough guy who has spent his life on the fringes of organized (and not-so-organized) crime, could become Trump's "personal attorney" and wind up in the crosshairs of so many investigations.

With those kinds of characters surrounding Trump, it's no wonder that what they produced was not an efficient conspiracy with clear objectives and lines of authority but an erratic mess, where various people were talking to various Russians and sometimes the collusion worked well and sometimes it didn't work at all. As Jeff Sessions later said about the campaign, "It was a form of chaos from day one."

And of course, no one is more an agent of chaos than the president himself. Indeed, when one reads a story like this one, reporting that people working for Trump hired an Israeli private intelligence firm to dig up dirt on former Obama administration officials in the bizarre hope that whatever they found could be used to discredit the Iran nuclear agreement, the first thought is that it sounds like a lunatic idea that came out of the president's brain and somebody was stupid enough to actually put into action.

We have a ways to go before the investigations into Russian meddling, obstruction of justice, and Trump's business practices come to an end. Special counsel Robert Mueller may finish his work by the end of the year, but there's also the U.S. Attorney's office in New York (which is homing in on Michael Cohen), not to mention whatever investigations Democrats will mount if they take back one or both houses of Congress this November.

All those investigations are going to produce a large number of facts and a great deal of detail, but the big picture could still be a confusing jumble. We should prepare ourselves now for the likelihood that the kind of clean conspiracy both Trump's defenders and opponents have in their heads will not be forthcoming. The defenders want to focus on the idea of a highly organized plot so they can say that if such a plot doesn't exist then Trump is innocent of everything. The opponents are hoping that such a plot will indeed be uncovered, so Trump can be exposed for what he is and even impeached.

But we need to be absolutely clear on this point: The fact that the Trump campaign was a mess and the Trump administration is no less so does not make what we've learned and what we have yet to learn any less scandalous. People in Trump's orbit were at the very least attempting to cooperate with a foreign power against their opposing candidate. Trump admitted on national television that he fired the FBI director to shut down the investigation, just one part of the obstruction case. And no one who knows anything about Trump's business dealings—in general and specifically with regard to money coming from the former Soviet Union—thinks there aren't some seriously shady goings-on to be discovered.

More of this picture gets revealed nearly every day, and it more closely resembles a Jackson Pollock painting than a detailed blueprint for crimes. But that doesn't make it any less appalling. 

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