At his rally last night, President Trump’s characteristic threats of vengeance against his enemies took an especially chilling turn. “There was treason!” he announced, summarizing the investigation into the Mueller probe. The crowd began chanting, “Lock them up! Lock them up!”
Trump initially returned to his prepared text, itself a creepily ethno-nationalist paean to his narrow Electoral College win. “You reclaimed your destiny, you defended your dignity, and you took back your country,” he read, in a passage that probably sounded better in the original German. But the “Lock them up!” chants persisted, and, with his showman’s gift for timing, Trump turned back to his audience and paused as the chants increased, then theatrically relented to the demands of the crowd that he had stoked. “We have a great new attorney general who will give it a very fair look, very fair look,” he promised.
It is difficult to fully describe what Trump conveyed in this line without watching the video. As Trump said “very fair,” he wore an arch expression. Trump of course does not use “fair” in anything like the dictionary definition of the term. Trump’s notion of “fairness” is purely positional, revolving entirely around his own self-interest. With his expression, Trump — unusual for him — brought the crowd in on the joke. “Very fair” was a punch line.
Trump’s notion of a “fair” attorney general, as he has stated many times, is one who loyally protects the president’s political interests. His frequent expressions of confidence in William Barr are therefore an important indicator. Barr conspicuously refused to answer a question about whether he had been ordered to investigate anybody, then announced a new, third, investigation into the origins of the Russia probe. Barr has also repeatedly prejudged the outcome of that probe in public. Trump “has told close confidants that he ‘finally’ had ‘my attorney general,’ according to two Republicans close to the White House,” reports the Associated Press. Every indicator suggests Trump believes, correctly or otherwise, that his attorney general shares his peculiar, mob-family sense of fairness.
In a pre-Trumpian world, this sequence of events would set off a political crisis. In the surreal landscape we inhabit, it barely registers. But it is worth noting that Trump continues to commit impeachable offenses at an unprecedented pace. Last night’s threats to make good on his “lock them up” promises are merely one more in another recent flurry. The space between Trump’s long-standing authoritarian rhetoric and the deployment of his powers of office is slowly collapsing on several fronts.
Consider some of the events of recent days. Sunday, the New York Times revealed that Deutsche Bank’s internal investigators raised concerns that the portfolios of Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner involved money laundering. Trump is suing Deutsche Bank to block it from complying with congressional investigators. The notion that the president is entitled to engage in red-flagged dealings with money launderers, and conceal it from Congress and the public, is a wild transgression of transparency norms.
The same day, the Times reported Trump is preparing pardons for several American war criminals. Trump has long fantasized about war crimes and human-rights violations as part of his idealized military, from repeating a fantasized historical account of General Pershing shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood to proposing that the United States seize Iraqi oil as spoils of war. His prospective pardoning of war criminals are steps toward institutionalizing this vision as de facto law.
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Michael Cohen told a closed House panel that Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, encouraged him to lie to Congress in 2017. Cohen’s lie concerned his handling of a deal to build a Trump-branded tower in Moscow. The subject of the lie is itself a massive scandal: Vladimir Putin, who habitually corrupts foreign politicians with bribes disguised as lucrative deals, was dangling a contract worth several hundred million dollars, with no financial risk or downside to Trump.
Cohen has testified that Trump encouraged him to lie by repeating, in his characteristic mobster code — “There’s no Russia” — a cover story both men knew to be false. (Trump of course signed the letter of intent for the Moscow Project.) The new report shows that Sekulow was involved in crafting his false testimony, and that, far from the president’s lawyer freelance ordering perjury, Cohen understood Trump to be working through Sekulow:
The new disclosure fleshes out more evidence that the president suborned perjury to conceal evidence that he was deeply compromised by Russia during the campaign.
Also yesterday, former White House Counsel Don McGahn refused to appear at a House hearing to testify to yet another serious presidential crime. According to the Mueller report, Trump ordered McGahn to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller, an order McGahn refused. Trump later told McGahn to falsely deny Trump had ever told him this.
Trump has publicly insisted none of this has happened, a denial that makes McGahn’s testimony highly pertinent. There is no basis for refusing to let McGahn testify. It’s not executive privilege, a right McGahn already waived by discussing it with Mueller. Instead, the White House is advancing the novel and extreme argument that Congress can never compel testimony from a senior White House official. That precedent, if accepted, would negate vast swathes of Congress’s long-standing investigative powers.
What’s more, Trump is backstopping his demand with financial blackmail. The AP reports that “Trump has mused about instructing Republicans to cease dealing with the firm” currently employing McGahn, which relies on Republican connections for its business. So Trump, in short, is using financial blackmail in support of a fallacious legal argument in order to cover up a clear instance of obstruction of justice — a seamless garment of corruption.
What cynics had waved off as Trump’s cartoonish musings is slowly seeping its way into sanctioned government policy. The question of whether or not to impeach Trump has attached itself to the discrete drama of the Mueller report, which contains a large cache of Trumpian misconduct. But the misconduct is also an ongoing process with no clear endpoint. The impeachable offenses just keep coming.