WASHINGTON – Though he rarely admits even the slightest discontent with the job he schemed for in unprecedented ways and somewhat accidentally fell into (thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College), Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been what Americans would call a bowl of cherries. Yet no other week of his presidency so far has been filled with such problems and so many dark omens for him.
Last Friday, Trump was implicated by his own Justice Department in a felony, on the basis of sentencing recommendations for his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and for his former longtime lawyer and consigliere, Michael Cohen, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The clear implications in both reports were that Trump himself would eventually be the target of serious charges. Moreover, it’s widely believed that some members of his family might well be charged.
Two days earlier, Trump had to sit alongside three past presidents through the funeral of President George H.W. Bush. With Bush lauded as almost his exact opposite in style and manner, Trump looked throughout as if he wished he were anywhere else. Meanwhile, the stock market’s entire gains for the year were wiped out as Trump’s supposed trade truce with China fell apart.
It also became clear just how badly Trump has lost control of Congress. The Democrats’ gain in the House of Representatives continued to rise (the latest number is a stunning 40 seats), as closely fought, undecided races in last month’s midterm election continued to fall the party’s way. And some Republican senators are finally breaking ranks with Trump over the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a pet of both Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner) in the grisly murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Unlike Trump, the senators refused to subordinate the moral and real-world implications of permitting a foreign government to murder a U.S.-based journalist to the president’s exaggerated claims about the kingdom’s future arms purchases and its supposed strategic role in curbing Iran’s regional ambitions.
Then came the court filings by Mueller and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which revealed what many had long suspected, though the reality of it still came as a shock: Trump and his family had used, or tried to use, his presidential candidacy, and then his presidency, to enhance their own wealth. At long last, we learned what embarrassing information Russian President Vladimir Putin had on Trump, after Cohen told prosecutors that Trump had long sought to build a grand, highly lucrative hotel in Moscow, permission for which had to come from the Kremlin. (Russia also stood to gain significant revenue from the project.) Cohen told a congressional committee that Trump’s efforts to secure the hotel deal had ended at the beginning of 2016. He later admitted that the talks had continued until June of that year, after Trump, who had repeatedly stated since entering the race in June 2015 that he had no business with Russia, had sewn up the Republican nomination.
Cohen’s testimony also highlighted the likelihood that various aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including favorable statements about or treatment of certain autocratic leaders, have been influenced by Trump’s private business interests — existing or desired — in those countries, which include Turkey, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia. Meanwhile, Trump’s hotels, especially his expensive new one near the White House, received business from various countries. This is especially significant because, unlike his predecessors, Trump refused to detach himself from his private business when he took office (though he turned over its management to his two adult sons), and therefore stood to profit from these countries’ patronage. This could well constitute a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause, which forbids a president from accepting gifts from foreign countries. Trump is currently subject to two lawsuits on the matter, which could also constitute grounds for impeaching him.
The corruption extends to Trump’s immediate circle. His daughter Ivanka was awarded trademarks from China for her clothing line (now defunct, though she has retained the trademarks and sought new ones). Her husband, Kushner, is believed to have used his position to try to find funds to pay off excessive debt incurred by his family’s real estate business. And Cohen literally sold his supposed access to Trump to businesses for a reported $4 million (though how much, if anything, he delivered is open to question).
It was Cohen who told the New York prosecutors that, “at the direction of” Trump (whom the legal documents refer to as “Individual 1”), he arranged to pay off two women who had affairs with the president while he was married to Melania (including just after she had given birth to their son, Barron). The clear purpose of the payoffs was to keep the public from finding out about these affairs before the election. That leaves Trump vulnerable to a felony charge of violating U.S. campaign finance laws.
As Cohen learned the hard way, working for Trump is not easy, which is why so few — aside from his daughter and son-in-law — have lasted long in his White House. For Trump, loyalty is a one-way street, flowing only to him. Indeed, capping off the week, Trump was confronted with the need to find a replacement for his chief of staff, John Kelly, who the president announced would be leaving at the end of the year (the two are barely on speaking terms).
Trump’s ever-stranger behavior of late — including more frequent and more hysterical tweets — has been widely attributed to his growing realization of what the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives means for his presidency. The incoming Democratic committee chairs have said that they plan to investigate various wrongdoings, real and suspected, by Trump and members of his administration. And the prospect of the House Judiciary Committee taking up the question of impeachment has grown stronger with the latest accusations.
It is already clear that the 2016 U.S. presidential election was contorted by extraordinary events. Whether it was legitimate is now a legal matter hanging over the president. And though Trump has not been officially accused of conspiring — often stated as “colluding” — with Russia to interfere on his behalf in exchange for U.S. policy positions Putin desires (such as weakening NATO and the European Union), Mueller’s recent court filings suggest that his investigation is headed in that direction. If he reaches that conclusion, still worse weeks lie ahead for Trump.
Elizabeth Drew is a contributing editor to The New Republic and the author, most recently, of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” © Project Syndicate, 2018