WASHINGTON - The week before Christmas may go down as the strangest and most revealing of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Over just a few days, his sheer thuggishness, venality and corruption were laid bare. But it was also a time for Trumpian good deeds that allowed us a glimpse at how he might have governed if he had been shrewder — and had a genuine interest in the good that government can do.
Let’s start with his display of gangsterism and utter indifference to the law in a Dec. 16 tweet calling his former lawyer Michael Cohen a “Rat” for telling the truth about various matters, including his dealings with Russia to build a Trump tower in Moscow and the president’s payoffs before the 2016 election to hide his alleged sexual conduct.
“Rat,” as many have pointed out, is a legendary organized-crime epithet and we really are gazing at something like the Trump Family Syndicate. On Dec. 18, the New York state attorney general, Barbara Underwood, forced the closure of the Donald J. Trump Foundation for what she described as “a shocking pattern of illegality.” She said the foundation functioned “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.”
And, yes, this was an all-in-the-family thing. The foundation’s board consisted of Trump himself, his three adult children, and the CFO of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg. Incidentally, if you wonder why Trump hates the media so much, consider that it was the painstaking work of The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold that first blew the lid off Trump’s scamming disguised as charity.
But that wasn’t all. Two reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee made it abundantly clear that Trump was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate in 2016 — and remained Putin’s guy after he won.
In extraordinary detail, the reports showed the lengths to which Russian social media went to demobilize Democratic Party constituencies, particularly African-Americans and young supporters of Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. Dispelling any doubt about Russia’s commitment to Trump, Putin’s online propagandists kept up their work well after the election was over, targeting special counsel Robert Mueller for abuse.
Oh, yes, and there are the lawsuits about whether revenues to Trump’s hotels from foreign governments constitute a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Less than two years into Trump’s presidency, nearly everything with his name on it is under scrutiny of one kind or another. So maybe the content of Trump’s character means that his political venture was doomed from the beginning.
But at least where policy is concerned, he had another path before him, and it’s the one he took this past week.
I rarely get a chance to say this, so: Good for Trump for endorsing a criminal justice reform bill that passed the Senate on a bipartisan 87-12 vote. It’s highly unlikely this would have happened without him. The bill is not everything reformers hoped for, but it does begin to undo the draconian criminal penalties enacted largely in the 1990s, toward the end of the great crime wave that began in the late 1960s.
This is a key civil rights issue of our time. (Voting rights is another, and on this problem Trump is pushing entirely in the wrong direction.) The long sentences the new law would roll back hit African-Americans the hardest. That’s particularly true of the disparity in the treatment of crack and powdered cocaine sellers that the legislation would mitigate.
Kudos as well to those conservatives and libertarians in groups such as Right on Crime who recognized that filling the prisons is not only problematic from the point of view of justice, but costly as well.
Also last week, the administration announced that it will ban bump stocks, attachments that effectively allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns. Again there’s much more to do about gun violence, but this was an important and constructive step.
It’s often observed that Trump has few discernible political principles. A problem in many respects, this did give Trump enormous flexibility when he came into office. What if he had governed in other areas with the same eye toward bipartisan agreement that led him to criminal justice reform?
Imagine a big infrastructure bill or a far less regressive approach to tax reform. Democrats would have been hard pressed not to work with him. Instead, Trump just kept dividing us and stoking his base. He lazily went along with traditional conservatives on taxes and corporate lobbyists in the regulatory sphere because governing was never really the point. And now, he is reaping the whirlwind.
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a column for The Washington Post. He is a government professor at Georgetown University. © 2018, Washington Post Writers Group