Michael Gerson: Trump’s ‘everyone-does-it’ presidency
It is more typical for a prospective defendant to admit nothing rather than publicly justify everything, but Donald Trump is an innovator. His practice of doubling down on errors while denying they are errors has worked to solidify his political base. We will soon see how it fares as a legal strategy.
Obstruction? “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now,” Trump recently tweeted. The White House explained that this was a wish rather than an order. When Henry II mused, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” it was also a wish, not an order. Yet Thomas Becket ended up just as dead.
Collusion? Trump recently tweeted of his eldest son’s Trump Tower sit-down with the Russians: “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent.” Even if you view meeting with representatives of a hostile power to get dirt on your political rival as the definition of collusion, Trump assures us that “collusion is not a crime.”
So, by any reasonable standard, Trump has publicly attempted obstruction of justice. He has also admitted that his presidential campaign attempted collusion with a foreign power. And he has asserted that both practices are a normal part of the political game.
There is, however, a notable exception to Trump’s legal strategy of hiding in plain sight. He has never, to my knowledge, admitted financial corruption. From the beginning of the Mueller investigation, Trump’s lawyers have tried to enforce a “red line” at Trump’s financial practices. Asked directly if he supported such a line, the president responded “I would say yeah.”
“It’s possible,” Trump said, “there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo. Who knows? I don’t make money from Russia.”
If the president seems particularly concerned about scrutiny of his financial practices, Bob Mueller seems particularly interested in examining them. His A team of investigators includes experts in money laundering, foreign bribery, organized crime and financial fraud. And they appear to have a lot on their plate.
How did a businessman, who once called himself the “king of debt,” get $400 million in cash to spend through shell companies on golf courses, a winery and a Scottish estate? (Remember that in 2008 Donald Trump Jr. said: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets. ... We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”) What contributions, if any, did Russian oligarchs make to Michael Cohen’s slush fund that was used to pay off Trump’s alleged mistress or mistresses? What role did Russian mobsters and oligarchs play in a variety of Trump real estate deals? (Remember that Trump sold his south Florida mansion called “House of Friendship” to a Russian oligarch in 2008 for $95 million, having bought it four years previously for $41 million.) What ethical and legal corners were cut in projects such as Trump Ocean Club Panama, Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Tower Moscow (which was not eventually built)?
When Mueller finally turns in his report, I suspect that Americans will get a crash course in the meaning of money laundering. At the most basic level, this practice consists of disguising the origins of money from a criminal enterprise. It can be done on a small scale — like (we have learned from the Paul Manafort prosecution) funneling money through an antique rug shop. Larger scale laundering is often done through real estate — using shell companies to hide the source of cash in the purchase of properties.
The charge of money laundering has not been proven against Trump and his family. And it is very hard to prove. But Trump shows all the warning signs that tip off investigators: the extensive use of limited liability companies, the refusal to disclose tax returns, the total lack of transparency.
How would Americans react to a credible charge of financial corruption against Trump? A portion of the public, of course, will persist in their belief that since all politicians are corrupt, it is unfair to single out their man.
This has become the “everyone does it” presidency. Doesn’t every campaign try to conspire with a hostile foreign government to influence an American presidential election? Doesn’t every politician try to discredit and derail a federal investigation against them? Doesn’t every prominent man pay off Playboy bunnies and porn stars after he has used and discarded them? Doesn’t every wealthy man engage in opaque financial arrangements with some of the most corrupt and dangerous people on earth?
No. They. Don’t.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.