Summaries are useful. “Hamlet” – a young prince discovers that the new king, his new stepfather, actually murdered his father and then married his mother, to become king, and gets very depressed, and then very angry, and then does something about it, and everyone dies. “King Lear” – an old man, angry at everything, shouts at the sky, until his one sensible daughter, and the court jester, slap some sense into him and he realizes he had been being a jerk. “Macbeth” – a man who would be king, but a man with scruples, gets talked into doing some rather nasty stuff by his rather nasty wife, and ends up being a very nasty man himself, and then he ends up dead. Some men are weak and some wives are dangerous. That’s about it. “Much Ado about Nothing” – the title is the summary. Shakespeare isn’t that hard.
Real life is hard. Donald Trump is hard. Things move too fast with this guy. Things keep changing, because he changes them from one hour to the next. Summaries are impossible. He’d never win the Republican nomination. Everyone summarized all the reasons he wouldn’t, and then he did. He’d never win the presidency. Everyone summarized all the reasons he wouldn’t, and then he did. He’s in deep trouble now. He’ll never survive. Everyone summarizes all the reasons he’ll be impeached or be forced to resign, but Donald Trump is hard.
That leaves only one question, asked over and over again. What just happened?
There’s no good answer, but Andrew Sullivan offers a useful summary of what just happened this week:
We are entering the most dangerous phase of Donald Trump’s presidency. We always knew this would happen – that the rule of law and Trump would at some point be unable to coexist – but we had no idea how it would specifically play out. Now we see the lay of the land a little more clearly.
That would be this:
Four Trump campaign officials and his longtime lawyer and fixer have now pleaded to or been convicted of felonies; Trump’s now-convicted campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, faces another trial shortly; his media fixer, David Pecker, is now cooperating with authorities, and has, The Wall Street Journal reported, been granted immunity; Trump’s White House counsel talked to the special counsel’s office for 30 hours, without Trump’s knowledge, and, according to the New York Times, because he feared Trump might try to make him a fall guy for obstruction of justice; and his chief fixer for years, Michael Cohen, has every interest in telling law enforcement everything he knows about Trump’s past mafia boss–style behavior.
What we’re about to find out is if Trump can pull off all his usual tricks, and face no serious political or legal consequences for this.
That, however, is now harder to pull off:
The most significant fact of the last week was that the Department of Justice believed Michael Cohen when he told them that the president of the United States directed him to commit a federal crime. We have therefore, in the view of the DOJ, a criminal president. That’s where we’ve always been with Trump, of course, going right back to his enmeshment with shady Russian financing in New York City, Florida, and Moscow. (There’s a reason Trump has not relinquished his tax returns.) But the criminality has now become text rather than subtext. And what Cohen and Manafort and Pecker know about Trump must be tempting the president to break his famous sobriety.
Sullivan only hints at a bit of odd trivia about our past three presidents. George W Bush freely admitted that he had been an alcoholic, but with the help of Billy Graham, and God, he quit, cold turkey. God saved him. He became a “dry drunk” – a man who would relapse but for God. Evangelicals loved that. Barack Obama enjoyed a cold beer now and then, and sipped scotch or bourbon now and then, in moderation. He was kind of normal. Donald Trump brags that he has never had a sip of anything alcoholic. Weak people turn to alcohol, even to relax and be sociable. He doesn’t. He doesn’t need to. He’s a strong person. Anyone who even takes a sip of wine is a total loser, and he’s a winner.
He’s also a pain in the ass on this issue, but Sullivan suggests he might want a stiff drink right about now:
We are told by observers of the royal court that he has raged and vented and snapped at staff… He now puts the word “Justice” in quotation marks when referring to his own Department of Justice. In the last few months, he has directly attacked Robert Mueller, accusing him of shilling for Democrats. He has called for an investigation of the Clinton campaign for collusion with Russia. He has railed against the FBI for being a “disgrace” and a Democratic Party front. He is still incensed at his attorney general Jeff Sessions for his recusal in an investigation of a campaign in which he would have been a witness. The entire notion that one of his appointees actually swears loyalty to the Constitution, rather than personal fealty to Trump, is incomprehensible – no, infuriating – to him. Almost every day, we are told, the tangerine tyrant vents about Sessions, one of his very first high-profile supporters, for following the rule of law and the norms of Western justice. Trump’s first two congressional supporters, Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter are under indictment.
As for Paul Manafort, a man convicted of massive tax fraud, a sleaze merchant of legendary proportions, now facing another trial for, in part, a conspiracy to defraud the United States? Here’s Trump’s response: “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family…”
While Manafort awaits another trial, the president is not dismissing the idea that he could be pardoned, and in fact, reports surfaced that he had asked advisers about the possibility of pardoning Manafort some time ago. His statements this week are obviously an attempt to persuade Manafort to say nothing – an outrageous attempt at obstructing justice that at this point is merely white noise.
That’s a reasonable summary of perhaps a thousand news stories, and there’s this:
Trump has also revealed himself this week to regard Watergate hero John Dean as a “rat” for defending the rule of law under Nixon, a view that even Nixon never expressed in public. And he holds the views of a mob boss when it comes to the idea of plea bargains as a way of shutting down organized crime: “I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I’ve been watching flippers. Everything is wonderful and then they get ten years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go … It’s called ‘flipping’ and it almost ought to be illegal.”
He did say “almost” of course, but that’s mob-boss talk. Everyone agrees on that but Sullivan is not surprised:
Trump made his fortune in part through the mob. They were regulars at his Taj Mahal casino, which was found to have “willfully violated” the money-laundering rules of the Bank Secrecy Act, was the subject of four separate IRS investigations for “repeated and significant” deviations from money-laundering laws, and was forced to pay what was then an industry record for the largest money-laundering fine. The Russian mob was critical to buying his real estate in secret as well. This is a president who has surrounded himself with criminals, especially Russian criminals, for decades. But still: the man who took an oath to enforce the laws of the land is openly touting the logic of mobsters in their battle with law enforcement. Before this presidency, that would have been inconceivable.
Sullivan also summarizes something else:
Fox News continues its extremely reckless habit of backing Trump’s assaults on the DOJ, the FBI, and Robert Mueller specifically. A view is emerging among the Republican base that much of law enforcement is rigged against them and in favor of the “elite globalists” who dominate “the swamp.” Even though both the DOJ and FBI are run by rock-ribbed Republicans – Mueller has always been one – they are shills for the opposition. “This is the new Department of Justice. This is the Democrats’ arm of law enforcement, that’s what’s happening right now,” Duncan Hunter, just indicted for corruption on 60 counts, including wire fraud and campaign finance violations, insisted this week. “It’s happening with Trump, and it’s happening with me.” It’s worth noting too how the Trump cult might also be spreading to jurors. A single one held out in the Manafort trial on ten charges, for what another Trump-supporting juror has said were inexplicable reasons.
That’s what just happened, and Sullivan isn’t happy about it:
A republic cannot be governed by a man who acts like a mafia boss, following mafia rules. The minute that happens, the corrosion begins. Every day such a crook holds the highest office in the land represents yet another crack in the law of the land. If this figure decides to wage an actual war on the rule of law, and retains the solid support of his party, all bets are off. And it is a staggering fact that in the wake of this week’s verdicts and Trump’s responses, no Republican leaders have yet decisively called their president out, and no right-wing media outlet has sounded any kind of alarm.
Given that, Sullivan suggests that this will not end well:
Everything we know about Trump would lead you to believe he will defend himself, like every other mafia boss, to the bitter end. His current strategy is to dismiss the recent convictions as nothing to do with him, and nothing to do with collusion with Russia. “NO COLLUSION.” And that may well work with his base – unless evidence does emerge of a knowing conspiracy with Russia, giving Mueller the goods without any serious doubt. Or unless we discover that Trump himself obviously used his constitutional powers to obstruct justice.
But if the evidence for one or both does come to light, that’s also when the implicit danger becomes explicit. At that point, Trump would have several options. He could fire Sessions and Rosenstein and others until he found someone who would fire Mueller. (And he has just signaled that that is exactly what he will do.) He could pardon everyone implicated by Mueller and declare the entire affair a travesty of justice.
Or there’s this:
Trump could also launch a political campaign to purge the government of those he views as global elitists who have been trying to overturn the result of a democratic election since November 2016. He could perform, in other words, a mini-Erdogan, go to the country in 2020, and appeal for mass support against the “swamp.” He could double down on the populism – if impeached, he would encourage and foment what Rudy Giuliani called this week a “people’s revolt.”
Or there’s this:
He could also ratchet up the foul white-nationalist rhetoric he has been spouting for so long, seizing on events, such as the awful murder of Mollie Tibbetts, to generate anti-immigrant hysteria. Newt Gingrich, one of the most sinister figures in modern American politics, has openly mused about running a midterm campaign on fears of violence by brown illegal immigrants. Trump could tweet out scare stories about land reform in South Africa, raising classic fears of black violence against whites, in order to rally his base. He could openly allow Russia to interfere again with the elections, this time the midterms, and indeed his administration just blocked a vital new bill to provide support for election security.
Or there’s this:
He could launch a few missiles, or generate a wider trade war with China. He could direct a new attorney general – or mere an acting attorney general – to investigate the Clinton campaign for collusion with Russia. And in all this, he will have a completely shameless state propaganda network to amplify the message, and legitimize it.
Or there’s this:
I would like to believe that Trump would fail, and be removed from office, or, better still, voted decisively out of it. That would actually strengthen our liberal democracy. But it’s impossible to view the tribalism now defining our culture and the despicable character of this president and find this conclusion inevitable…
The next few months will tell us if enough Americans prefer a criminal president to a Democratic one. I’m genuinely afraid of what the answer may be.
Summaries are useful. Summaries can be frightening, and Sullivan wrote that before this news broke:
In what may be the biggest legal blow yet to President Donald Trump, federal prosecutors in New York have granted immunity from prosecution to Allen Weisselberg, the man who knows Trump’s financial secrets – and those of his family and his global business empire.
At the very least, Weisselberg – the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer – has provided key information to federal prosecutors in their case against former Trump lawyer and self-described fixer Michael Cohen and his hush-money payments to two women during the 2016 election, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But federal prosecutors in Manhattan could use Weisselberg’s cooperation to investigate a broad array of potential financial crimes and irregularities, including any other payoffs and campaign finance violations, false statements to the government, corrupt business dealings overseas and tax evasion by Trump, his family members and their eponymous company and all of its related entities and offshore shell companies.
For several decades, Weisselberg has done Trump’s personal tax returns and watched over his personal finances in addition to acting as CFO for the Trump Organization. Currently, he is also running that financial empire with Trump’s two eldest sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump.
What just happened? This just happened:
“This is extraordinarily bad news for Trump given that all of the Trump Organization money, and Trump’s own, passed across his desk,” said David Cay Johnston, author of the 2016 book, “The Making of Donald Trump.”
“So even if he didn’t always know the purpose for what it was used, he’s the key witness that Trump needs to worry about most,” said Johnston, founder of DCReport, which has waged a campaign to force the New York state and local authorities to launch a criminal investigation into Trump. “He is the one person who can authenticate documents, who can put people in rooms and who can lay out what took place.”
“He is also an indication that people around Trump, knowing that loyalty is one-way street, are not going to go to prison for their boss,” Johnston added.
And this just happened:
Martin London, a lawyer who represented former Vice President Spiro Agnew, said that President Trump should resign from office to keep federal prosecutors from prosecuting his family.
“It’s only going to get worse,” London said Friday during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
“We already have everybody, you know – the rats are leaving the ship. He’s lost [Richard] Gates, [George] Papadopoulos, [Michael] Cohen, [Michael] Flynn, now [David] Pecker,” London said. “He’ll probably lose others from the Trump Organization.”
And then he lost Weisselberg later that day. Things move too fast with this Trump guy, but the advice is still sound:
London represented Agnew, who served as vice president under President Nixon. Agnew resigned while in office in 1973 under legal pressure over a bribery scandal 10 months before Nixon stepped down.
“We don’t know a quarter of what’s in the pocket of the prosecutor,” London said of Mueller.
“If he has any interest at all in not only saving his skin, but the skin of his child, his children, his son-in-law, his grandchildren, his daughter – this is a time when he’s got to seriously think about that,” London said, referring to Trump. “Now, is he capable of that, of serious thinking? Frankly, I doubt it.”
And there was other advice:
London said Trump should ponder his advice because his current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who he also labeled a “clown,” isn’t going to get him anywhere.
“He’s going to be advised by people like clown Giuliani and people who don’t know that truth is truth then he’s not going to get anywhere,” he said. “The national interest is what drove the Agnew resignation.”
The national interest does not drive Donald Trump:
On Thursday, President Donald Trump posed for an Oval Office photo with one of the leading promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that top Democrats are part of a global pedophile cult.
YouTube conspiracy theorist Lionel Lebron was in the White House for an event on Thursday, according to a video Lebron posted online. During the visit, Lebron and his wife posed for a smiling picture with Trump in the Oval Office.
So try this summary:
Lebron is one of the internet’s leading promoters of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory based on a series of anonymous clues posted to internet forums. QAnon believers have interpreted the clues, which they claim without evidence are coming from a highly placed source in the Trump administration, to mean that Trump and the military are engaged in a high-stakes shadow war against a supposed globalist pedophile cult. The conspiracy theory has caught on with Trump supporters, who have held up QAnon-related signs and wear QAnon shirts to the president’s rallies.
Lebron claimed to have received a “special guided tour of the White House” before posing for pictures with Trump.
And this was no mistake:
It is highly unlikely that Lebron and his spouse were simply able to casually stumble into this meeting while on a White House tour, for instance. Those familiar with how this Oval Office operates say that typically the only way that an Oval photo op between President Trump and strangers would even happen is if a senior official vouched for the guests and waved them in…
His visit to the White House comes as other prominent Trump supporters in the media try to push back on QAnon’s spread, fearing that it makes Trump voters look ridiculous.
How did this happen? Some things are beyond summary. Andrew Sullivan did what he could. David Cay Johnston did what he could. Martin London did what he could. But something just happened, and it wasn’t much ado about nothing, even if all of this seems a bit Shakespearian. There is a tragedy here, or a comedy, or both. The nation needs the CliffsNotes now. There are none.