So Many Trump Scandals, So Little Time


Outrage has steadily lost its power in American politics throughout the past few years. Among Donald Trump’s many political weapons, his ability to brazen his way through scandals that would derail other politicians has long been perhaps his strongest asset. His signature move is to displace talk of one mind-blowing violation by committing yet another mind-blowing violation—a habit that has now produced numerous investigations of him and once again led the former President to dominate our daily discourse. It’s easy to forget about the last controversy because, with Trump, you’re always onto the next one.

Even now, nearly two years after he left office, this familiar debilitating dynamic applies. There are currently multiple serious, ongoing inquiries into Trump and his associated entities, ranging from investigations of the former President’s business to his role in fomenting the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Trump has so many legal problems that he is employing no fewer than nineteen lawyers to represent him, Politico found—a full law firm’s worth of legal D-listers. There’s the Georgia probe into his efforts to pressure state election officials not to certify Joe Biden’s victory, and, as last month’s F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago made public so dramatically, a Justice Department criminal investigation of his refusal to turn over reams of classified information after he left the White House. Which one to focus on?

This past Tuesday, the Washington Post revealed that Trump apparently left office with classified information about another country’s nuclear secrets and kept it at his Mar-a-Lago country club in an unsecured storeroom. Some of the classified documents that the F.B.I. found there were so secret that even many senior national-security officials were not cleared to have access to them, the Post reported. This, surely, is an outrage worth dwelling on. Yet, by Thursday, the Trump news cycle had moved on to reports of a new wave of federal grand-jury subpoenas into Trump’s fund-raising operation after the 2020 election, in which his Save America PAC raised more than a hundred million dollars by spreading baseless lies about widespread voter fraud.

Though Trump himself has never yet faced a full reckoning in the many, many probes that have shadowed his careers in business and politics, the twists and turns of the investigations have already spun off endless dramas and subplots—insuring more distraction from the underlying offenses themselves. Consider the arrest and arraignment, also on Thursday, of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and, in recent years, one of his most inflammatory public propagandists. In one of the many outrages of Trump’s final hours in office, Bannon was a late addition to the list of dozens of Presidential pardons that Trump handed out to assorted crooked associates and politicians, before leaving on January 20, 2021. Trump pardoned Bannon despite the fact that Bannon had been charged by federal authorities for bilking’s Trump own supporters who donated to a nonprofit—co-run by Bannon—thinking the money would fund Trump’s border wall. Bannon now faces New York state felony charges that flow from the same reputed scam; the new case is possible despite the pardon because Bannon was pardoned by Trump before he actually stood trial on the initial federal charges. Bannon, don’t forget, figured in another Trump spinoff legal drama during the summer, when a federal jury convicted him of two charges of criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the House select committee investigating January 6th. He is supposed to be sentenced in October on those charges.

Bannon, whose incendiary public rhetoric included warning on the eve of January 6th that “all hell is going to break loose” at the Capitol, claimed this week that he was being targeted because his pro-Trump podcast, “War Room,” was too powerful. “I am never going to stop fighting,” he vowed. “They will have to kill me first.” Like Trump, he believes in what might be called the fog-machine approach to political misinformation: the more reckless statements that you pump out, the less you face censure for any one of them. After the 2020 election, Bannon famously called on his podcast for “heads on pikes.” In the episode before his arraignment, he insisted darkly that the F.B.I. director Christopher Wray, who approved the Mar-a-Lago search, and Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr, who has defended the search and has publicly contradicted Trump’s false election claims, would soon face their “time in the barrel.”

As always, Trump himself has figured out how to capitalize on the investigations, a formula he perfected over years of railing against whatever “witch hunt” was being waged against him at a particular moment. At a political rally last weekend, in Pennsylvania, he called President Biden an “enemy of the state” and the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigators “vicious monsters.”

But where Trump sees political benefit in this new set of grievances, Democrats do as well. Since I wrote last month about the optimistic Democratic case for a not-terrible showing by the Party in this fall’s midterms, the conventional wisdom has shifted to this idea in a big way, boosted by a modest improvement in Biden’s political standing, the return of Trump and his latest scandals to the news, weak performance by Republican candidates in some important battleground races, and a wave of women registering to vote after the Supreme Court threw out Roe v. Wade. The Trump show is not the only factor, in other words, bolstering Democratic prospects. But it is undoubtedly a significant one.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll out this week found that a large majority of Americans—close to sixty per cent—view Trump and his MAGA movement as a threat to American democracy. In a Wall Street Journal survey touted by Biden’s pollster, John Anzalone, on Thursday, Biden was leading Trump in a head-to-head matchup, 50–44 per cent, up from a 45–45 tie in March. And Biden’s job rating had increased by a net of six points over the previous survey, while Trump’s had gone down a net of eight points. Other surveys show similar movement, and Democrats now lead Republicans in the generic congressional ballot in most public polls.

Biden would very likely not have become President without Trump, so I suppose it’s fitting that Trump’s return to the news this summer has helped revive Biden’s flagging Presidency. Nothing turns out Democratic voters so much as the threat of a Trump resurgence. (Momentum, however, can be a dangerous intoxicant in politics—it’s worth remembering that, while Biden is on the upswing now, he’s still deep in negative polling territory. That Reuters/Ipsos poll had fifty-seven per cent disapproving of his job performance.)

Trump may not now, and may not ever, face the legal reckoning that so many of his critics have craved for so long. If nothing else, he remains an expert at running out the clock. It’s worth remembering, however, that Trump’s record suggests a political comeuppance is possible—even if the spectacle of him being hauled away in handcuffs is still hard to imagine. He is already, after all, the first incumbent President since Herbert Hoover to lose the White House, Senate, and House in just four years. If Democrats manage to defy history and hold one or both houses of Congress this November, you can bet the fear of the former President’s return will be a major factor. That’s why both the forty-fifth and the forty-sixth Presidents want the upcoming elections to be all about Trump, Trump, Trump. ♦


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