When Donald Trump’s White House was originally pressed to explain some of the more scandalous people in the president’s orbit, the original line was to pretend they were peripheral figures whom Trump barely knew. Paul Manafort? A volunteer who was only around for a few months. Carter Page? Never heard of him.
This week, however, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders what it says about Trump’s judgment that some of his campaign staffers “turned out to be criminals.” She replied, “Look, I think that those are issues that took place long before they were involved with the president.”
Strictly speaking, that’s not even close to being true. Michael Flynn, for example, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia during the president’s transition period. Rick Gates pleaded guilty to a crime he committed literally this month. We’re not talking about misdeeds from these guys’ college years; these are recent transgressions.
But Sanders’ obviously deceptive argument notwithstanding, let’s not miss the forest for the trees: the broader point is that during Donald Trump’s brief political career, he’s surrounded himself with a fair number of criminals.
The Atlantic’s David Graham had a good piece this week on the scandal that’s “already in plain sight.”
Every administration ends up producing examples of corruption and lying, but most presidents take years, and often more than one term, to produce a ledger even half so extensive as what Trump has managed in barely a year in office.
It’s an old trope to imagine how lonely the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who famously walked around with a lamp seeking an honest man, would feel visiting the American capital. In Trump’s Washington, even the hard-bitten cynic might despair.
The first place to start is with the number of people from the president’s political operation who’ve already pleaded guilty to a series of crimes: Flynn, Gates, George Papadopoulos, and others.
Then there’s Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who hasn’t pleaded guilty, but who’s already been indicted on a lengthy list of charges.
Of course, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is hardly done, and we know others whose actions have drawn scrutiny – including the president himself, who may have obstructed justice.
NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin noted the other day that pollsters and pundits often say that explaining the Trump-Russia scandal can be difficult, but “it’s still surprising to me Democrats haven’t found some simple message just around having a bunch of senior figures tied to the president indicted, full stop.”
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes had a recommendation: “The president hired a bunch of criminals to run and staff his campaign and put one in charge of national security.”
But there’s no need to stop there. An alarming number of members from Trump’s cabinet have faced a variety of other misdeeds, which may not be criminal, but which involve serious allegations of ethical lapses and possible misuse of public funds. One such cabinet member has already resigned in disgrace.
In many administrations, there’s something known as “the second-term curse.” The idea behind the phrase is that a White House team will cut corners and make avoidable mistakes in their first terms, and these misdeeds start to catch up with them in their second terms. For example, before Trump, only two American presidents have ever been the subject of federal criminal inquiries – Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon – and both ran into trouble in their second terms. One was impeached, the other resigned to avoid certain impeachment.
Trump appears to be on an expedited schedule.