Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for the religious right movement who’s now part of Donald Trump’s legal team, appeared on several morning shows today, hoping to dismiss the relevance of the Russia scandal and this week’s revelations. In an exchange with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Sekulow made the case that the developments with Donald Trump Jr. aren’t that important, in part because there’s no allegation of a crime.
Of course it’s a legal issue. Rachel talked to Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney, about this on the show last night and it seemed quite obvious that this is a legal issue. NBC News published a related piece on the legal questions surrounding the controversy. The New York Times published a piece of its own today from Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as the top ethics attorneys in the last two administrations, exploring some of the unresolved legal controversies that are still being investigated.
“Look, here’s what I look at. I look at the law. Was there any illegality? Was there any legal difficulty, legal problem with this issue and it’s not a legal issue.”
If, however, Sekulow wants to argue that this isn’t only a legal issue, I’d be far more inclined to agree. As one observer put it yesterday, “A presidential campaign enthusiastically courting secret sponsorship by a foreign government is a problem bigger than the criminal law.”
Given what we know, it’s fair to say we’re dealing with a scandal that creates multiple crises at once. Clearly, whether Jay Sekulow wants to acknowledge this or not, there’s a legal crisis. Time will tell if anyone faces an indictment, but an examination is ongoing as to whether members of the Trump campaign and/or the Trump White House crossed legal lines. By some accounts, the president himself is facing potential legal jeopardy over obstruction of justice.
But there’s also a political and small-d democratic crisis unfolding simultaneously. A foreign adversary attacked the United States, and there’s evidence of collusion between the adversary and the campaign that benefited from the foreign intervention. There’s no precedent for anything like this in the American tradition, and what we’ve learned calls further into question the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.
Yes, the legal questions obviously matter, and it’s important that the investigation continue without White House interference. But it’s also a test of our system of government, and whether our body politic is healthy enough to deal with the crisis responsibly.
Vox’s Ezra Klein, after noting that the American presidential election may have been decided by a crime, explained yesterday that we’re faced with “a crisis that leaves vast swaths of American politics stained. The election is tainted. The White House is tainted. Our foreign policy is tainted. If impeachment seems impossible, it is only because we believe that Republicans in Congress would sooner protect a criminal administration than risk their legislative agenda to uphold the rule of law – which is all to say, Congress is tainted, too.”
The legal argument is of the utmost importance, but it doesn’t represent the totality of the conversation. If a president and his political operation can get away with colluding with a foreign adversary in order to gain power, will American politics ever be the same?