Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals

The investigation of the Trump administration continues with the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to the inquiry into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election. I’ve refrained from writing about “Russiagate” to this point, because of how poorly the investigation has been handled by political leaders and the media.

Scarcely do I see a recognition from these political actors that the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which supposedly provided evidence of Russian election meddling, provided no definitive documentation of a direct link between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The report concluded that Vladimir Putin personally ordered email hacks of the Democratic Party to uncover potentially embarrassing information on Hillary Clinton, and to boost Trump’s chances of winning the election. But the report failed to flesh out specific details documenting alleged Russian efforts to influence the election.

The public was expected to take the charges on faith. This is not to say that Russia is innocent of trying to sway the election. I have no hard evidence one way or the other on that question, but as someone who believes in evidence-based reasoning, I don’t accept claims that are made without documentation.

As a social scientist, it’s been frustrating to listen to liberals and Democratic supporters authoritatively rant about Russia stealing the U.S. election. I’ve seen no compelling evidence that the anti-Clinton stories covered by Wikileaks had a substantive impact on voter choice. Most of these stories were inside-baseball kind of stuff, including the “revelation” that John Podesta thought Hillary Clinton has poor political instincts, that the Clinton campaign didn’t like Bernie Sanders (a shocker!), that Clinton supported “open borders” free trade agreements (you don’t say?), and that she delivered a Wall Street speech voicing support for adopting “public” and “private position[s]” on political issues (politicians lie?!?). In an era of superficiality in American elections, it’s also fair to ask how much attention citizens pay to these kinds of stories. Election scholars have long found that much of the public votes for candidates based on extremely superficial considerations such as physical attractiveness, use of buzz words, and an amorphous belief in a candidates’ “character.”

What little empirical evidence that’s been presented so far raises doubts about the impact of alleged Russian spying on the election. As Harry Egan of 538 writes, despite considerable public interest in Wikileaks and the election, “Clinton’s drop in the polls [in late October and early November] doesn’t line up perfectly with the surge in Wikileaks interest” among the public, as seen in national google searches. “When Wikileaks had its highest search day in early October, Clinton’s poll numbers were rising. They continued to go up for another two weeks, even as Wikileaks was releasing emails. That is, there isn’t one pivotal ‘aha!’ point which shows that Wikileaks caused Clinton’s numbers to drop… There just isn’t a clean-cut story in the data.”

The evidence that does exist suggesting that individual news stories influenced the polls cuts against the Russia-election meddling thesis. In the fall of 2016, Nate Silver summarized various election-related events and their potential impact as follows: “when a story has broken through to dominate the news cycle, it usually has moved the polls in the direction that people expected. Trump’s feuds with Judge Gonzalo Curiel and the family of the American soldier Humayun Khan corresponded with periods when he declined in the polls. The first debate turned into a disaster for Trump in a way that was predictable based on instant-reaction polls. Trump’s convention was a mess, whereas Clinton’s was conventionally effective, and she got a much larger convention bounce. However, Clinton was hurt by her email scandal resurfacing as a major story line in July. And she declined in the polls after her ‘basket of deplorables’ comments and Sept. 11 health scare.” Notice that none of the events cited by Silver were tied back directly to “Russiagate.” It seems much more likely that the re-announcement of the FBI’s Clinton email investigation in late-October was a key factor in swinging what was already a close race.

Suspicion of the “Russiagate” investigation is also compounded by the fact that the Democratic Party is desperate to direct attention away from its unpopularity with the public. Gallup’s polling numbers for May 2017 find that just 40 percent of Americans hold a “favorable” view of the Democratic Party, compared to 39 percent sharing a favorable view of Republicans. And the Democrats’ favorability numbers are in decline, falling from 45 percent in November 2016. The effort to define Democratic politics through opposition to Trump has backfired. The party has failed over the last half-year to cultivate any meaningful support from the public. The Democrats have no real identity anymore outside of resisting Trump, and this kind of “identity” is not something one can build public support around in terms of consistently winning elections. Hillary Clinton’s election loss exposed the Democrats as a party that’s lost touch with the public and is tone deaf to the economic troubles afflicting Americans.

Conceding the questionable foundation of “Russiagate” to date, however, doesn’t mean we should grant the Trump administration a free pass on corruption issues and on Trump’s transactional, “everything’s for sale” approach to “governing.” Taking an open and honest look at the wheeling and dealing of the Trump administration, it would be foolish to deny that something fishy is going on in Washington. Bizarrely, and in a sign of his incompetence, Trump has gone out of his way to suggest that he has something to hide regarding the Russia investigation. What it is that he may be hiding I can’t say for sure without further evidence, but his behavior up to this point screams scandal. Perhaps, like former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, he is hiding prominent business investments with Russia. Trump has consistently and suspiciously refused to release his tax returns, fueling speculation that he’s seeking to hide dubious financial connections with other countries. Trump’s stubbornness extends beyond the “witch hunt” he now laments, as he refused to release these returns during the election season, prior to the emergence of “Russiagate.”

Trump’s erratic moves regarding the FBI also suggest something strange is afoot. When you fire the head of the FBI, and admit in an interview with Lester Holt that it was motivated by Comey’s Russia investigation, that’s a red flag. When news stories report that Trump demanded the end of the Flynn investigation, and when reports suggest Comey’s firing was the result of his refusal to end said investigation, that’s another red flag. If nothing else, it opens Trump up to charges of obstruction of justice. And when Trump has a sit down with Russian diplomats informing them that, now that Comey’s gone, it frees the president up and relieves “great pressure” on him, that’s a big red flag. If Trump is innocent of dubious business or political ties to foreign governments, why is he going out of his way to play the part of a guilty man?

While the charges associated with “Russiagate” and foreign election meddling are unsubstantiated at best, and trumped up at worst (no pun intended), there are legitimate concerns with this administration – even more so than previous ones – with its shameless attempts to combine politicking with tit-for-tat money exchanges with foreign officials. Shady business dealings were a real issue with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who had monetary connections with the Russian government, receiving fees from Russian state media propaganda outlet Russia Today. Flynn blatantly lied about his financial ties with Russia to federal investigators. And Flynn’s economic ties to Russia were no laughing matter. Such ties coexisted alongside Flynn’s private sit-down with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, to discuss the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Flynn has now opened himself up to federal charges, specifically to violating the Logan Act, which prohibits civilians outside the Executive branch from engaging in foreign policy making. Beyond this legal infraction, though, we see the broader problem of an administration that believes policy is just another commodity to be bought and sold like any good or service on the market. Those concerned with basic ethics in government should be displeased with the ham-fisted horse trading engaged in by Flynn, who accepted money from a foreign government while promising policy reforms that would benefit said government.

When government officials seek financial gain in exchange for policy quid-pro-quos, it raises serious ethical questions. That Trump still refuses to recognize how inappropriate Flynn’s relationship was, and that he reportedly wants to bring Flynn back into the Executive fold once the investigation is over, demonstrates how oblivious he is to basic ethical considerations in government. Fynn’s financial opportunism, of course, is by no means new to Washington. Other political officials regularly cash in on their business connections, as Obama recently did by giving a lucrative speech on Wall Street. But even Obama knew to give such speeches after he had served in office, rather than engaging in clumsy clientelism of the kind done by Flynn.

The Trump administration has consistently demonstrated contempt for transparency and dismissed the need to avoid potential conflicts of interest between the Executive and lobbyists. Trump also demands that non-partisan civil servants pledge “loyalty” to him, even in adversarial cases, like when former FBI director James Comey was investigating the Executive branch with regard to Russia. In doing so, Trump demonstrates a commitment to a “fiefdom” style of politics, in which he serves as a feudal lord over political subordinates. Within this fiefdom, Trump’s signaled that Washington is open for business when it comes to horse trading financial benefits for policy outcomes. His openness to using the office for financial enrichment is apparent on multiple levels, as seen in the following instances:

* Refusing to sell off his financial investments, or at the very least put them in a blind trust, prior to serving as president. Trump instead put his children in charge of managing his assets. There is no way to guarantee that he won’t be passively or actively involved in influencing future investments as president, or that Trump won’t make policy decisions in the White House with the goal of enriching his already existing assets at the expense of the public good.

* Relying on campaign advisors and other officials who express various conflicts of interest regarding personal financial gain and influence peddling. One example is Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Trump’s campaign, who profited as a consultant for a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party and working for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

* Trump’s recently announced $110 billion arms deal with the Saudi government, conveniently coupled with Saudi pledges to invest $20 billion in American “infrastructure” via the Blackstone Group, a corporation whose CEO Steve Schwarzman has close personal ties to Donald Trump, and another $100 million to Ivanka Trump’s proposed “Women’s Entrepreneurs Fund.”

There should be nothing shocking about the above stories coming from a president who “authored” a book titled “The Art of the Deal,” and who consistently bragged that, if elected, he would run the executive via a “deal making,” business approach to policy making.

This administration demonstrates contempt for efforts to shine a light on its inappropriate “deal making.” Most recently, Trump sought to block the Office of Government Ethics from securing the names of former lobbyists who secured waivers to work for the White House and other federal agencies. As the New York Times reported: “Dozens of former lobbyists and industry lawyers are working in the Trump administration, which has hired them at a much higher rate than the previous administration. Keeping the waivers confidential would make it impossible to know whether any such officials are violating federal ethics rules or have been given a pass to ignore them.”

The problem with lobbying in pursuit of personal financial interests is not new to Trump. The Washington Post reported in November 2016 that foreign efforts to curry favor with Trump and his family via financial transactions had already begun. Shortly after his election victory, Trump hosted 100 foreign diplomats at Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. As the Post reports, “The event for the diplomatic community, held one week after the election, was in the Lincoln Library, a junior ballroom with 16-foot ceilings and velvet drapes…Some attendees won raffle prizes – among them overnight stays at other Trump properties around the world – allowing them to become better acquainted with the business holdings of the new commander in chief.” The carnivalesque atmosphere of the event was a prelude to a larger effort on the part of foreign officials to schmooze the Trump administration. The Post’s investigation makes this abundantly clear:

* “‘Believe me, all the delegations will go there,’ said one Middle Eastern diplomat who recently toured the hotel and booked an overseas visitor. The diplomat said many stayed away from the hotel before the election for fear of a ‘Clinton backlash,’ but that now it’s the place to be seen.”

* “In interviews with a dozen diplomats, many of whom declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak about anything related to the next U.S. president, some said spending money at Trump’s hotel is an easy, friendly gesture to the new president.”

* “‘Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’ said one Asian diplomat.”

* “Guests at the Trump hotel have begun parking themselves in the lobby, ordering expensive cocktails, hoping to see one of the Trump family members or the latest Cabinet pick. One foreign official hoped Trump, famous for the personal interest he takes in his businesses, might check the guest logs himself.”

One can ignore the above findings as nothing more than “a businessman doing business,” but a sober analysis of these financial connections raises serious questions about Trump and what look to be blatant violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. That clause explicitly prohibits presidents from accepting “any present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Such actions are an impeachable offense, and represent a significant scandal. The “open secret” of Trump’s personal profiteering from foreign leaders has flown under the radar, however, since Democratic and Republican officials have largely ignored these sleazy business transactions.

Providing another reason to question the president’s moral compass, Trump has dismissed concerns about personal profits from foreign officials. He imagines himself as beyond the limitations of the Emoluments Clause. Trump’s stated that “The law is totally on my side, meaning, the President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Putting Trump’s willful ignorance of Constitutional law aside, his assertion that he can’t have any “conflict of interest” is disturbing. For those who think this statement is simply a rhetorical flourish, rather than an authoritarian attack on the law, Trump clarified in relation to his profiteering from personal business investments: “I have a no conflict situation because I’m president…it’s a nice thing to have.” These quotes are positively Nixonian, revealing how completely out of touch Trump is with how he comes off to the public. They reveal his contempt for legal limits on the president’s ability to engage in personal financial gain while in office.

Much of Trump’s troubles with the FBI are self-inflicted. His brazen commitment to fiefdom politics has come back to haunt him with the Comey firing. Trump appears dead-set on falling on his sword, as even his advisors now concede. Consider the following incredible statements from Trump’s own inner-circle regarding his political fate, from a Daily Beast investigation anonymously quoting various White House officials:

* “If Donald Trump gets impeached, he will have one person to blame: Donald Trump.”

* “Okay, he fired Comey. With a semi-competent comms operation, that would blow over in 24 hours. And that’s the worst part: he has a competent comms staff. But they can’t do their jobs because he keeps running his mouth.”

* “Every day he looks more and more like a complete moron. I can’t see Trump resigning or even being impeached, but at this point I wish he’d grow a brain and be the man that he sold himself as on the campaign.”

Despite the Democrats’ and the national media establishment’s unsubstantiated blustering about Trump’s electoral collusion with Russia, a much more blatant scandal is already staring Americans in the face. Trump’s “Art of the Deal” style of patronage politics provides more than enough ammunition to remove this president for ethical and Constitutional violations of the law. But in the contemporary “anything goes” political environment of Washington, expect Trump’s shameless brand of swamp politics to continue indefinitely. Only a massive drop in public presidential confidence in the president will provide the impetus to remove him from office.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.