Where is the tipping point, that magical point of no return when Donald Trump’s various scandals finally catch up with him? It’s almost certainly something we will only know in retrospect. In response to the daily tide of stories chronicling new lows from the administration, pundits on TV and ordinary people in their living rooms keep asking, “Is this it? What about this? Will this be the moment that turns the tide against him?” But we can’t know, not until it’s over — and even then most of what we will tell ourselves will be myth-making instead of the complex, nuanced truth.
And yet, I found myself feeling a flicker of hope last Thursday night. That was when CNN released a blockbuster report indicating that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney — who appears to be cooperating with federal investigators — is willing to testify to special prosecutor Robert Mueller that Trump knew beforehand of the June 2016 meeting between his son, Donald Trump Jr., and Russian officials who seemed to be hinting that they were willing to commit computer crimes to help get Trump elected.
If that pans out, it could be the missing puzzle piece that creates a larger portrait of the extent of Trump’s collusion with Russian bad actors. It could be the kind of evidence that will derail continuing efforts by his supporters to paint Trump as an innocent babe whose unshakable love for Vladimir Putin is merely a peculiar coincidence.
That said, and liberals, gird your loins now for this inevitability, that doesn’t necessarily mean Trump’s supporters will abandon their orange idol. But there is a crack of hope this time for the possibility that their enthusiasm for the guy may be drastically diminished.
Last summer, when I wrote a feature article for Salon about the psychological research showing that Trump voters would stand by their man, there seemed to be a much stronger belief, or at least hope, among liberals that the accumulation of evidence of Trump’s venality and corruption would eventually cause his base to experience buyer’s remorse. Since then, it seems the scientific research — and frankly, the tedious drumbeat of mainstream newspapers interviewing unshakable Trump voters in Midwestern diners — has made an impression. In social-media circles anyway, it’s well understood that the words one will never hear from a Trump voter are, “I was wrong.”
But the other thing I noted last year that’s important is that while few people will admit they’re wrong, many people who have lost an argument will slink away and pretend it never happened. Most of those folks also voted for George W. Bush, and are now are quite happy to act as if that never happened. Their enthusiasm can definitely fade.
Until recently, the preferred rationalization of the typical Trump supporter has been to assert their hero’s innocence, clinging to the fact that there is little bulletproof evidence, at least in public, of his direct involvement in the Russian hacking. But this past month has threatened their ability to claim that things are not what they seem. Watching Trump stand next to Putin and declare that he believed the Russian despot over U.S. intelligence officials is hard to explain away. Now, with this story about Cohen being ready to testify that Trump knew his son planned to meet with Russians who were hawking stolen emails, the “innocence” gambit is running out of steam.
This means the next stage of rationalization, as with the “Access Hollywood” tape during the 2016 campaign, will likely be for Trump supporters to admit that, sure, something happened, but maybe it wasn’t all that bad.
“Look, I don’t think that it’s bad if campaigns are turning to foreign governments for dirt,” said Andrew McCarthy, a contributing editor for National Review, on Fox News in the hours after the story about Cohen’s potential testimony broke. “It’s not collusion, it’s not something that’s impeachable. It’s icky. But that’s what this is.”
McCarthy was eliding the fact that the “dirt” in question was obtained illegally, and that Robert Mueller has already issued a dozen indictments against Russian officials for orchestrating the hacking. But the core of his argument is that crimes in service of electioneering are not crime at all. It’s the equivalent of a Nixon supporter in 1974 saying, “Look, I don’t think it’s bad if campaigns are turning to people with unorthodox views about breaking and entering to bug phones.”
“Why, if it’s wrong to meet with Russians in the hope of getting dirt on your political opponent,” Tucker Carlson of Fox News asked on Friday night, is it OK “to pay a foreign national to get dirt from Russians about your political opponent, which the DNC and Hillary campaign both did?” Carlson was drawing an equivalence between Russian hacking and the dossier on Trump compiled by former MI6 agent-turned-private investigator Christopher Steele.
The answer, of course, is that Steele didn’t break the law. Picking up a phone and asking people what they know is not illegal, nor are other research methods used by private investigators and journalists, such as obtaining publicly available documents or working with whistleblowers. What the Russian government did in 2016, according to extensive research by U.S. intelligence agencies, is illegal.
It’s a new twist that Fox News personalities and National Review staffers are latching onto this argument, but McKay Coppins of the Atlantic demonstrated last week that the right-wing Twitter and everyday #MAGAheads have already gone there. Now it’s bubbling up to more “serious” forums — by our drastically lowered 21st-century standards — which seems inevitable.
Even the Twitter hordes and red-capped jackals know, as McCarthy did, that it’s necessary to avoid discussing the fact that this is a crime we’re talking about. The focus is on Russian “help,” with little mention that the help in question is the kind you pay someone to provide — either in cash or in a political quid pro quo — not because it’s difficult, but because it’s illegal.
Computer hacking is a crime, which is why Mueller was able to issue a dozen indictments of Russian agents for it. Amazingly, the crime at the center of this affair is literally the same crime that brought down Richard Nixon — breaking into Democratic Party files spaces to steal information that Republican campaign officials and their supporters thought would be useful or embarrassing. It’s just that the Russians, with the help of WikiLeaks, were better at it than G. Gordon Liddy and his cadre of novice burglars.
Conservatives are trying to sidestep that point, which is a sign that they are deeply uncomfortable with defending outright criminality. So it’s important that they don’t get to avoid that discomfort.
If conservatives are able to get away with the “eh, who cares” gambit, it will be in no small part because the media keeps discussing the Russian activities as “meddling” or “interference,” gentle words that create a sense of ambiguity. After all, foreigners often express their opinions about American elections — and vice versa — and that, too, could be seen as “meddling.” The failure here is a failure to be blunt about what really happened. This is baffling, since Watergate comparisons abound, except the one that counts, which is pointing out that both scandals center on the same exact crime.
It’s also important for journalists, for their own protection, to stand up to this deliberate campaign to blur the difference between legitimate research methods and breaking into people’s private homes and computers in order to steal from them. If the right is able to fix this false equivalence in the public discourse, there is every reason to believe that they will soon cry foul about standard investigation practices like FOIA requests and calling sources, all in an effort to shut down the free press they hate so much.
More clarity about the criminal nature of this situation will not, by itself, cause Trump’s defenders to admit they were wrong. But it could, I think, make actively defending the president far more costly. Trump voters might never admit they were wrong, but like a lot of people who get backed into a corner, they may just give up trying to defend the indefensible. In a political system that depends so much on public pressure and voter turnout, that kind of demoralization matters a lot.