Despite Trump’s deformation of the truth, it seems that lying – at least to the FBI and the vice president – still has consequences
By Lawrence Douglas / The Guardian / February 15, 2017
True to his word, Donald Trump is draining the swamp. What he neglected to mention was that it would be a swamp of his own making. Less than one month old, and already the Trump presidency has the making of an ethical superfund site.
The problems did not begin with Kellyanne Conway shilling for Ivanka Trump’s latest product line. And they will not be solved with the resignation of Michael Flynn, the intemperate and vaguely paranoid national security adviser forced out after 24 days on the job.
The problems began on day one. Having brazenly refused to remove himself from his far-flung business interests, Trump has been in violation of the constitution from the instant that he swore to uphold it.
All this could have been easily avoided. Trump could have placed his holdings in a blind trust, as virtually all experts urged. He still could. But Trump has refused.
It is a shibboleth of constitutional democracy that no man is above the law. Only this president demonstrates little enthusiasm for the inconveniences of constitutional governance. His rejection is less ideological – Trump lacks the radical and apocalyptic vision of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon – than it is temperamental. He is too impatient and too extravagant a narcissist to bind himself by the rules that apply to mere mortals.
The problem, alas, is that the president sets the ethical tone of the White House. The Obama White House was largely free of scandal largely thanks to the unstinting decency, fairness and integrity of Barack Obama himself. The Trump White House already has a toxic reek.
Which returns us to Conway and Flynn. While their transgressions look quite different, they are of a piece. In encouraging us to buy Ivanka – “a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position”, according to the office of government ethics – Conway was not simply dispensing sartorial advice. In the same way, Flynn’s pre-inaugural chats with the Russian ambassador cannot be dismissed as the impulsive private diplomacy of a hotheaded rogue.
Both Conway and Flynn were acting in accord with Trump’s own behavior and signals. This is not to say they were acting at his direct behest, though this is possible. But their actions were following the example and tenor set by the president himself.
Obviously, Flynn’s malfeasance is the more consequential. And with fresh reports of intercepted calls between Russian intelligence officials and members of Trump’s campaign team, it is hard to say where this will lead and how it will end.
Yet it is worth noting that Flynn was not forced out because he discussed Obama administration sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak while Obama was still the sitting president. This outrageous act was presumably fine with Trump. Instead, he was forced out for allegedly lying – for having told the FBI, White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, and the vice-president, Mike Pence, that he never discussed the sanctions with the ambassador.
The irony here is that lying has been the signature gesture of the young Trump presidency. Even more execrable than his heinous travel ban has been Trump’s relentless assault on truth and on the media and the judiciary – the very institutions most responsible for safeguarding truth in a democracy.
Indeed, the executive travel ban stands as an expression of the president’s reckless disregard of truth. In refusing to reinstate the travel ban, the federal appellate court ruefully observed that the executive order failed to supply even the thinnest justification based in fact.
Unsurprisingly, Trump has now responded to news of the unending Russia scandal with his default defamation: “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred.”
But for all of Trump’s deformation of the truth, it seems that lying – at least to the FBI and the vice-president, if not the American people – still has consequences.