Given the headlines, you might think that the partial shutdown of the federal government was about President Donald J. Trump’s need to satisfy his base and the message-crafters at Fox News, but that’s only a partial truth. Were it not for the manufactured drama you might call Wall Quest, think of what the headlines would be: Trump’s emissary snubbed by Turkey’s president; Trump retreats on his get-out-of-Syria-now policy; Yemen catastrophe continues with U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia; Mueller investigation grows ever closer to the president. Shutting down the government as a means of extorting Congress offers a noisy, newsy diversion from all of that—with the added bonus of stage-setting for a potential declaration of a national state of emergency for the exercise of authoritarian power.
With Wall Quest coverage sucking up the majority of minutes on newscasts and cable talk shows, you’d be forgiven for missing the extraordinary developments this week in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the role of Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign. Taking the cake is the spectacular blunder made Tuesday in a court filing by attorneys for former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, when they inadvertently revealed that Manafort, between March and August 2016, passed Trump campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Manafort business associate with ties to Russian intelligence services. The New York Times reports that Manafort asked Kilimnik to pass on the data to two Ukrainian oligarchs who are aligned with the Kremlin.
Whoa, that’s getting kind of close to the big guy. Though what the president knew about these doings remains unknown, a pretty damning circumstantial timeline is being developed. (For the record, Trump said he knew nothing of Manfort’s poll-passing gambit.) Consider the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower, at which Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with Kremlin ties, sat with Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner to offer dirt on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. The Russian lawyer appeared to suggest a quid pro quo for the “dirt” promised by the intermediary who set up the meeting: Should Trump win the election, he should back a repeal of the Magnitsky Act, under which Russia suffers U.S. sanctions for its seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Velselnitskaya was charged by federal prosecutors in New York with obstruction of justice in a different case, but one with repercussions for the Russia investigation, since this New York case portrays her as an agent of the Russian government.
Add to the pile those curious, predictive comments made in August 2016 by Trump campaign adviser and former Manafort business partner Roger Stone, who seemed to enjoy advance knowledge of the release of Clinton campaign emails by WikiLeaks. And a report in The Guardian on claims that Manafort visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in March 2016 at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has taken up quarters in a kind of self-imposed exile in order to avoid facing a number of charges against him, most seriously in the United States. The Trump campaign honcho’s reported visit to Assange coincides with the timeframe during which Manafort was passing campaign data to Kiliminik, going by the Times report.
That’s a big bunch of valenki dropping in a single week in Trump’s Russosphere. And that’s before we even get to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s announcement that he would leave his post once William Barr, the president’s nominee for attorney general, is confirmed. This raises questions about the fate of the Mueller investigation; Barr wrote an unsolicited memo in June to Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Steve Engel, making an elaborate argument against the validity of Mueller’s probe into whether or not the president obstructed justice in the course of the Russia investigation.
Ah, but the storyline of Wall Quest, currently shooting on location at the southern border, is so much easier to tell. Only yesterday, we saw one of those breathtaking staged confrontations designed to move the plot in a reality television show when the president stormed out of a White House meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Now, there’s some drama! Meeting cut surprisingly short; each side comes to the mic with its own account. Why, Trump, Schumer said, slammed his hand on the table! Table-slamming, I said!
If the president follows through on his threat to declare a national emergency in order to re-open the government by confiscating funds appropriated by Congress for other purposes, he will have pulled a classic authoritarian move just as people connected to him—some very closely—are poring over their indictments. By next week, he’ll have in place an attorney general who claims the special counsel investigation to be illegitimate.
Yes, the shutdown sucks. Yes, it’s hurting the economy. No, you can’t allow the president to extort the Congress.
But something bigger looms on the horizon—bigger than the impact on the economy, bigger than the stories of the individual people going without pay because of the president’s malicious caprice. The bigger thing, over which the darkest of clouds looms, is the fate of democracy itself.