Donald Trump is at it again.
The President has gotten pardon-happy this week, and in true Trumperor fashion (h/t @BoonaticRex), he’s doing it in the most self-serving, patronage-heavy means possible. That, of course, should be no surprise as it is entirely in line with Trump’s actions as President and his basic philosophy of the Presidency as a fiefdom created largely for the personal benefit of the occupant.
Trump has, thus far, issued five pardons, ranging from the indefensibly terrible (Joe Arpaio) to the egregiously overdue (Jack Johnson). Most recently, he pardoned raving lunatic Dinesh D’Souza for a crime that D’Souza never disputed and a sentence that D’Souza described as “fair”. After that, he immediately began floating the idea of pardoning people like Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich. As has been noted elsewhere, the pardons are transparently self-serving, pandering, and vengeful.
The problem with this spate of pardons, though, isn’t with the substance of the pardons (which are, Arpaio aside, no worse than “inoffensive”), but with a pattern much more archetypal of Trump and his presidency. The decision-making process and underlying rationale for the pardons suggests, once again, that there is little underlying ideology other than that of self-interest. D’Souza gets a pardon as a straight favor to an ardent supporter and favorite of the right wing base. He was also conveniently prosecuted by Preet Bharara, subject of a high-profile Trump firing last year. Martha Stewart is up for a pardon, not because she was convicted of an absurd crime (lying while not under oath), but because she was prosecuted by James Comey, one of Trump’s current favorite whipping boys. Same goes from Blago, prosecuted by Comey team-member Patrick Fitzgerald.
Trump has taken the 1960s credo that “the political is personal” to a level far beyond that of any President in recent history. While Bill Clinton has rightfully absorbed two decades of criticism for selling a pardon to Marc Rich, Trump has dramatically raised the bar on selling access and soliciting favors while in office.
Just this week, he took a sudden interest in saving ZTE Corp, a Chinese telecom equipment maker that was largely driven out of business by US Regulators because of its repeated violations of sanctions against North Korea and Iran. Given the President’s very public feelings about North Korea and Iran, one might think that he took a particularly dim view of a company that agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine as a result of violations of sanctions.
He didn’t, though, and it is probably not coincidental that the Chinese Government (largest shareholder and controller of 5 of 9 board seats at ZTE) awarded Ivanka Trump several trademarks she had been seeking. Probably also not coincidental that the Chinese government arranged for $1 billion in funding (half directly and half through state-owned banks) to an Indonesian resort development that will license the Trump name.
You can add these to the LONG list of naked conflicts of interest benefitting President Trump and his family either entirely or partially as a result of the selling of access or influence. Or, in the case of hosting government events at his hotels and over-charging the Secret Service rent at his properties, spending public money to fatten his own pockets.
None of this is new behavior. During the campaign, Trump promised to divest his vast businesses should he be elected, and then proceeded to simply place them into a revocable trust for his benefit (for the uninitiated, a revocable trust places a barrier between the beneficiary and the trust’s assets that is about as thick as parchment paper). Within a week of being elected, Trump openly asked the President of Argentina to do a favor for him in the development of a Buenos Aires office tower. In other words, this isn’t a character flaw that grew. This was his basic strategy to profit from office from long before he even took the office.
To Trump’s increasingly apologetic defenders, none of this matters. Sure, they’d like him to be a less atrocious human being, but not enough that they would consider voting for someone else. His failings can always be justified through embarrassing relativism – sure, he took a bribe to have the Commerce Department reverse course on ZTE, but what about Clinton’s Uranium One deal, huh? Never mind that Trump largely owes his Presidency to the obvious moral failings of Secretary Clinton, his supporters will happily use her as a moral justification when it is convenient.
Those same failings can also be excused because it is just so much gosh darn fun to watch liberals freak out about Trump. Who cares if Trump is putting his family’s personal interests ahead of those of taxpayers and citizens, I just love that he does it to Pwn The Libz, amirite? Or, somewhat more rationally, his abhorrent personal behaviors can be excused in exchange for his very real policy victories. He may cheat on his wives and his business partners, enrich himself from the public treasury and sexually abuse women, but we can look past that if he is willing to cull the regulatory state, cut taxes and appoint solid judges.
To the last point, I can attach at least a little bit of intellectual sympathy. We can’t always get what we want in the world, and taking the bad with the good is a necessary part of being an adult. While somewhat overblown and countered by some really inane ideas (like hardline immigration, wealth-destroying tariffs, reckless spending and unmoored foreign policy), there are very tangible policy achievements of Trump’s administration. Also this week, alongside his influence selling, Trump signed an amendment to Dodd-Frank that streamlined the regulatory burden on smaller banks and freed these smaller, nimbler actors to compete aggressively with the country’s largest banks. Despite the ranting of Democrats, it is a good law that reverses some of the legislation that made 2008’s Too Big to Fail Banks so much bigger than they were 10 years ago.
Continually justifying this sort of Presidency, however, is a fool’s errand. Ultimately, the character of our leaders matters, and it matters in ways that Trump’s supporters are unwilling to acknowledge. We don’t need to go too far back into history to find another personally flawed President whose moral failings were excused by his supporters because he was such an effective promoter of their shared ideas (much more effective, I would argue, than Trump.) Bill Clinton was a serial sexual predator, proven liar, and generally detestable individual who also happens to be one of the most skilled politicians of the last 50 years. And leftists, including a regrettably large number of feminists, excused his lecherous behavior at every turn presumably because he advanced their policy ideals.
Now, twenty-five years later, America is just beginning to reckon with the legacy of those decisions. The enabling of Clinton’s behavior ushered in an entire generation of predatory behavior by powerful men who too often felt like they could buy their way out of their crimes by aligning with the right causes and making the right donations. The damage done to women – the very people whose interests often justified Clinton’s absolution – has been almost incalculable. Without Bill Clinton, it is much less likely that there is a Harvey Weinstein.
This, I fear, is what justification of Trump will ultimately lead to. His worst behaviors – graft, corruption, nepotism, petty vengeance – won’t suddenly become unacceptable again after he is gone. And the ramifications or normalizing those behaviors, while they will most acutely be felt by those who sold out their principles in support of Trump (looking at you, Evangelicals), will haunt us all. Just like predators like Harvey Weinstein blossomed in the cover created by Bill Clinton’s excuses, we are bringing upon ourselves a generation of lying, cheating, morally repugnant institutional leaders that will cause immeasurable damage.
It is entirely too easy to ignore the failings of people that often agree with you. It is convenient and expedient to dismiss ethical and moral deficiencies in our leaders that don’t seem to impact us directly. The ends, it seems, often justify the means. But human history has taught us that character matters, and the acceptance of bad characters will hurt us much more than their seemingly beneficial actions can help us.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.