Three days ago America’s political landscape began to realign itself. Two of the president’s most senior advisers found themselves at the mercy of a special prosecutor, and it seemed, for the first time, that presidential pardons – the legal sleight of hand Trump has relied on to evade political pressure – had outlived their usefulness. What happens next will largely depend on the Democrats’ success in the upcoming midterms, but, significantly, many of their candidates have outraised their Republican rivals and the party has begun to pick younger, more radical figures who have promised to disrupt the status quo.
On the morning of the Manafort verdict, Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke to the National Press club in Washington. She noted that trust in the federal government had plummeted from 73 percent in 1958 to just 18 percent today. “This is the kind of crisis that leads people to turn away from democracy,” she warned, “The kind of crisis that creates fertile ground for cynicism and discouragement. The kind of crisis that gives rise to authoritarians.”
A week ago, Warren introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, a series of far-reaching anti-corruption measures aimed at ending the symbiosis between Washington’s lobbyists and legislators. Recounting several egregious instances of the revolving door culture that swaps lobbyists for Wall Street with legislators in Washington, Warren told her audience: “Let’s face it: there’s no real question that the Trump era has given us the most nakedly corrupt leadership this nation has seen in our lifetimes. But they are not the cause of the rot – they’re just the biggest, stinkiest example of it.”
That, surely, is the true significance of the Manafort verdict and the Cohen deal. Both men are archetypal influence peddlers, living illustrations of why public trust in the government has all but disappeared during the last 70 years. Their legal troubles make a nonsense of Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp”, and they are not isolated examples. Two weeks ago, the first Congressman to endorse Trump was charged with insider trading; on the day that Cohen pled guilty to the public prosecutors who report to Robert Mueller, Duncan Hunter – the second Congressman to back Trump – was indicted for campaign finance violations.
Less than a week before the 2016 elections, Trump enjoyed a 9-point lead over Hillary Clinton on a single issue: ending corruption. While the electorate felt Clinton was better prepared on every other foreign and domestic issue, they believed that Trump, a perennial outsider, was likelier to reform Washington. He leaned into this perception and warned that “A vote for Hillary is a vote to surrender our government to public corruption, graft, and cronyism that threatens the very foundations of our constitutional system.”
Since taking office, however, Trump’s national security adviser, foreign policy adviser, campaign manager, deputy campaign manager and personal lawyer have pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes. Several of his cabinet appointees have been repeatedly shamed for their lavish expenditure of public funds, for private comforts, often while dismantling the very departments they were meant to lead. Public patience with such hypocrisy has finally ended and Manafort’s and Cohen’s legal entanglements are a grim foretaste of what the President’s associates can expect, barring a major midterm surprise, in the months and years ahead.