Transitional Justice After Trump
The revelation that Donald Trump Jr. met with people claiming to represent the Russian government for the purpose of receiving negative information about Hillary Clinton is the strongest piece of evidence yet of the nature of the nefarious relationship, and indeed collusion, between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Sadly, the reaction to this new piece of information underscores the extent that this scandal, which increasingly makes Watergate look like a Sunday school picnic, has become little more than a partisan issue. Republican leaders in Congress have made a few statements, but mostly tried to avoid commenting on, or taking steps to investigate, the Trump-Russia relationship. The semi-official Trump media, including Fox News and numerous lesser known right wing outlets have parroted White House talking points about this meeting being insignificant. Many Republican voters, for their part, continue to see the entire Russia scandal as a conspiracy of the media and a Democratic Party still bitter about Trump’s victory.
Drawing more heavily on evidence and reason the GOP, the Democrats, and most media outlets not aligned with the right wing have expressed outrage about Trump Jr.’s meeting, demanded investigations and continue to speak about impeachment-something that is extremely unlikely as long as the Republicans control congress.
A generous interpretation of these emails and Trump Jr.’s comments and Tweets about them would be that last summer this second generation man-child who was a complete neophyte regarding politics, elections and international affairs made an extraordinary error of judgment that he now regrets, but that he did not intend to collude with a foreign government. That explanation is plausible, albeit barely, but it obscures what over time will become the most salient political point of this scandal.
This scandal is much bigger than the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, or even than the subsequent efforts to cover that up. A larger problem, one that will have a more enduring impact on our democracy, is that the Republican Party, other than a few individual comments here and there, refuses to recognize that the gravity of this. Our system may be strong enough to limit the damage of a venal, dishonest and possibly treasonous administration, but it cannot do that when the majority party in congress continues to deliberately live in a world of increasingly absurd denial. A Republican Party that continues to see the ties between Trump and Russia as essentially unimportant is the biggest threat to our democracy. This policy of denial has made the Republican leadership in congress complicit in the misdoings of the Trump campaign and demonstrated the extraordinary moral cowardice of the rest of the GOP.
As the Republican Party, with precious few exceptions, continues to take an approach to the Trump-Russia scandal that amounts to “nothing to see here-move along,” the question of where this will end for American and for the GOP becomes more complex and daunting. As frightening as it seems, one possible scenario is that through maintaining Republican control of the congress, restricting voting rights and continuing to rely upon divisive rhetoric, the Republicans win. In that scenario, the US would become markedly less democratic while the GOP would become the ruling non-democratic party of a kind seen in many one party systems around the world. The GOP would continue to be the handmaiden of Trump’s democratic rollback, because their very survival would depend upon the success of that rollback. There can be debate about how likely that scenario is, but it is apparent that it is both a genuine possibility and one that would be genuinely disastrous for the country, and probably the world.
Thankfully, there is another possible scenario. The Trump administration might be held accountable for colluding with the Kremlin. This could happen either through a big Democratic victory in 2018, something that is unlikely given the degree of democratic rollback we are experiencing, or a small handful of Republicans could see that breaking with Trump now would make then national figures and secure their place in American history.
If either of these things come to pass, events will not be simple. The scandal is so widespread that even a normal impeachment process would not resolve much. Similarly, even if a Democratic President is elected in 2020, this scandal will not be over. The collusion between the Trump operation and the Kremlin, as well as the degree to which Republicans in Congress knowingly ignored it for months, soon to be years, has been very strong. This means that if this ends in indictments, trials, impeachment and the like, issues of transitional justice that have never before been part of American political discourse will be hard to ignore. If people around Trump are prosecuted for their role in colluding with Russia, the question of what happens Republican leaders in congress who dutifully ignored this for their own political gain will be one that would irresponsible not to confront.