Shortly after 11 a.m. on Thursday, Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, took to the Senate floor for his farewell speech. One of President Trump’s few remaining public critics in the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, Flake used the chance for one more lament about the perilous state of American democracy in the Trump era. “We all know well that this is not a normal time and that the threats to our democracy from within and without are real,” Flake said. “None of us can say with confidence how the situation that we now find ourselves in will turn out.” As Flake was still speaking, Trump tweeted out the two-word slogan that more than any other captures the current political agenda in the capital of the most powerful nation in the world. “witch hunt!” the President wrote. No explanation offered, none needed.
Trump’s critique is familiar by now. By one count, that tweet marked the hundred-and-forty-second time he has complained on social media about the investigations into his possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election; he started in March of 2017, not even two months into his White House tenure. By May 18, 2017, he was already calling it “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” By late November of this year, Trump was asking, almost plaintively, “When will this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt, one that has shattered so many innocent lives, ever end-or will it just go on forever?”
Given the constant, repetitive nature of Trump’s “witch hunt” tweets, it might be tempting to ignore them. That would be a mistake. The chief executive’s attention is the most valuable resource of any Administration—what a President spends his time on reflects, more than anything else, an Administration’s true priorities. By those standards, the “witch hunt” is the overriding priority of the Trump White House, and it will be even more so in the new year, when the special counsel, Robert Mueller, moves toward a conclusion and a new, Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, with the power and the votes to subpoena and impeach Trump, takes office. The uncertainty that Flake captured, then, is not about the political agenda of Washington in 2019, which Trump’s tweet perfectly summed up; it is about what those who run the battered, gridlocked, dysfunctional institutions of American democracy will do about it. Events may soon force them to take action.
This is a week, after all, in which President Trump, or “Individual-1,” as the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York are now calling him, was implicated in federal court as the leader of a criminal conspiracy to pay off two women to hide his affairs in the run-up to the 2016 election. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, the fixer who once bragged he would take a bullet for the President, has turned on him, and on Wednesday Cohen received a three-year prison sentence for violating campaign-finance laws with the payoffs. The President’s tabloid friends at the National Enquirer who participated in the scheme have admitted to it in a deal with the prosecutors, and new details were reported this week that place the President directly in the room when the hush-money plan was being discussed. His campaign chairman is also going to prison, as a result of a separate case. His first national-security adviser has pleaded guilty. All of them are coöperating to various degrees with Mueller.
In other words, the criminality of key figures in the President’s inner circle is now established, by their own admissions, as they start to implicate the President himself. And this is even before Mueller issues findings or criminal charges related to the central subject of his inquiry into whether Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russians in 2016. Additional damning evidence against Trump is increasingly likely to emerge from outside of the Mueller investigation, as in the case of Cohen, or as a consequence of aggressive investigations and oversight by the new Democratic House. For example, on Thursday, the de-facto incoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said that the Ways and Means Committee will use its subpoena powers to demand Trump’s tax returns, which, given the extensive reporting in the Times about his family’s decades-long tax dodges, could produce an untold wealth of damaging information.
Largely overlooked in the daily flood of Trump-era news, a week ago, his former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said in an interview that Trump had repeatedly pressed him to violate the law. “I’d have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you wanna do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law, it violates treaty.’ He got really frustrated,” Tillerson said. “I think he grew tired of me being the guy who told him, ‘You can’t do that.’ ” The coverage of Tillerson’s interview with the journalist Bob Schieffer focussed more on Trump’s outraged response than on the underlying revelation. “Tillerson calls Trump undisciplined. Trump calls Tillerson ‘dumb as a rock,’ ” one headline, in the Washington Post, read. But Tillerson’s allegation was more than just another bout of Trump-era name-calling between a former Secretary of State who once called his boss a “fucking moron” and the President who fired him by tweet. Imagine Tillerson before Congress come January, testifying under oath and live on television, about which laws Trump told him to break. Speaking of testimony, I can hardly wait for that of the two White House chiefs of staff who Trump also fired—the latest one, John Kelly, just this week. When asked about the chaos of the Trump White House, Reince Priebus, Kelly’s predecessor, who was dumped by tweet while on Air Force One, once told the author Chris Whipple, “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by fifty.”