I have spent much of my life reading and writing about American politics, but nothing I’ve seen before has prepared me for what happened this week. Increasingly, it feels as though the country is careening out of control and heading straight off a cliff — and nothing can slow it down.
In the past week, admittedly sketchy allegations emerged that the Russian government might have financial and/or personal information that could be used to blackmail President-elect Trump.
We’ve found out that the Trump campaign may have been in direct contact with the Russian government to throw the election to him. We’ve discovered that the FBI sought and eventually received a FISA warrant to look at phone calls allegedly related to this question.
We found out that the intelligence community found these claims credible enough that they brought them to the attention of both President Obama and Trump.
Information has been leaked that suggests Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, phoned Russia’s ambassador the United States multiple times on the day that the Obama Administration announced sanctions against Russia for its efforts to undermine the US election.
If evidence emerges of collusion between Trump’s advisers and the Russian government, it would represent a potential constitutional crisis. That we are a week away from Trump’s inauguration and we don’t know the truth behind these allegations is terrifying.
As if this isn’t bad enough, we are also a week away from what will unambiguously be a constitutional crisis — namely Trump’s refusal to disentangle himself from his various business enterprises. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at the moment Trump takes the oath of office, he will be in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans the president from taking gifts or payments from a foreign entity or individual. Since Trump does not believe that conflict of interest laws apply to him at all and that he’s under no obligation to ensure that he is not profiting from being president, he will take office under an ethical cloud that we’ve never seen in the 240-year history of the United States.
Of course, Congress could take steps to rectify this issue. It could require Trump to turn over his taxes so that Americans could fully understand his business conflicts. It could push him to divest himself of his businesses and use the leverage of impeachment to force his hand. But that, of course, is never going to happen. Instead, as Rep. Jason Chaffetz made clear this week, he’s more focused on investigating the head of Office of Government Ethics for daring to suggest that Trump’s efforts to limit conflicts is inadequate and leaves the president-elect vulnerable to “suspicions of corruption.”
Indeed, Republicans in Congress are too busy pushing forward with a plan to repeal Obamacare and in the process, take health insurance away from 20-30 million Americans. They are doing this with minimal debate and with no effort to engage Democrats, the American people, or those who are at risk of losing insurance coverage. Worst of all, there is zero indication that Republicans fully appreciate the potentially catastrophic consequences of what they are preparing to do.
Meanwhile, the president-elect is giving press conferences in which he is bashing the news media for reporting stories he doesn’t like and branding it, falsely, as fake news. He’s taking to social media to once again attack Hillary Clinton, to encourage people to buy products from L.L. Bean because a granddaughter of the company’s founder donated money to his campaign, and to openly lie about his conversations with intelligence officials.
Taken all together, this confluence of events represents perhaps the most profound political crisis that this country has faced since Watergate. We have a president-elect fully prepared to violate the Constitution. We have allegations that his advisers might have worked directly with a foreign government to win the presidential election and who could also, potentially, be blackmailed by that same government. We have a Congress indifferent to these potential crises and focused instead on repealing legislation that will literally cause the premature deaths of thousands of Americans. It’s almost hard to take all of this in. It’s a disorienting and surreal moment in our history and the worst part is that last week might have represented the calm before the true storm.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.