Donald Trump has spent most of this week claiming to be uncertain about whether Russian hackers targeted Democrats in 2016, reversing himself in the weakest possible fashion, and ranting on Twitter about how he had actually denounced the Russians loads of times. It was by any traditional metric a bad and bizarre week for Trump. But if he has a few dozen more bad weeks like this, it's going to be possible for him to get reelected come 2020. When we're talking about Russia, we aren't talking about all of Trump's other failures, and those other failures—not the sprawling narrative of potential collusion—are likely what will lead to his downfall.
It should go without saying that the Trump campaign's potential collaboration with Russia is an enormous scandal and that Robert Mueller's investigation is no "WITCH HUNT," as Trump has tweeted. His aides have lied about contacts with Russia, including his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign in disgrace after fibbing about phone calls to the Russian ambassador. Trump campaign head Paul Manafort is currently in jail awaiting trial on a host of charges that don't have anything to do with the campaign but nonetheless don't speak well of its overall moral compass. Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, then went on TV and said it was related to the Russia investigation; Comey subsequently claimed that Trump leaned on him to stop investigating Flynn. Oh, and Manafort had a meeting, alongside Trump's son and son-in-law, with a Russian lawyer with Kremlin connections who got in the room by promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. There's more, but that's enough to make the point that this is a bigly issue.
The problem for Trump opponents is that represents "an unwieldy and ever-expanding story," as David Corn has written in Mother Jones. "The full impact of this scandal does not resonate in the daily coverage and discourse," according to Corn, partly thanks to Trump and the GOP issuing simplistic, blanket denials that anything at all untoward happened in 2016 (except for the FBI's biased investigation something something Hillary should be in jail), and partly thanks to the conversation around the scandal and Trump's rhetoric being dense to the point of incomprehensibility to anyone not up to date.
Trump's approval rating was in the low 40s at week's end. But we should remember that he was just as unpopular right before he was elected in 2016. A more worrying poll showed that just 60 percent of Americans—and only 46 percent of Republicans—believe that Russia meddled in the election, which it did according to every US intelligence agency. (Trump's stated belief that Russia did interfere in 2016 has evidently not trickled down to his base.) The same poll found that 75 percent of Republicans think the investigation into that interference is based on anti-Trump animus, while another poll, this one from last month, found that 53 percent of Republicans have a negative opinion of Mueller.
Maybe there's some piece of evidence Mueller will uncover that will change hearts and minds and even persuade Republican politicians to break en masse from Trump for good. But given the president's talent for denying even the most self-evident truths and his party's instincts to denounce any scandal as the work of the "deep state," I doubt it.
But if the Russia scandal won't stop Trump, what will? If you remove the Kremlin-flavored cloud hanging over his head, Trump becomes a less ominous figure, but the failings of his presidency also become more obvious:
- All his campaign talk of a better healthcare system has come to nothing. Instead, he supported a bill that would have taken insurance away from millions, and now that that's failed, his GOP is attempting to strip away the most popular part of the Affordable Care Act, the rule that stops insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions.
- His highly touted tax cut has, as nearly everyone predicted, mainly benefited corporations and the wealthy.
- Though unemployment is at a historic low, wages are still not rising.
- His grandiose promises of infrastructure has gone unfulfilled—he didn't even try to follow through on this one.
- His trade wars have caused a disproportionate amount of pain in swing states and hurt constituencies like farmers that he promised to help.
- The border wall he promised every chance he gets remains unbuilt. His efforts to limit legal immigration have similarly faltered. His most famous immigration policy of the past year was a harsh decision to separate migrant children from their parents at the border, which provoked such an outcry that he had to reverse it after a shameless attempt to blame Democrats for his administration's own cruelty.
- Finally, after making noises about "draining the swamp" Trump has presided over the most corrupt presidency in recent memory, with multiple cabinet officials using their positions to enrich family members and lobbyists filling key positions.
Yes, Trump has had "successes" in the sense that he's appointed conservative judges to the bench and gotten the chance to fill two Supreme Court slots; he's also presided over a major rollback of regulations. But many of the tangible promises he made to his base, the things that set him apart from the Republican establishment, have not materialized.
I don't think Trump is intentionally trying to get people riled up about Russia. But the whole scandal does serve some useful purposes for him. For one, it has everyone focused on a complex story that's difficult to reduce to a slogan. And when you do reduce it to a slogan—"Trump the traitor," "Putin's puppet"—it allows Trump and his allies to get outraged themselves and denounce the hyperbolic Democrats, who after all have not proved Trump colluded with Russia. He'll then say that while these Democrats want war with Russia, he's looking out for the people's interests: Just look at those unemployment numbers!
The Russia scandal is a massive story—potentially one of the largest in American history, if the most out-there theories about Trump are true. But in a way it's too big. The smaller stories are the ones that affect people's lives. Whether you can afford to go to the doctor. Whether you can survive on a minimum-wage job. Whether the roads and bridges you use every day are repaired or left to crack and rust. It's possible, however unlikely it sounds, that Trump may be some sort of Russian asset. But whatever his relationship with Putin, he's a terrible president.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.