Of all the racist, cruel, and generally unhinged utterances delivered by Donald Trump throughout his nightmare of a presidential campaign, one that broke through the clutter and continues to resonate well over a year into his presidency was a hypothetical: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," the then-candidate said to devotees in Iowa in January 2016.
Beyond that trademark Trumpian hyperbole lurked some truth. After winning the election despite too many scandals to count, it really did seem like he could get away with anything without losing meaningful support. Even Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe, which has already made convicted felons out of multiple former Trump associates, has failed to put much of a dent in his support, according to a multitude of public surveys. Liberals might indulge fantasies of impeachment, but so long as over 40 percent of the country either doesn't mind or actively approves of the president's conduct, none of that matters, right?
Nowhere is Trump's scandal-proof teflon more apparent than the shocking number of cases of clear-cut, old-school corruption that have gone almost entirely unpunished. The president's personal lawyer–slash–consigliere extracting millions of dollars from major corporations with business before the government and depositing it into a slush fund that he used to pay women who apparently had affairs with Trump. The president's budget chief being placed in charge of the nation's most promising consumer protection agency only to dismantle it from within and coach bankers on how to corrupt it from the outside. The head of the EPA meeting constantly with lobbyists for oil and coal companies so he can help kill regulations and make them richer while spending bizarre amounts on travel and security, among other goodies. The head of Housing and Urban Development allegedly using his position to benefit his son's business interests.
The most recently exposed bit of self-dealing centers on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. As the New York Times reported this weekend, DeVos appears to have effectively dismantled the team of investigators that was probing shady for-profit colleges accused of preying on desperate students. Not only does that look awful given several of DeVos's own hires at the federal agency worked at the same worthless degree mills under scrutiny, but also because Trump himself agreed in 2016 to pay out a massive settlement over allegations of systemic fraud at his own since-shuttered racket, Trump University. It sometimes seems like there's a staffer in the White House whose sole job is to make sure we don't go more than week or two without some comical bit of unethical behavior spilling out into the open.
And as Jamelle Bouie wrote at Slate recently, it's not just the Republicans in Congress looking the other way on all this stuff—the indifference has filtered down to the crowds that sometimes still yell "Lock Her Up" about Hillary Clinton. He cited one West Virginia voter who was planning to support convicted mining magnate Don Blankenship, a guy who went to prison after an accident in one of his mines killed 29 workers, in a US Senate primary: "I want an honest crook, and that’s Blankenship," the voter told ABC News. The ex-convict lost (after Trump told people to vote against him), but if so much of the country expects so little from the political system and its elites—if everyone is shady, and Trump is just seen as the honest crook—is there any act that would inspire Republicans in Congress to oppose Trump? Or can administration officials simply do whatever they want and take money from whoever offers it to them? (A VICE News Tonight mini-survey of Trump voters last fall found that yes, in fact, some would stand by their man if he actually shot someone in the street.)
There is still something resembling a bridge too far in this era—Trump's first Health Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign after his own penchant for taxpayer-funded air travel, among other indulgences, spilled into the open. But rather than centering on any kind of ethical standard or neutral arbiter, those whose corruption goes unpunished under Trump often seem to survive solely based on how much negative press they generate, whether their boss happens to catch wind of it, and whether an ideologically suitable replacement is waiting in the wings.
That's left liberals across America to look to the Robert Mueller on one hand, and the midterms on the other, as potential sources of salvation. But even if Mueller ultimately were to conclude the president personally committed crimes, it's hard to imagine the current Congress doing anything about it.
That means the real action is in the midterms, where the hope for Democrats—the thing they actually need to be yelling about nonstop between now and November—is, as with most things in life, all about money. At least one recent CNN poll has suggested support for Mueller has sagged—Republicans seem to buy the idea that he's just targeting the president for partisan reasons, and the Russia investigation is not voters' number one concern. But even if Democrats only won the House, they'd be able to investigate cases of shameless financial corruption—and opining about it could help put them there in the first place. After all, one of Trump's major messages was that he'd "drain the swamp," a promise that he hasn't even attempted to follow through on.
"He is in the process of building the biggest swamp in decades—if not longer—in Washington," Fred Wertheimer, president and founder of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan good government group, told me of Trump.
Wertheimer, who has been advocating for campaign finance reform since before I was born, noted that even as recent polls suggested the president's approval rating had ticked upward despite the deluge of apparent corruption, the public hasn't given up on the idea of good government. A Pew survey conducted over the first few months of this year found that 77 percent of Americans supported limits on donations to politicians and issues—and that some 65 percent actually thought new laws might help rein in corruption.
Winning an election with corruption issues at the forefront would send a message. Yes, Americans elected a maniac, power-drunk narcissist to the presidency, in the process ignoring his obvious authoritarian impulses. But Trump isn't immune to scandal, even if he seems to bathe in it with aplomb. If it looks an awful lot like the president and his friends are using the American presidency to get richer (and make their pals in industry richer, too), history suggests voters will punish them for it. That's what happened in 2006 with the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay lobbying scandal—Democrats romped that November—and back in the 1974 Watergate midterms, when an entire generation of reform-minded lawmakers were swept into power just two years after Richard Nixon won one of the largest electoral landslides ever.
Matt Canter, a senior vice president at political polling and consulting firm Global Strategy group and former top official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, pointed out in an interview that the kind of corruption on display these days actually does tend to resonate with the public. That is, we're not just seeing lobbyists or donors get special access and influencing policy—we're also seeing people around the president (and perhaps the president himself) personally enrich themselves along the way.
"Trump is certainly a different animal, there's no doubt about that," Canter told me of the challenge in breaking through the postmodern media maelstrom to focus attention on ethics issues. "But I think there's a compelling case to be made about corruption in this administration—even to supporters of Donald Trump."
He cited Democratic midterm challengers, some of whom his own firm is working with, who have put the issue front and center in their TV ads early in the midterm election season. Like Abigail Spanberger, who's challenging incumbent Dave Brat in the Richmond, Virginia, suburbs. Or Max Rose, the Democrat running for the House seat in Staten Island and Brooklyn that could be represented on the Republican side by convicted fraudster Michael Grimm, perhaps most famous for threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony and "break" him "in half... like a boy."
If and when Democrats do win Congress, they'll have the power to subpoena key administration officials and hold constant hearings harassing the White House and executive branch agencies for wrongdoing. That might not lead to resignations, but it would at least ensure that stories of officials ignoring or straight-up sabotaging their duties remained in the public eye, and could create a feedback loop for future accountability.
Donald Trump and the people around him have long demonstrated they don't have much of a sense of shame. But the whole point of elections is that voters have the chance, occasionally, to be the conscience politicians might lack. If Democrats campaign and win on an anti-corruption message, it will be a powerful sign that yes, Americans still reject the kind of amoral looting practiced by Trump and his ilk. It will be a sign that it's not just journalists at outlets like ProPublica and the New York Times and staffers at good-government groups who care about this stuff, but all of America, too.
Correction 05/10/2019: A previous version of this article referred to Don Blankenship as a "convicted felon." Blankenship was convicted of a misdemeanor; he was found not guilty of felony charges.
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