The One Constant

the one constant

The One Constant

One common thread connects nearly every major scandal involving Donald Trump: his absolute disdain for the democratic process.

That is certainly true of his recent conviction in New York on 34 felony counts. The charges themselves focused on fraudulent business records created by the Trump Organization to cover up the paper trail left by hush-money payments made in 2016 to women who’d claimed past relationships with Trump. But as the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office made clear to the jury, the motivation behind the payments had everything to do with preventing voters from being truthfully informed about the candidate before they went to the polls.

That instance is no outlier. Trump has shown no respect for elections as a mechanism for governing society since the beginning of his political rise. In the final stretch of the 2016 campaign, he promised that he would accept the results of the election “if I win.” When it came time for his reelection campaign in 2020, he wasted no time in casting doubt on the integrity of the vote—beginning that spring with attacks on the reliability of mail-in balloting and escalating after Election Day to lawsuits, fraudulent electoral certificates, and eventually encouragement of a violent insurrection at the Capitol.

In the runup to this year’s elections, Trump’s efforts to undermine public faith in the process began even earlier. As the indictments against him started to roll in over the spring and summer of 2023, Trump claimed that the four criminal cases constituted “election interference” by Democrats out to damage his chances. “They rigged the presidential election of 2020,” he declares in many iterations of his stump speech, “and we’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election of 2024.” He kept up these complaints over the course of the hush-money trial in New York: “This is a Biden witch hunt to keep me off the campaign trail,” he insisted to the press one day from a dim courtroom hallway. “ELECTION INTERFERENCE!!!” he posted as the jurors deliberated.

Trump is, as ever, a master of projection. The matter of underhanded meddling in elections did indeed take center stage during his New York trial—but the person orchestrating this meddling was Trump himself.

[David Frum: Wrong case, right verdict]

“This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election,” declared prosecutor Matthew Colangelo during opening statements at the New York trial. His comment wasn’t just rhetorical. The text of the indictment against Trump identified 34 counts of falsifying business records, but underlying those charges was a separate crime, a New York statute barring conspiracies to engineer a candidate’s election by “unlawful means.” The district attorney’s office had elevated the business-records charge from a misdemeanor to a felony by linking it to Trump’s alleged intent to commit or conceal that election conspiracy. In convicting Trump, the jury found not only that he had created false records, but that he had done so with intent to meddle improperly in an election.

Referring to the hush-money case as a prosecution about election interference feels a bit off when Trump has also been indicted for his role in January 6—like using the term injury to refer to both a paper cut and a stabbing. Describing the New York indictment as such “actually cheapens the term and undermines the deadly serious charges in the real election interference cases,” argued the election-law expert Richard Hasen shortly before the trial began. Scheming to obscure relevant information from voters in advance of an election is, inarguably, not as bad as scheming to overturn an election and then encouraging a violent riot to terrify Congress into submission.

But the conduct described in the January 6 indictment is what the conduct laid out by New York prosecutors would metastasize into. Contained within the New York trial were glimpses of other Trump scandals—such as when the prosecutors introduced evidence that appeared previously in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference. According to the district attorney’s office, Trump’s campaign hurried to squash negative stories in October 2016 because of panic over potentially losing female voters following release of the Access Hollywood tape. In the end, of course, the tape didn’t prevent Trump from winning the election. And though New York prosecutors didn’t mention this part of the story, the Mueller report suggests one possible reason: Public attention lurched toward another scandal once WikiLeaks began releasing hacked emails, provided by Russian intelligence, from the Clinton campaign in the hours after the tape dropped.

The Trump campaign’s blasé willingness to accept Russian help—“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton’s server, Trump famously proclaimed at a rally—speaks to the same willingness to engage in dirty tricks as did the hush-money episode. There’s no sense of the more profound values that fair elections rest on, as a process designed, however imperfectly, to allow voters to choose between opposing visions of the presidency. The goal in Trump’s mind is not to let the people decide but to win by any means possible, and if someone offers outside help—or if you have the chance to prevent voters from learning information that might sway them away from you—well, why wouldn’t you take it?

Trump has never budged from this approach, however many times it leads him into scandal. Asked just months after the release of the Mueller report whether he’d accept damaging material about another presidential candidate from a foreign power, he told George Stephanopulos, “I think I’d take it.” Later that summer, it would turn out that Trump and his allies had already been at work trying to reproduce their Russian assistance from 2016—this time, by bullying the Ukrainian government into providing bogus information about supposed corruption by Joe Biden, with the aim of damaging Biden’s 2020 campaign.

That scheme became the subject of Trump’s first impeachment. “What are the odds, if left in office, that he will continue trying to cheat?” asked Representative Adam Schiff, one of the House impeachment managers, in his closing argument. Almost exactly a year later, Trump would be impeached again, this time for engineering the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Each time, Trump pushed further and further in his desire to hold on to power.  He can’t stand to be at the mercy of others’ judgment, because that means that somebody else is in control. In a candidate for elected office, this isn’t just a personality flaw. It’s foundational opposition to democracy itself.

[Ronald Brownstein: What Trump’s total GOP control means next]

For this same reason, Trump’s fury over the New York verdict seems in part to be fury at the idea that 12 jurors could have so much control over his fate. The jury system is far from perfect, but the practice of deliberation among jurors—equal citizens, weighing arguments and considering evidence to come to a conclusion—is in some ways a mirror of the democratic process itself. It’s no surprise, then, that Trump and his allies moved swiftly after the conviction to attacking the jurors or erasing the role of the jury altogether, accusing the whole process of somehow being orchestrated by President Biden.

There’s no basis for this accusation, of course. But it’s a vision of the world that Trump seems to be more comfortable with, even in defeat: the single, untouchable strongman, orchestrating events according to his will alone.

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