What are the chances the larva of the Russia scandal now growing on the Trump presidency will mature into pupa form and ultimately emerge, wings flapping, as a spitting, snarling adult scandal?
The elements of a rip-roaring scandal already exist. The president has cultivated—there is no other word for it—a screwy relationship with Russia’s maximum leader, Vladimir Putin. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, exposed the administration to scrutiny in a phone discussion with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration and, according to news reports, talked about the sanctions President Obama had leveled on Russia in retaliation for its political hacking. Then Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence—why would he do that? And why did Trump, who knew about the call, leave Pence out of the loop, and let him go on TV without the facts?
Then there’s the sensational Steele dossier that portrayed Trump as sordidly compromised by the Russians, parts of which have been corroborated by U.S. officials. Want more? Paul Manafort, former Trump’s campaign chairman, and other members of his team reportedly had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials at the same time Russians were engaged in the now infamous political hacking. Did Team Trump collude with the Russian meddlers? Then there’s the suspicious sale of Russian oil giant Rosneft, which some have reported benefited individuals in the Trump circle. This week, Politico reported that Manafort might have been blackmailed by Russia-friendly forces, further entangling Trump.
Swirling like a murmuration of starlings, the Russia-Trump stories have captured the attention of journalists, politicians, FBI investigators and members of the public. To reach true scandal status, however, it must do more than excite the few. As it turns out, the press isn’t the most important moving part in making a scandal grow. In his 2009 paper, “A Generalized Stage Model of International Political Scandals,” sociologist Stan C. Weeber plots the steps a story must complete before rising to full-on scandal status.
Is the Nation Structurally Conducive to a Scandal? Yes. Trump easily has as many or more political enemies than he does friends, and in the absence of martial law or state censorship, there’s little he can do to block deep investigations.
Has the Scandal’s Face Tendered a Credible Defense? No. Trump and company have yet to adequately explain away their three-in-one Russia scandals, encouraging the press to continue their reconstruction of the scandal’s history. Instead of talking straight about Russia, Trump has tried and failed to obscure the issue by changing the subject to the press. It’s not working.
Is the Scandal Generating Conflict? Yes. Leading Democrats are livid. “I want to know what the Russians have on Donald Trump,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said earlier this month, abandoning all subtlety. “I think we have to have an investigation by the FBI into his financial, personal and political connections to Russia, and we want to see his tax returns.” The newspapers, magazines and cable channels have embraced the Russia scandal, and the Senate Intelligence Committee and House Intelligence Committee intend to probe the Russian hacking business. The Senate Armed Forces Committee, headed by Trump-critic John McCain (R-Ariz.), promises its own sleuthing.
Any Scandal Escalators? Journalists like to think they’re indispensable in giving a scandal wings, but the boys and girls with subpoena power—congressional committees, grand juries, civil and criminal proceedings, and law enforcement—take that honor. The intelligence agencies swing similar heft. Public hearings produce news and investigations tend to leak, assisting gumshoe reporters at every step as new sources emerge. Sometimes, the courts issue a ruling that ripens the scandal. Squealers on the inside—guys like John Dean of Watergate fame, for example—can give a scandal real lift-off. It doesn’t matter whether the confession is made to clear a conscience or fulfill a plea bargain—almost nothing beats a squealer, or better yet, the scandal’s perps turning on one another.
Does Investigation of the Scandal Violate the Consensus? No. Weeber explains that when national consensus forms, as one did after 9/11, almost nothing scandalous—the overreaching Patriot Act would be my example—can be probed or exposed. So far, Trump doesn’t enjoy that sort of political invulnerability. You could argue that President Obama did, and that’s part of the reason why the VA, the “Fast and Furious” and IRS scandals didn’t detonate.
Can the Scandal Target Delimit the Investigation? Can the Target “Run Out the Clock”? No and No. It’s hard to see what legal obstacle Trump could erect. The Trump president has nearly four years to run, plenty of time to nurture a scandal. If anything, the emerging scandal makes his income tax returns more relevant than ever. Has his Russia relationship benefited him materially?
Are the Perpetrators Low-Level Munchkins? No. Many scandals expire overnight because the perps involved lack real power and standing. But in Trump’s case, his A-Team is thigh-deep in the Russian muck.
The scrutiny attracted by Trump’s Russia connections have already born additional fruit. In the last week, we learned that Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen was part of a scheme to ferry a Russia-friendly Ukraine “peace plan” to the White House. Cohen has given conflicting accounts about the exact nature of his role, but it points to Trump’s deeper intimacies with the Russian Federation.
Other conditions, of course, can help metamorphize an embarrassment into a scandal. Larry Sabato’s book Feeding Frenzy boasts an instructional flow chart that describes the scandal-making process. Hypocrisy, lying and incomplete disclosure by the perps can intensify a scandal. The heavy lampoons of late-night comics can change public perceptions about the scandal’s seriousness, as can the protests of activists and stumbles by the perps. When President Richard Nixon professed his innocence by saying, “I am not a crook,” he encouraged a notion not everybody had considered.
I stopped making predictions long ago because my all my crystal-gazing had a way of never coming true. So don’t expect me to forecast the chances that Russia will become the scandal that will unhorse Trump. But what I will say is that many if not all of the objective markers preceding a longitudinal scandal exist. Until we’re able to see more clearly into Trump’s Russia cocoon, we won’t know what sort of beast resides there.
The less you know about flesh-eating screwworms, the better. Send insect marginalia to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts squirm, my Twitter skitters, and my RSS feed flies satanic barrel rolls.