Magazine article The New Yorker

May Days

Magazine article The New Yorker

May Days

Article excerpt

May Days

During Donald Trump's first three months in the White House, America found ways to compartmentalize the convulsions of Washington. The stock market hit record highs. The unemployment rate approached historic lows. The baseball season opened, even as Trump, wary of protesters, declined to throw out a first pitch.

Then, in the third week of May, the crisis consuming Trump's Presidency exceeded the capacity for containment. On Monday, the Washington Post revealed that Trump had shared highly classified material with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian Ambassador. Aides disputed the story until the next morning, when Trump undermined them, writing, on Twitter, that he had the "absolute right" to give "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety" to the Russian government. His response revealed a tenuous grasp of his situation. The critics weren't disputing his rights; they were decrying his judgment. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, the house organ of mainstream conservatives, questioned the Administration's viability: "Presidencies can withstand only so much turbulence before they come apart."

On Tuesday, Trump confronted a larger problem: the reports of a memo by the former F.B.I. director James Comey alleging that the President had urged him to stop investigating Michael Flynn, the Trump loyalist who was forced out as national-security adviser after lying about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador. "I hope you can let this go," Trump reportedly told Comey, an action that many legal scholars described as a potential obstruction of justice. On Wednesday, as the Dow sank nearly four hundred points, the Justice Department named Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the rapidly expanding Russia investigation and its offshoots.

For the first two years of Trump's political career, no scandal could stall his rise. Comey's revelation marked the threshold of a new era, thrusting Trump and the country into the full machinery of Presidential reckoning, an American ordeal not experienced since the Clinton-era Washington wars of two decades ago. Trump is no longer facing just a frenzy over policy or decency or style. This is a legal threat that will not go away until it is resolved, and the chain of events to come will shape the fate of Trump's aides and defenders, as well as of the President himself.

Every Presidential scandal generates a dramatis personae--heroes, scapegoats, opportunists, and bitter-enders whose roles are unknowable at the outset. Some emerge reluctantly. In a congressional hearing on July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a little-known deputy assistant to President Richard Nixon, revealed the existence of secret Oval Office tapes. Congress subpoenaed the tapes, which confirmed the Watergate coverup, and Nixon became the first American President to resign. Butterfield never intended to bring down his President, but the legal process left him no choice. "I got caught up in a wave," he said, decades later, to Bob Woodward, who told Butterfield's story in "The Last of the President's Men." He added, "I don't think anyone who worked for him likes to say that--or even think that--Richard Nixon was guilty. But I think we have to face the facts."

The day after Robert Mueller's appointment, Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican consultant and a Trump critic, urged the President's aides to quit. …

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