In 2018, impunity came to an end.
Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “US ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.
Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.
.. But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.
.. At the beginning of 2018,
- Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer.
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night.
- Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
- Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison.
- The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May.
- He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts,
- and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
When this year began,
- Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings.
- Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary.
- David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.
At the start of 2018, the
- casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.)
- Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an R.N.C. deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant.
- (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)
As this year began,
- Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, whose sympathy for white nationalists did so much damage in so little time, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.
- McClatchy reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Association to aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the N.R.A. and Russia kept emerging, many on the right poo-pooed it. (“This attempt to turn the N.R.A. into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.)
- On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to N.R.A. leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
Some of the people you see talking on TV or who are quoted in articles about President Trump are legally obligated to say nice things about him.
Trump acknowledged last month that Manigault Newman — author of “Unhinged,” a tell-all book about her time in the White House — had signed a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) when she went to work for his 2016 campaign. He suggested she had violated the agreement, which obligates signers not to disparage Trump or members of his family.
Which raises a question: Are others who have signed an NDA with Trump really being honest in those media interviews, or are they just lauding the president because they legally can’t do otherwise?
.. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hasn’t specified who or how many people have signed, but she has characterized the agreements as “common” and “very normal” for this White House.
.. “I don’t see any acceptable situation where someone has an NDA and doesn’t disclose that in an interview,” he said. “This is material information that goes to the credibility of an interview. The audience has a right to know if the person they’re hearing from has agreed to limit or censor themselves in some way.”
.. Kahn compared undisclosed NDAs to other kinds of would-be conflicts of interest, such as a source with an undisclosed personal relationship or a hidden financial stake in a company he or she was touting to the news media. “It’s completely inappropriate,” he said.
Manigault Newman claims that applicants to “The Apprentice” were tested for S.T.D.s, and that female prospects were subjected to a “humiliating vaginal examination and Pap smear.” She claims that, on the set of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Trump egged Gene Simmons on as he hit on Ivanka.
.. Gone is the conviction of “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump.” “Now, when I look at things, I’m stunned that I was involved in this kind of shady dealing,”
.. she writes, of dropping a lawsuit against the National Enquirer at Trump’s behest. The Enquirer, she claims, sent a reporter to surveil the funeral of her brother Jack, who was murdered, in 2011. She also claims that Trump brokered a solution: Manigault Newman would serve as the West Coast editor in exchange for letting the matter go. (David Pecker, the Enquirer’s publisher, denies such an arrangement.)
.. To deliver palace intrigue, you must be well placed in the court. “Unhinged” is obsessed with showing how Manigault Newman, who critics say did nothing in the Administration, was in fact a key presence. Résumé inflation has long been in the Omarosa playbook; she débuted, in the early aughts, by exaggerating her positions under Al Gore and the Clintons. Here she goes further: she wants to prove that, before Trump betrayed her, she was his one true confidante.
.. No one is buying that the hardened reality-show player could not see what was tweeting in front of her. So what is Omarosa really selling? Her product is not simply the alleged tapes but the idea that she may have outmaneuvered Trump. I’ve written before about Manigault Newman’s scrounging embrace of black exceptionalism. Opportunism has never morally burdened her, which makes her self-interest seem both egregious and banal. She has clung to her infamy, in part, by perverting the black worker’s experience of racism. She has always exploited the vantage of the pariah, but has more frequently tried to frame herself as a victim.
.. Our infantilization of women in power has, at times, elicited empathy for figures such as Hope Hicks, Melania Trump, and Ivanka Trump. This seems to be what Omarosa seeks.
Without specifying details, Harder said that excerpts of the book “contain confidential information and disparaging statements” and that the Trump campaign’s potential claims against the publisher include tortious interference and inducement of Managault Newman to breach her NDA with the campaign.
.. McNamara noted that many of the book’s early excerpts referenced episodes from Manigault Newman’s time in the White House rather than on the campaign.
.. Harder, she added, did not identify any particular excerpts as false, and the Trump campaign “does not have a viable legal claim merely because unspecified truthful statements in the Book may embarrass the President or his associates.”
And in a line that echoes Manigault Newman’s own defense of the book, McNamara said that the book was primarily aimed at educating readers about the leader of the country.
“Put simply, the book’s purpose is to inform the public,” she said. “Private contracts like the NDA may not be used to censor former or current government officials from speaking about non-classified information learned during the course of their public employment.”