Donald Trump, it has been observed, presents his opponents with many targets, making it difficult for them to focus public imagination on any specific, disqualifying outrage.
It has also been observed that Trump benefits, intentionally or otherwise, from diversion—such as when he picked a Twitter fight with the cast of Hamilton, just as evidence he’s using his president-elect power to personally enrich himself began bubbling to the surface.
Even absent diversion, it can be difficult to characterize the information we learn about Trump in consistent ways. Is he a vindictive power addict? Is he irredeemably corrupt? Does he demonstrate Jacques Clouseau–like unfitness for the presidency?
The answer to all these questions is yes, but separating them out in this way, to categorize different misdeeds, creates cognitive dissonance. Scheming mad men aren’t typically heedless bumblers and vice versa.
What’s needed is a single conceptual lens through which to view all of Trump’s antics, whether they seem evil or dangerous or confused, and the one concept that encompasses all of them is impunity.
Through luck and graft and privilege, Trump has gotten away with an incredible amount of chicanery in his life. If people behave ethically, whether out of genuine moral uprightness or the pragmatic desire to escape punishment, they exhibit self-control and an awareness of and respect for the rules. If people don’t particularly care about these things, they risk catastrophic consequences, but higher up the income scale, it becomes easier to escape penalty, and more tempting to let ethics slip further. Impunity serves as a magnet for bad people, and erodes the mental habits that make decent-but-flawed individuals behave ethically, creating a breeding ground for vice.
Trump has inhabited such an environment his entire life. Having suffered no serious repercussions for any of his misdeeds, it is unsurprising that he gives little thought to how his actions affect other people. We can explain all of Trump’s transgressions with this single formative fact. And the most alarming thing about it is the way his air of impunity allows attendant failures–greed, incompetence, cruelty–to feed upon one another.
On Tuesday alone, Trump demonstrated the wide scope of danger his impunity poses to the country.
First, in separate statements to the press, Trump and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, explained that he has lost his zest for prosecuting Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” Trump told New York Times reporters and editors. “She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”
It should go without saying that it’s bad for a presidential candidate to threaten to prosecute his opponent, because due process is an essential right that protects innocent people from tyrants. It should also go without saying that it’s bad for a president-elect to boast about sparing someone from prosecution, because in doing so he is claiming an illegitimate dominion over the power to determine who does and does not get prosecuted.
But it’s also important to recall that this question arises only because Trump decided it would be fruitful to campaign against Clinton by calling her a criminal, encouraging mobs of people to chant for her imprisonment, and tossing off a promise that, under his presidency, she’d “be in jail.”
Trump faces questions about Clinton today because he campaigned for president recklessly, and is now pocketing the implication that as president he will dictate whom the Justice Department targets as a kind of dividend.
At the same meeting with the Times, Trump didn’t attempt to spin away concerns that he would use the presidency to enrich himself. To the contrary, he admitted he pressed the leader of a foreign political party to oppose offshore wind farms because he’s worried about their effect on the view from one of his seaside golf courses. He boasted that his victory earlier this month probably increased the value of his new Washington, D.C., hotel. He hinted he might exploit presidential exemptions to federal corruption laws in the same way he’s exploited tax loopholes that erased his income tax liability for years and years.
All of this is consistent with how he conducted himself when he had no obvious conflicts of interest. It’s also the logical outgrowth of the haphazard campaign he ran, with wanton disregard for the kind of norms—like disclosing tax returns and promising to liquidate holdings—that have bound past candidates or discouraged them from seeking office in the first place. He may not have expected to win precisely because he took these liberties, but winning unexpectedly reinforces the impermeable bubble of impunity in which he operates.
If Trump seems to be winging it through the early days of the transition, unperturbed by the potential for horror, this is why.
He can’t (or makes no effort to) distinguish between bumbling and purposefulness; ethics and corruption; normal and abnormal behavior—because these distinctions have never been a lasting source of value to him.
Trump’s meeting with the New York Times nearly didn’t happen when, at the last minute, he claimed to have received word the Times had changed “terms and conditions” agreed upon in advance.
After the situation had been resolved, and the roundtable was back on, the Times got to the bottom of what really caused Trump to lash out. “Three people with knowledge of Mr. Trump’s initial decision to cancel the meeting said that Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, had been among those urging the president-elect to cancel it, because he would face questions he might not be prepared to answer,” the newspaper reported. “It was Mr. Priebus who relayed to Mr. Trump, erroneously, that the Times had changed the conditions of the meeting, believing it would result in a cancellation, these people said.”
Perhaps this reflects a concerted effort within the Trump braintrust to undermine Priebus. That would be a big story for different reasons. But what the Times’s sources describe resembles tactics other advisers have used to control Trump in the past. Taking them at their word, we see exactly how Trump bringing an untouchable sense of self-regard into the Oval Office could lead to tragedy. A chief of staff with no experience in government, manipulating a president who has no idea what he’s doing, resulting in an impulsive, damaging outburst for which nobody’s held accountable.
This presidency is shaping up to be defined by a single maxim: that when the president does it, that means it is not illegal—even if he had no idea what he was doing in the first place.