Speculation has now yielded to fact. On Monday, the grand jury impaneled by special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election issued its first indictments. Several of Trump's closest advisers have been charged with breaking the law. This is the clearest evidence yet that Russia was able to penetrate and gain influence at the highest levels of Trump's presidential campaign.
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has been charged with conspiracy against the United States, making false statements under oath, working as an unregistered agent for a foreign country, money laundering and numerous other financial crimes.
Rick Gates, who is Manafort's business confidant and aide, was charged with similar crimes. Both men pled not guilty during their arraignment on Monday.
Perhaps the most important and most damning indictment, however, was against George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser for Trump's campaign. Papadopoulos was in constant contact with a Russian agent who allegedly had dirt on Hillary Clinton and wanted to give Trump's campaign thousands of stolen emails. Papadopoulos continued his relationship with this Russian agent throughout his time working with Trump. An unnamed senior Trump campaign member apparently praised Papadopoulos' efforts.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty some months ago and has presumably been "flipped," with the goal of helping Mueller's investigation into other members of Trump's inner circle.
In response to Mueller's indictments, likely the first of many, Trump took to Twitter:
Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????"
Of course this is a lie. Manafort worked for Trump's 2016 campaign, and the indictments include that time period.
Trump concluded his tweet: "Also, there is NO COLLUSION!"
These comments are a continuation of Trump's Twitter tantrum over the weekend. On Sunday he recycled a whole series of right-wing talking points and conspiranoid fantasies about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party pursuing a witch hunt against him. He also resurrected the fictitious claim that Hillary Clinton somehow gave away America's nuclear-grade uranium to Russia. In all, he railed against Clinton as though she were the president and he was the disgruntled loser of the 2016 presidential election.
Trump then reached an all-caps Twitter climax with two words: "DO SOMETHING!"
In a presidency that has reached one new low after another, an insatiable maw of embarrassing and shameful behavior, Trump's antics on Sunday and Monday are (almost) shocking.
As a practical matter, they are an effort to distract the public from Mueller's investigation, and another signal that Trump's intimates more likely than not colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election in his name. Trump's Twitter rants are also an effort to prepare his public and the right-wing propaganda machine for his next move: firing Mueller, issuing blanket pardons to numerous people in and around his 2016 campaign and declaring that the Russia scandal was a partisan fishing expedition by Democrats who do not want to "Make America Great Again."
Trump's "DO SOMETHING!" is also more sinister than the words of a desperate president (and political party) willing to do anything to stay in power. Trump's words are a command, a plea and a demand to his supporters and other allies.
What is the "something" that Trump wants done?
He is threatening violence and chaos if Mueller is not stopped and, by extension, if the Democratic Party and his other enemies are not reined in. This is not hyperbole. It is a reasonable conclusion based on Trump's past and current behavior.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump famously observed that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Trump encouraged violence at his rallies and other political gatherings, even going so far as to promise to pay the legal costs of his supporters who beat up protesters. Trump believes that there were "very fine people" among the white supremacists who ran amok in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring dozens more.
During the presidential campaign, Trump threatened Clinton with violence, suggesting that "Second Amendment people" might eliminate her if she were elected president. Trump's spokespeople and other allies have even suggested that Clinton should be tried and executed for treason. Trump admires political strongmen and authoritarian leaders. He has modeled his political style after theirs. Violence is their modus operandi. Like them, Trump threatens and bullies private citizens who criticize or otherwise displease him.
Trump's "DO SOMETHING" is also an example of what has been called stochastic terrorism, in which right-wing politicians, their toadies in the media and conservative opinion leaders repeatedly threaten violence against liberals, progressives and Democrats -- and then act shocked when said outcome actually happens.
Psychologist Valerie Tarico explains the elements of stochastic terrorism in more detail:
- A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
- With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
- Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past "purges" against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
- When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the "tragedy."
In this moment, the possibility of violence is very real. Donald Trump is the champion of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and right-wing militias. These are groups which collectively have killed hundreds of people in the United States since 2007 and are considered by federal and other law enforcement agencies to be a greater threat than Islamic terrorism.
In many ways, Donald Trump is like a man trying to hold back the tide with a broom. This is a task that is doomed to fail. But Trump has his own right-wing disinformation machine anchored by Fox News and Breitbart, heads a political cult with tens of millions of followers, and has no regard for the norms and laws of American democracy and government.
In many ways, America has been in a constitutional crisis ever since Trump's election. His threats and other despicable behavior are now a new type of normal.
Perhaps there will be a wonderful irony in Trump's raging to "DO SOMETHING" and that principled Republicans -- to the degree any still exist -- in Congress and around the country will finally turn on Trump and insist that he be removed from office.
I'm not holding my breath. Republicans made their bargain with the devil because he does their bidding. The American people, and the people of the world, are suffering the consequences.