Aseasonal​ report on the Trump presidency had better begin with a disclaimer. Anything one says is sure to be displaced by some entirely unexpected thing the president does between writing and publication. This has happened once already, with the Putin-Trump press briefing in Helsinki and the strange spectacle it afforded: the almost physical manifestation of Trump’s deference to Putin. It may happen again, whether as a result of the volume of sabre-rattling or the onset of war with Iran; a decision to sack Robert Mueller, the special counsel who is investigating meddling in the 2016 election; a shutdown of the federal government to extort funds for the wall with Mexico; a sudden intensification of the president’s attacks on his political enemies and accusers in pending court cases.

These eruptions of breaking news are not only possible but certain to occur, because Trump comports himself not as a president or even a politician, but as a reality TV host. He is a showman above all. In a process where the media are cast as reviewers, and voters as spectators, the show is getting bad reviews but doing nicely: the clear sign of success is that nobody can stop talking about the star. He keeps up the suspense with teasers and decoys and unscheduled interruptions, with changes in the sponsors and the supporting cast and production team. The way to match the Trump pace is by tweeting; but that is to play his game – a gambit the White House press corps have found irresistible. Much of the damage to US politics over the last two years has been done by the anti-Trump media themselves, with their mood of perpetual panic and their lack of imagination. But the uncanny gift of Trump is an infectious vulgarity, and with it comes the power to make his enemies act with nearly as little self-restraint as he does. The proof is in the tweets. Meanwhile his administration is well along – and not very closely watched – on its slow march through the institutions. One example can stand for many.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, created in 1970 by Richard Nixon, has been responsible – under both Democratic and Republican leadership – for a large share of the improvements we now take for granted in the restriction of toxic chemical release, fuel economy and the safety of drinking water. Trump’s first choice as administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, soon after taking command, purged its website entry on climate change. (More than a year later, if you go to you are told the page is still being ‘being updated’ to ‘reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt’.) Then Pruitt found a method for reducing the number of scientists on the EPA’s two advisory boards. Science research lives or dies by the government grant, but under Pruitt no member of an EPA board can receive a grant. His administration weakened rules on coal ash, smog and mercury, and cut back enforcement on toxic chemicals. ‘Pruitt has driven away hundreds of experienced EPA staffers and scientists,’ Rebecca Leber reported early this year in Mother Jones, ‘while putting old friends and industry reps in charge of key environmental decisions.’ The military and charter flights he booked for himself, his $2 million security detail, his payment of $120,000 to an opposition research outfit to spy on hostile journalists: a long string of such offences tagged Pruitt as a bottom feeder, even by the grouper-and-bristleworm standard of the Trump government. In the face of complaints by scientists as well as lawmakers and journalists (including some on the far right), Trump continued to express unqualified admiration for Pruitt’s performance, until the boom was lowered on 5 July. A tweet announced that the president had accepted Pruitt’s resignation. His replacement, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist who can be trusted to keep a lower profile; he has slowed the pace of Pruitt’s anti-regulatory innovations, and in some cases sent a programme back for reassessment. In the reign of Trump, this is what we are learning to call progress; but the truth is that climate change presents a developing catastrophe of such proportions that even the Democratic opposition has been immobilised.

A more immediate threat to the US and the world, namely war with Iran, has been covered just as sparingly. The war may take the form of a full-scale cyber attack, with the promise of regime change; and we have not begun to imagine the possible effects. But the Democrats have expressed no more interest in Iran than they do in the five wars the US is still conducting in the Greater Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia). Russia remains the obsessional concern. Not wanting to restart the Cold War might seem one of the few good ideas attributable to Trump, no matter how he came by it, but the pride of the Democrats is invested in pushing him towards renewed conflict: stiffer sanctions, cyber implants, enhanced deployments and joint military exercises with Nato – nothing (it is said) should be ‘off the table’. American commentators lack even a minimal awareness of the circumstances of the eastward push of Nato after 1990. President George H.W. Bush, in return for a united Germany, had promised that Nato would expand ‘not one inch eastward’; and the evacuation of this pledge in the years that followed, under Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama, has rightly been considered a betrayal by every Russian leader from Gorbachev to Putin.

Putin is one of many strongmen who thrive in the East and West today – entirely comparable to Orbán, Erdogan and Netanyahu, and worse than the others in proportion as his power submits to fewer checks. No doubt Trump in his irregular way aspires to become a member of this company. But the geopolitical common sense of Putin’s comment on Ukraine and Crimea – ‘I do not want to be welcomed in Sevastopol by Nato sailors’ – is almost inscrutable to the unipolar press that in 2003 overwhelmingly endorsed the Iraq War. From the New York Times and the New Yorker to CNN and MSNBC, nothing has changed in the mentality of the people who arrived at that verdict 15 years ago; and the next Democratic president, if there is one, will be under pressure to mount continuous threats against a nuclear power the Democrats have gone back to calling an adversary.

To anyone who remembers the Cold War (1947-89), the reversal of roles is astonishing. Throughout the earlier period, it was Republicans who embraced the idea of open conflict with Russia, and Democrats who acquiesced in the arms race but tried to calm things down. A fair analogy may come from the 1850s, when the party of Jefferson and Jackson embraced slavery as their vote-getter, while the new Republicans, descendants of the Federalist Party of Adams and Washington, took their stand on anti-slavery and free labour. ‘I remember once being much amused,’ Lincoln wrote in a letter of 1859,

at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed about the same feat as the two drunken men.

In the early 1950s, the demagogue-brawler Senator Joe McCarthy pronounced the doom of New Deal bureaucrats and lawmakers to requite ‘twenty years of treason’. Today, Congressman Adam Schiff of California – a quiet, lucid, methodical prosecutor in command of a flawless monotone – prophesies the destruction of American democracy at the hands of Putin.

As in the 1850s, the change of clothes has gone both ways. Here is Patrick Buchanan, a speechwriter for Nixon and Reagan, wondering at the double standard of the anti-Russian Democrats: ‘Many Putin actions we condemn were reactions to what we did. Russia annexed Crimea bloodlessly. But did not the US bomb Serbia for 78 days to force Belgrade to surrender her cradle province of Kosovo? How was that more moral than what Putin did in Crimea?’ No writer for the liberal press in 2018 would have ventured to ask these questions.

Left-wing Democrats commonly refer to Trump as a fascist. But there is no fascist militia to complete the picture, and the wildest accusations have been made against Trump with an impunity unknown to the resisters of Mussolini and Hitler. The lower courts, too, are standing up against this president with a fair degree of independence, especially in cases related to immigration. Yet in two respects, the authoritarian danger does resemble that of the 1930s in Europe. Trump believes that a unitary bond links him to the real people. He is their voice. And Republican moderates have almost extinguished themselves as a political species. Though party grandees as various as McCain, Romney, G.W. and Jeb Bush declined to support Trump against Clinton in 2016, and the Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz postponed his endorsement until the eleventh hour, congressional Republicans have settled on a policy of co-operation for the sake of party political advantage. Should one apply the word ‘collaborator’ to such people? The word has a certain appropriateness, in spite of the incompleteness of the analogy. The Republican Party began by legitimating Trump and has gone on to normalise the extreme aberration in a way that recalls the passive compliance of King Victor Emmanuel III in 1922 and Field Marshal Hindenburg in 1933.

Yet it is the ‘resistance’ warriors in the popular culture who have gone furthest to take political confrontation to a perilous edge. Robert De Niro led a cheer of ‘Fuck Trump’ at the Tony Awards, and received a standing ovation. In a comic monologue, Samantha Bee buttonholed Ivanka Trump: ‘You know, Ivanka, that’s a beautiful photo of you and your child, but let me just say, one mother to another: Do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt!’ With the enforcement of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy against illegal immigrants, the enraged of the left have continued to up the ante. Judd Apatow: ‘Trump is a Nazi. The debate is over.’ Peter Fonda: ‘We should rip Barron Trump from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with paedophiles.’ Advisers to the president and members of his cabinet have been mobbed and jeered, denied service in restaurants, and harassed at home; and more such actions have been urged by the woke contingent of the Democratic Party. Representative Maxine Waters advised protesters to ‘create a crowd’ and physically ‘push back on’ associates of Trump. Manners aside, the trouble with such tactics is that they serve to justify an equal and opposite reaction. To the ordinary non-political sensibility, they also prompt reflexive pity for the victims, and squander whatever moral advantage the opposition may have gained from the lowness and brutality of Trump himself. Police, for the most part, haven’t yet shown a pro-Trump disposition, and Democrats should want to keep things that way. Among officers of law enforcement at all levels, Trump’s role as an instigator of popular disorders is the strongest point against him.

Democrats have reason to style themselves as a party of order, which also must mean obedience to laws, since they are depending on the courts and the intelligence community to save the country from Trump – depending on them, indeed, with a simple fervour that approaches the condition of prayer. And yet for some time, going back as far as the summer of 2016, there has been a civil war inside the FBI. It can be traced to a division of judgment regarding the gravity of Hillary Clinton’s offence in using a private and insecure email server for State Department business that included classified documents. The consensus was that her conduct had been careless and wrong, but that it by no means warranted prosecution for giving aid and comfort to enemies of the United States. A faction in the New York field office of the bureau disagreed; and, using their connections with the ex-mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani, they orchestrated a series of selective leaks to throw doubt on the decision by James Comey as director of the FBI to close the investigation. The last and most effective of their leaks concerned the late discovery of a laptop that might contain emails to inculpate Clinton after all. This forced the hand of Comey and prompted his announcement in late October 2016 that the case was being reopened.

What has become clear only lately, with the release of the Justice Department inspector-general’s report, is that Comey acted then – as he had done a few months earlier in announcing that Clinton would not be prosecuted – in the belief that the election would certainly be won by Clinton. The all-important thing was to preserve a common trust in the stability and impartiality of the legal institutions then being undermined by the Trump campaign. Hence the reopening of the investigation in October. Hence, too, the decision by the attorney general Loretta Lynch to let Comey make the original announcement, critical of Clinton, which ended the investigation in July. Lynch had compromised her appearance of impartiality by a long and unexplained private conversation with Bill Clinton; and she, like Comey, wanted the institutions of justice to have shown themselves fair in the aftermath of Trump’s defeat. Only the election didn’t come out as expected. From causes that long predate the election, Comey and Mueller in any case regard Trump as a criminal who was never caught; and Trump knows it. The disposition of all these actors makes the conduct of the Justice Department, the FBI, the special counsel and the courts the central drama in the United States today.

How does​ he get away with it? Trump speaks as one of the certified rich who understands the feelings of those lower down the ladder. He is the incarnation of the new gilded age without pretence – rich without being refined – and he knows very well that hatred of the other side is the main reason one-third of the country will follow wherever he leads. It may be doubted that the same one-third would call him a good man, but another figure is sobering: 87 per cent of Republicans approve of his presidency. They hated the Hillary Clinton who called them ‘deplorables’ and the media who said voters for Trump were ‘angry white men’. The job of a decent and skilful politician in a democracy is to appeal to the interests of people without feeding their prejudices. After 2008, who gave these people much to like? Not Obama, who two years after the financial collapse told them their troubles were over, except for some economic ‘headwinds’ that would lighten up soon. Obama’s $65 million book deal and $50 million Netflix deal, his photo-op vacations on Branson’s island and Geffen’s yacht and Tahiti, his design for tearing up the Chicago Olmsted Park to lay down the Obama Presidential Library, which will host a yoga centre – these things are noticed in the right-wing press and the gutter Twittersphere. They make Obama out to be one more liberal hypocrite; whereas with Trump the almost-avowed corruption adds to the overall zest of the presentation.

People often speak of Trump’s flouting of norms as a trait no less hostile to constitutional democracy than his probable outlawry. It can seem an elusive observation because it points to a new fact. His capricious use of authority is as maddening as his brutality of address. He can initiate a policy and then countermand it under pressure, as he did in mid-June against his own atrocious order to separate children from their illegal immigrant parents. But then on a third day, he will announce that none of this is any good: the families should just be ‘sent back’. Tweets are his instrument, irritant and weapon of choice. In the small hours, he can send up a flare of self-praise, throw down a libellous challenge to a reporter and insult one of his detractors in show business or in the Democratic leadership; and all of it will be news. Twitter has also become the medium by which his most determined opponents regularly transmit their reactions – the standard format now for a public statement without a call to reporters – and it has made Trump the dominant American politician without a shadow of rivalry. If the next presidential election were held today, he would be the Republican nominee and he would probably win. A Gallup poll on 18 June showed him at 45 per cent approval; this dropped a notch or two after the Helsinki debacle; but Rasmussen (a more accurate predictor of the 2016 election) now has him at 50 per cent. The figures are comparable to Obama’s in 2012.

The only Democratic leaders who are known to many Americans are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and their combined age is 220. How did that happen? The Clinton-Obama dollar tree cast a shade for a quarter-century in which smaller political fortunes have struggled even to breathe. Meanwhile, the Democrats remain in denial about the charm of Trump, the force of his personality for a certain crowd. He has an effective voice, and by many accounts can show a flattering attentiveness to other people’s need of attention; his manner, when things are going well, is self-depreciating in a likeable way. Consider a characteristic move: he recently tore away the first page of a speech and let it float to the ground; a written speech is so boring, he said. A stunt, but the crowd loved it. He can slip a head-on challenge as well as the most seasoned of clowns; in a tight spot, he has the ingenuity of a weasel. The moral and political nastiness that Trump calls up with such ease is laced with high spirits.

If he outlasts the Mueller inquiry and runs for a second term, what will it take to beat him? Trump never explains anything. He doesn't have the sort of mind that could construct an explanation, but he spits out slogans and names, and he won the Republican nomination partly through the vulgar wit of certain nicknames: Low Energy Jeb, for example. He is a scattershot cartoonist and some of it sticks. Two weapons are indispensable if you want to run against someone like that. You must be a good, simple and memorable explainer; and you must have the humour and presence of mind to parry the insults he deals out fast and loose. There is plenty of talent in the Democratic field, but nobody yet with those talents well developed.

All of his confidence and shameless exuberance were on display in a back-from-Singapore talk to assorted members of the White House press corps. He began by referring to General Flynn, his first national security adviser. A major suspicion about Trump’s early months in office turns on the 18 days that elapsed between a warning by the acting attorney general – Flynn had lied about his contact with Russians, and could be compromised – and Trump’s eventual decision to sack him. Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is co-operating with the Mueller inquiry, but the president hopes he won’t co-operate too much; and this was the context for a characteristic improvisation:

I feel badly for General Flynn. He’s lost his house, he’s lost his life. And some people say he lied and some people say he didn’t lie. I mean really it turned out maybe he didn’t lie. How can you do that because who’s lied more than Comey? Comey lied a tremendous amount.

Here, the exaggeration about Flynn – ‘He’s lost his life’ – is ambiguous between the loss of a career and physical death. You are made to feel that Flynn, anyway, was owed a deeper compassion than the press and lawmen allowed. Then Trump slots in the shrug and the jam-up: some people say this, some say that – who can know? – opening a path for the two-pronged slither of ‘really’ and ‘it turned out’. These words are logically vacuous placeholders, but for Trump’s audience they have the force of material facts. ‘Maybe’ and ‘really’ and ‘turned out’ must mean that Flynn didn’t lie. And the finishing touch: Comey! Suddenly the despised former head of the FBI is hauled back on stage and all other considerations vanish. We may hardly notice that the fact isn’t a fact; no one ever accused Comey of lying. The charge is that he took too much authority to himself, usurped the proper duties of the attorney general when he chose to give the press briefing on Hillary Clinton’s emails himself, and inserted ad lib criticisms of her conduct in what should have been a strictly legal report. The only ‘lie’ Trump had in his head was Comey’s assurance that he, Trump, wasn’t personally under investigation. On other evidence, Trump came to believe he was a target, and he fired Comey accordingly.

A reporter at the same briefing asked about a coming congressional vote on two immigration bills – the one spelling out zero tolerance for illegal cases and the other a more moderate bill. ‘Would you sign either one of those?’ Trump replied, without missing a beat: ‘I’m looking at both of them. I certainly wouldn’t sign the more moderate one. I need a bill that gives this country tremendous border security. I have to have that. We have to get rid of catch-and-release. We have to have the wall. If we don’t have the wall, there is no bill.’ He hadn’t a clue what was in either bill, but what the hell – wall, bill – the words are almost as close as Iraq and Iran, and Trump’s answer was a napkin waved to conceal a disappearing rabbit. His reflex is dependable and the thought-balloon must have said: ‘To me, I’m looking at them both, and moderate sounds bad, tremendous is good, we need something tremendous, and the border wall, really maybe it turns out it’s all about the wall.’ The wall with Mexico stands for every material change he can effect by sheer incantation.

Trump can now claim three achievements, two of them widely popular in spite of media disapproval and the third so predictable as to make no new enemies. There is the Republican tax cut, which benefits the very rich but offers a temporary boost for small businesses, too – and unemployment in May fell to 3.9 per cent, its lowest level since 2000. There is the promise of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, its first steps signalled by the return of hostages, the US and allies’ refraining from joint military exercises, and the North Korean destruction of test facilities. The process has only just begun, but the foreign policy establishment, from the Council on Foreign Relations to Fareed Zakaria, have struck an odd posture by declaring peaceful relations with North Korea to be impossible and undesirable. The president of South Korea appears to think otherwise, and his view should count for something. Trump’s third success he did little directly to promote and a good deal to frustrate: on 26 June, the Supreme Court ended his battle against lower court decisions by approving his travel ban (twice revised) on the countries he has designated hotbeds of terrorism. The final version added North Korea and Venezuela to the banned countries of the Greater Middle East, to give the thing a non-denominational complexion. The real cruelty of the man came through in the first version, which stopped travellers with legitimate visas. The cruelty has emerged, more shockingly, in the ‘deterrence’ policy of child separation at the Mexican border. In answer to both actions, protests were mounted with a punctual energy and a force of numbers that caused Trump to reverse field.

Almost never mentioned in these debates is the fact that the US bears considerable responsibility for the influx at its southern border. Among the countries supplying the heaviest count of refugees are Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, each of them a site of US military intervention or subversion that fomented civil violence, the most recent instance being the military coup in Honduras in early 2009 (supported by Obama’s State Department under Hillary Clinton). Should the Democrats be silent about the long past of the troubles at the border? By putting a minus sign in front of every Trump policy, they have anyway spared themselves the work of arriving at reasonable positions of their own. Consider ICE, the federal authority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This began as a post-2001 innovation of Cheney and Bush, its powers were then expanded under Obama, and people who know its oppressive tactics are cheering the slogan ‘Abolish ICE’. Good, but what will you put in its place? A 1996 federal law permits the deportation of legal non-citizen residents who have committed violent crimes. Would the Democrats repeal that law?

Again, the party that passed Obama’s Iran nuclear deal has seemed indifferent to the preparations for war with Iran that became impossible to mistake when Trump pulled out of the agreement. The chance of war grew steeper when Trump appointed as his second secretary of state Mike Pompeo, a militarist with a particular hatred for Iran, and as his third national security adviser John Bolton, an anti-Muslim fanatic of the Cheney circle. Leaders of both parties continue to nurse the most dangerous illusions about the prospect of regime change in Iran, with the People’s Mujahedin of Iran and other sympathetic terrorist outfits presumably counted on to assist. What seems to be contemplated is an attack by the triple alliance of the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, with the US in the background.

This brings up an awkward question about a country that has meddled in US elections far more persistently and with larger measurable effects than Russia: namely, Israel. The most important financial backer of Netanyahu is also the most important backer of Trump, the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who gave $83 million to Republican candidates in 2016 and will do more in 2020, provided the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem is followed by the war Netanyahu wants. The Netanyahu-Adelson-Trump connection is well known to the US and Israeli press, but it has been emphasised by only a few journalists, including Peter Stone, Amy Wilentz and Philip Weiss. Whatever the malignity of Putin’s design, he will never equal the success of Netanyahu’s speeches to Congress in 2011 and 2015, which received a combined total of 55 standing ovations.

Yet any American half-persuaded to try and think about something other than Russia was dragged all the way back by the startling performance of Trump in Helsinki. He was polite and deferential, and though a good deal taller than Putin, he looked to be the less confident man: it took something from his size. He can still refer to the sanctions he is enforcing, and his effort to take Russian gas away from Europe. Yet his reply to a blunt question about Russian meddling – ‘President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be … I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial’ – left American politicians and commentators spinning for days afterward. Trump tried to walk it back by saying he had meant to say ‘I don’t see why it wouldn’t be’ but got tangled in the confusion of double negatives. And it’s true that normally his thinking would be able to accommodate both senses: why would they – because you keep on saying I needed them to win the election, but I didn’t need them, why would I need them? On the other hand, face it, the Russians spy on us and try to interfere, and we do it to them, so, yeah, why wouldn’t they? (A scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, Dov Levin, recently calculated that between 1946 and 2000, the US intervened in 81 foreign elections, while Russia did it in 36.) The only trouble was, the ‘wouldn’t’ could not possibly fit the sequence here. Putin truly assured him and, having accepted the assurance that they didn’t do it, Trump sees no reason why they would have or why he should doubt Putin’s word against that of his intelligence services. About the entire performance, it was hard to believe Trump could have acted as he did unless Putin had some sort of hold over him. It was almost as hard to believe that a guilty man would lower his defences so artlessly.

Helsinki has proved to be only the latest of the last straws that for Trump are never the end. It seems to have had an effect as fleeting as the Access Hollywood tape – where he spoke of the celebrity prerogative of grabbing women by their private parts – which the Democrats thought would cause the collapse of his campaign in October 2016. Midterm elections generally revolve around domestic policy in any case, and November 2018 will have at least one domestic subject in full view: Trump’s nomination of the conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Democrats reacted to the nomination with outrage almost exclusively concerned with a possible court reversal on abortion. Hardly a word was said about surveillance, state secrecy and executive power, issues on which Kavanaugh holds views compatible with the presidency of George W. Bush. But this was a conventional choice, by Trump standards, and Democrats up for re-election in moderate or Republican states will find Kavanaugh hard to vote against.

The Democratic Party has encountered another recent perplexity – a fresh and visible left wing it doesn’t know what to do with. One symptom of the party’s incapacity was the House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s dismissive response to the New York primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: a young politician, resourceful at organising and irrepressibly energetic, who describes herself as a democratic socialist. Her triumph brought irrelevant comparisons to Obama; Ocasio-Cortez is, in fact, a left activist, as Obama never was. She has already been out campaigning for Democratic House candidates in Michigan and Kansas. A party with a working brain would respond to this stroke of good fortune by thinking hard about how to explain democracy and socialism to voters outside New York City.

Comey’s memoir has now surpassed the combined sales of Michael Wolff’s portrait of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, and Hillary Clintons’s election elegy What Happened. The book, written in an idiom identical to the one he uses in interviews and press briefings, is clearly the work of an un-ghosted author, and it contains passages most unusual for an official memoir:

There is a place I have visited on the coast of North Carolina where two barrier islands come close together. In the narrow passageway between them, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean meet the waters of the huge and shallow sound that lies behind the islands. There is turbulence in that place and waves appear to break even though no land is visible. I imagine that the leaders of the Department of Justice stand at that spot, between the turbulent waters of the political world and the placid waters of the apolitical sound. Their job is to respond to the political imperatives of the president and the voters who elected him, while also protecting the apolitical work of the thousands of agents, prosecutors, and staff who make up the bulk of the institution. So long as the leaders understand the turbulence, they can find their footing. If they stumble, the ocean water overruns the sound and the department has become just another political organ. Its independent role in American life has been lost and the guardians of justice have drowned.

This depth of formal piety cannot be faked; the passage shows the burden (as Comey sees it) of maintaining constitutional and legal restraints on Donald Trump.

All the loose talk of the mainstream media about Mueller and Russia may have hidden the gravity of the contest between Trump and legality. And it is by no means certain that legality will win. The larger question is therefore whether law-abidingness will remain the pattern of American society. No doubt, the election of Trump was the efficient cause of the crisis, but it is worth considering the likely state of the nation had Hillary Clinton won. Depending on the appetite for mayhem that Trump himself chose to unleash, the country might easily have become as ungovernable as it is today; and that prospect was in Comey’s mind when he wrote about the necessity of keeping one’s footing in the turbulence.

A whole new set of actors have entered the scene, as they do every few months in the Trump presidency. Rudy Giuliani, the voice of the anti-Clinton faction of the FBI, is now the chief lawyer for Trump; and in an early pronouncement in that role, he declared that Trump has the power to pardon himself. The idea is absurd, yet no more so than many others that people have nodded at: for example, the reiterated assurance that Mexico will pay for the wall. Giuliani has avowed that his strategy is to wear down the popular trust of Mueller, so that an assertion by Mueller will be no more credible than a denial by Trump.

The invention of the liberal state originally derived from the need for balance in the parts of government; the presence, as Locke put it, of an ‘umpire’ and the absence of any power capable of acting as the judge in its own cause. Yet for half a century now, there have been signs of a growing non-attachment to the rule of law at the heights of American politics. The Nixon pardon was only the clearest example. Think of the Iran-Contra pardons; Bill Clinton’s pardon of the most exorbitant tax defrauder in American history, Marc Rich (also a donor to the Clinton Presidential Library); or Obama’s refusal to prosecute anyone implicated in the financial collapse of 2007-8 or the torture regime of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Nixon befouled the 1968 election in a manner Putin could only have dreamed of – the facts are now established – by having Anna Chennault tell the leaders of South Vietnam not to negotiate. The Reagan campaign team appears to have done much the same in 1980 by bargaining to have the return of American hostages from Iran delayed until after the election: their release added a pleasant grace note to his inauguration day. Trump, it must be said, worked faster than his predecessors when he issued early pardons to I. Lewis Libby (convicted of lying to the FBI to conceal his outing of a CIA agent) and Dinesh D’Souza (convicted of illegal campaign contributions and false statements to the Federal Election Commission).

Criminality at the highest levels has been overlooked, redefined, extenuated and forgiven. Trump’s acts of a similar nature were thus condoned by anticipation, and a long train of bogus reversals has eased the way for his implied offer of pardons in the Russia scandal. Democrats are right to be haunted by the indications that in 2016 it happened again, but they are wrong to suppose there can be just one cause: that Trump stole the election by getting Russia to corrupt the system. They neglect the possibility that he is implicated in a general corruption by the variety and extent of his connections with people who did the work. Further back, from arrangements made twenty years ago and more, it stands to reason that Trump is deeply in debt to Russian oligarchs. He was in real estate, he always needed loans, he had become a pariah on Wall Street; and if you need big money in real estate and can’t get it at home and want to have it laundered, whom do you go to? Whether all this can be linked to the 2016 election is another story. Even as the facts grow harder to dodge – with even Trump saying, in early August, that Donald Jr met Russians in Trump Tower to get dirt on Hillary – Republicans are unlikely to make obstruction of justice an impeachment charge. Driven equally by cynicism and cowardice, they will continue on the collaboration path.

The trial in Virginia of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, is proceeding at a fast pace; and before the end of the year, Mueller is expected to conclude his indictments and submit his findings to the Justice Department. Almost a dozen advisers, helpers, cronies and fixers have been investigated – Manafort, Stone, Cohen, Papadopoulos, Kushner, Trump Jr, Page and Flynn, among others – but Trump may have given them a free hand with Russia while keeping himself plausibly in the dark. We now know that Manafort made $60 million working for the pro-Russian President Yanukovych in Ukraine. So the weights in the scale against Trump are heavy and getting heavier; he can feel the exposure coming. And the relationship of the lawmen to the president is as transparent as it is intricate: they know he knows they know. But defeating this presidency and preserving the rule of law are not two elements of a single undertaking. The tasks are distinct, and success in the first venture will depend on persistence in the second.

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