If you're like me and don't have much of a social life, you may already know that Saturday night Twitter is the weirdest Twitter there is. And so while the world waited for Melissa McCarthy to get her elaborate Sean Spicer makeover, the social media website exploded with a crazy rumor: That President Trump is already the subject of a sealed indictment.
A blogger named Claude Taylor — who has roughly 156,000 followers on Twitter (i.e., a lot) — wrote that a "sealed indictment has been issued against Trump by FISA court to serve as the basis of Impeachment." That was retweeted more than 7,500 times, despite the fact that the FISA Court is comprised of judges issuing sensitive national-security-related warrants, while indictments come from grand juries of everyday citizens, despite that fact that the real-world FISA panel wouldn't go within a million miles of a political question like impeachment, and despite the fact that many prosecutors believe a sitting president can't be indicted, period. The fact that this dubious information was shared so quickly by so many proves the power of a fantasy that's captivated many of the millions of us who are so put off by Trump's presidency — that there's a political magic wand that can make all of this disappear.
I'm not seeking to throw cold water on the notion that the investigation of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia or, now, Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey, who was leading that probe, is a scandal with the potential to rival or even eclipse Richard Nixon's Watergate. It very much is such a scandal. In fact, I strongly believe that Trump's admission to NBC's Lester Holt that he ordered Comey fired with concerns over his handling of the Russia matter is a prima facie acknowledgement of obstruction of justice, a federal crime, and certainly an impeachable offense. And the public need to find out what this president knew, and when he knew it, about the bizarre dealings of aides such as Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page and whether there was direct involvement in Russia's apparent hacking of election rival Hillary Clinton.
But here's the weird thing about Trump, Russia, and Comey. It's arguably America's biggest constitutional crisis of the last 40 years. But it's also a massive distraction. Go back to the Nixon analogy. I want to be careful about giving the 37th president too much of a free pass, because his conduct of war in Vietnam and Cambodia was criminal. But in the Watergate case, Nixon and his henchmen covered up break-ins, bugging, and dirty tricks meant to re-elect Nixon in 1972 — all so he could continue to govern America, on most domestic issues anyway, in the moderate mainstream.
It's different with Trump. For all the thousands of words about a White House in utter disarray, and all the speculation about how the Russia investigation will play out, the gears of a radical dismantling of America's political norms and consensus policies of the post-World War II-era continue to grind forward. Watch an hour or two of CNN or MSNBC, and you might think that the all-consuming Comey affair had brought the government to halt Tuesday night. To the contrary, the last five days have seen an acceleration of moves to rip apart environmental protection, voting rights, and even basic human rights in this country.
Again — all of these things happened just since Comey was fired at 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday:
— In the area of criminal justice, or injustice, Trump's attorney general Jeff Sessions continued his push to bring back not only the failed "war on drugs" but the draconian forms of punishment that has given America an incarceration rate well beyond anything seen anywhere else in the civilized world. A memo issued by Sessions on Friday required federal prosecutors to seek the toughest sentences possible — despite the circumstances, with little or no discretion. That would upend efforts to reduce the federal prison population that have been supported not just by liberals, but by conservatives such as the Koch Brothers and Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), a Tea Party favorite, who see mass incarceration as the ultimate Big Government. Sessions' back-to-the-'80s maneuver is popular with virtually no one who knows anything about criminal justice. It's worth noting here that Sessions had previously overturned the federal government's plan to stop using private prisons; Friday's order would mean that these prison profiteers — whose stock prices have soared under Trump — will have plenty of inmates (a.k.a. human beings) for years to come.
— It's not just that Team Trump are the only people in the world who think there's not enough people in prison. They're also the only people who think that it's too easy to vote in America. In Thursday, Trump announced a major new commission on "voter integrity" that would be headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and is inspired by a completely made-up issue — the president's false allegation that 3 million people illegally voted in the 2016 election. Based on what's at stake and the background of the people involved, the effort should be called a "voter suppression" panel. In fact, the ACLU has called Kobach "the King of Voter Suppression" because of his efforts to make it harder to register and harder to cast a ballot under restrictive voter ID laws. What's worse, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, has closely followed Kobach's troubling associations with right-wing extremist groups. So Trump's anti-voter moves ahead of his 2020 re-election (that alleged sealed indictment notwithstanding) are deeply troubling.
— Here's something else that's troubling: The Trump-backed campaign of spreading fear in immigrant communities is also accelerating. The latest shock: New York City officials say an agent from Immigration Control and Enforcement, or ICE, showed up at a Queens elementary school and demanded (without a warrant) a 4th grader. School officials declined, but the stepped-up ICE enforcement activities at courthouses, government offices, churches and other former sanctuaries have had the apparently desired effect of creating fear — even as the crackdown hurts segments of the economy from tourism to agriculture. In Chester County, site of a recent ICE raid that netted 12 workers at a mushroom farm, employers are finding it harder to hire farm labor, and the crackdown is believed to be a big factor.
— During Comey Week, Team Trump also managed to step its war on science. The Pulitzer-winning site ProPublica is reporting that a non-scientist is the frontrunner to become, ahem, the top scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sam Clovis is a conservative talk-show host and a skeptic on climate science who advised the Trump campaign in 2016. His appointment to the key post created especially for a scientist is seen as a blow to USDA efforts to help farmers prepare to deal with global warming issues. At the same time, two members of an advisory panel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency resigned because of efforts to tilt the panel away from science and toward industry. This amid a broader Trump-era climate of promoting dirty fuels like coal and rolling back anti-pollution rules.
— Speaking of climate, the climate of hate and intolerance that has festered since the rise of the Trump campaign in 2016 boiled over on Saturday night in Charlottesville, Va., as white nationalist Richard Spencer — an enthusiastic backer of the president who exulted "Hail Trump!" at a January D.C. rally — led dozens of torch-carrying protesters who rallied around a statue of the Confederate hero Robert E. Lee that's slated for removal, chanting "you will not replace us!" and, absurdly, "Russia is our friend!"
So yes, the Russia cloud does seem to loom over everything — even this quasi-KKK rally that was rendered a tad ridiculous when the suburban protesters could only find Home Depot-style citronella tiki torches. But a scandal involving Russia shouldn't cloud the fact that a radical counter-revolution is taking place in this country, fueled by the likes of Trump and Sessions, aided and abetted by right-wing extremists like Spencer and Kobach — and by the quislings of the Republican Party in Congress, who are willing to tolerate any abuse of power or indecency as long as their Big Business and hedge-fund campaign donors get fewer rules and lower taxes. The front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times may chronicle chaos and back-stabbing in the West Wing, but turn to Page A17 and you'll learn that the war on your freedom and your rights to vote and breathe clean air is proceeding quite nicely.
This may sound odd, but I thought the most powerful moment of the week came on Saturday Night Live — not the Spicer stuff but the "cold open" where Michael Che's Lester Holt was grilling Alec Baldwin's Trump, who conceded in the skit that Comey's firing was indeed an obstruction of justice.
“Wait — so did I get him? Is it this all over?” Che's Holt asks, speaking apparently to a producer in his earpiece. “Wait, no, I didn’t? Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore? All right.” The audience roared — laughing not so much at a joke but at the shared recognition of a horrible truth. It feels like everything matters right now — and yet at the same time nothing seems to matter. The sense of powerlessness over both Trump's steamrolling of American values and the acquiescence of Congress can be overwhelming. But there's no magic sealed envelope in a Virginia courthouse that is going to make this go away any time soon.