On Friday, the number of new confirmed COVID-19 in cases in America topped 70,000 — a new single-day record. The daily death toll from the virus likewise showed signs of surging out of control. President Trump responded to these horrifying developments by ... not really responding at all. Instead, he commuted the 40-month prison sentence of his “friend and confidant,” Roger Stone.
Whether through selfishness, vanity, or sheer incompetence, Trump has proven almost completely impotent in the face of the pandemic. He is ruthlessly capable, though, when it comes to protecting his cronies from justice.
Big challenges often compel even mediocre presidents to rise to the moment, to do great things. Trump speaks often of greatness, but during 2020 he has instead been reduced to his essence: a cheap, gold-plated hood on the make. Americans need so much better right now.
It is necessary to criticize this president day after day, week after week for his awfulness. But it is also too easy. Donald Trump didn’t arrive at this point sheerly on his own merits. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes pointed out on Friday night, Trump has been aided and abetted — both in his corruption and his ineffectiveness — by a Republican Party that seems incapable of much beyond amassing power and passing tax cuts.
There are two recent points in favor of this proposition. One is the willingness of Attorney General William Barr, a longtime party grandee — he also held the post under President George H.W. Bush — to put his powers and skills at the service of this president. The other is the Senate GOP’s refusal to convict Trump on impeachment charges earlier this year, though the president’s abuse of power — influencing Ukraine to investigate his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden — was clear to anybody willing to see clearly. News stories are often filled with blind quotes from unnamed Republican senators who confess that Trump is bad for the country. In public, though, they act on his behalf. One of the great “what ifs” of history will now be if America’s pandemic response might’ve been more effective if impeachment had been successful and Vice President Mike Pence had been at the helm instead of Trump. Pence has his own terrible history with public health, but one hopes that he would’ve made better use of his energies during a pandemic than to pick fights with reporters, think of new nicknames for Democrats, and obsess about his ratings.
Then again, maybe not. Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence shows how deep the rot goes. This is true on a personal level — Stone had been convicted of lying about his his activities during Russia and Wikileaks’ interference during the 2016 presidential campaign, making Friday’s commutation a corruption two-fer: Not only did Stone evade justice, but Trump ensured that his friend won’t flip on him to prosecutors. Trump “knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him,” Stone told NBC’s Howard Fineman. “It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t.” The ostentatious wink to the camera was implied.
But Stone is also emblematic of the decades-long amorality of Republican Party leadership. Though he cuts a Trumpesque figure in his comic book villain suits and flagrant rule-breaking, the truth is that Stone is a longtime wheeler and dealer in the GOP, with a history of service to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bob Dole among others. During that time he has always been, well, Roger Stone: A man with a reputation for tactics so extreme they earned one of the most obscene descriptions in American political history. Despite that reputation — or, more accurately, because of it — Stone is every bit as much of the Republican establishment as William Barr.
The result is that the GOP has given us a president whose only real skill is corruption. It wasn’t inevitable that such a party and such a presidency would provide scenes like Friday’s — Roger Stone going free while hospitals in Houston filled up with the sick and dying — but it certainly became a lot more likely.
What a tragedy. What a terrible tragedy for America.
The president has lately given much energy to the goal of protecting America’s monuments, even ordering the creation of a “Garden of Heroes” where — one assumes — he expects to find his own statue someday. It is worth considering what a monument to Donald Trump might actually look like. Me, I imagine a figure of Trump balanced precariously atop a pile of American corpses, the scales of justice broken and bent in his hands. The whole thing would be made of ash — burnt, dead, and destined to blow away.