“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” claimed the current president of the United States, back when he was still a candidate. He was probably right then, and he surely continues to boast a large number of unconditional supporters. But this is not to say Trump is invincible. His stay in the White House could be cut short by a massive political revolt or by a judicial process that leads to his ruin.
The latter prospect is more likely. It is surprising the frequency with which governors, mayors, congressmen, members of the executive branch, and other powerful officials lose their positions by violating the law. Not even presidents have been immune to catastrophic legal setbacks.
These entanglements often happen when a politician or governor tries to conceal a “minor” crime or some misconduct which damages their reputation. To accomplish this, they lie under oath or obstruct justice, in this way committing a graver crime than that which they are trying to hide. “The cover-is is always worse than the crime” is a phrase heard regularly within powerful circles in the United States (and which is ignored with the same regularity).
This happened to Richard Nixon, who resigned just before facing ruin for obstruction of justice, after he tried to conceal his participation in the Watergate case. It also happened to Bill Clinton when he was accused of lying under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The House of Representatives voted for his impeachment, but the Senate absolved him, allowing him to finish his term. And the same thing just happened to the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, who has had to step down after being accused of lying and using public resources to conceal his extramarital relationship with a political aide. Once again, the actions taken to conceal his conduct, not his conduct itself, were the cause of his fall from power. And it has also happened to Gen. Michael Flynn, the national security advisor appointed by President Trump. Flynn beat records by lasting only 20 days in the position. He had to resign when it was discovered that, despite his claims to the contrary, conversations he had with the Russian ambassador in the United States did include the possibility of lifting economic sanctions that had been placed on Russia for the invasion of Crimea. Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador were not the cause of his exit from office, but rather, it was the fact he lied about the content of these conversations.
The cases of Gov. Bentley and Gen. Flynn are just recent examples from this week and last month, but the list of powerful figures who have lost their positions of power after trying to cover up scandalous sexual relations, influence peddling, acts of corruption, misappropriation of public resources, or their responsibility for misguided decisions is incredibly long. Trump would do well to learn this lesson from the mistakes of others.
The other lesson he should keep very much in mind is that money leaves a trail. For that reason, “follow the money” has become another popular saying in Washington. Following the movement of funds and remunerations, from their origins and through the middlemen involved, is the best way to discover the weaknesses of powerful figures. In the United States, scandalous sexual relationships and the misuse of funds are the two most frequent reasons political leaders fall from power. “Follow the money” was the advice that finally sent Al Capone to prison, for example. The most famous gangster of the 20th century was accused of many different crimes, including 33 murders, but could never be convicted. It was only when officials were able to prove that he had evaded the payment of taxes that Capone was sentenced to a long term in prison.
Last week, the Associated Press news agency revealed that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager in March to August of last year, received $1.2 million from a pro-Russia political group based in Ukraine. Manafort, who had initially claimed the news was fake, now admits to having received the money, but he claims it was payment of his consultant fees. The FBI is investigating Manafort for his possible contacts with Russian agents, who could have supported the Trump presidential campaign. We also know Trump has refused to publish his tax returns. It will be difficult to keep these documents from coming to light. When this happens, the plan to “follow the money” will offer interesting revelations.
Trump would do well to keep in mind how Capone and Nixon fell from power.