The news is generally reported piecemeal, with a focus on what just happened or the specifics of one story. The result is that the cumulative effect often escapes detection. Journalism tends to describe the fragments and not the pattern they make up, which for readers can be like watching a movie shot entirely in closeups. So it is with the travails of Donald J Trump. He is in so many kinds of legal hot water, and the explosive new stories tend to erase the earlier ones from view, just as his own transgressions tend to overshadow his earlier misconduct.
Who talks of how grotesquely he groveled before Vladimir Putin and denied his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions in the long-ago, far-away world of July 2018 when so much has happened since? Who remembers the abrupt firing of the FBI director James Comey in the ancient days of May 2017, when the abrupt firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on 7 November is so fresh? The Washington Post’s running list of lies (up to 5,000 in September) and the New York Times catalogue of people, places, and things he’s insulted on Twitter (548 as of Monday) are helpful.
If you look at all his legal troubles together you see someone who is both reckless and lawless – which we knew – and perhaps in more trouble than has been noted. You might add to that list obscenely stupid, since he often seems to be the only one who believes his own lies, and since he and his children don’t seem to grasp that the scamming and cheating that got them through the dirty world of New York City real estate doesn’t work as well on the global stage.
The current head of the federal government, the person who is supposed to somehow embody the rule of law, is in violation of a host of little laws and some major constitutional ones. USA Today reported in June 2016 that Trump and his businesses “have been involved in at least 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts during the past three decades. Just since he announced his candidacy a year ago, at least 70 new cases have been filed, about evenly divided between lawsuits filed by him and his companies and those filed against them. And the records review found at least 50 civil lawsuits remain open even as he moves toward claiming the nomination.” The paper charted 1,450 cases in which he or his businesses were defendants along with his bankruptcies and mentioned the Trump University fraud lawsuit, which he eventually settled for $25m, finalized quietly this April. Our president steals from poor people: that’s what that lawsuit is about.
He has lived his life in a world without consequences – his father’s money smoothed the way for a life in which he made messes and others cleaned them up. He appears to be one of those people who was so rarely told that what he was saying was wrong, boorish, or inane that he has no sense of how he’s perceived or what people are thinking or, often, how things work. Feedback is what steers most of us straight, and power and privilege mean that you can avoid it if you want. When you’re a star they let you do stupid things, and he has done so many.
Summer Zervos sued Trump for defamation for remarks he made about her in 2016, when he suggested her allegations that he groped her were lies; lawyers suggest that his greatest risk in the lawsuit is that he will perjure himself. Another lawsuit for incitement to riot and negligence is moving forward in the sixth circuit court, by three young protesters who were attacked at a Trump rally in March of 2016 after Trump yelled: “Get ‘em out of here.” His former chauffeur is suing for unpaid wages.
The New York Times’ immense – in scale and in scope – report on the Trump family’s decades of cheating on taxes to the tune of half a billion dollars has gotten New York state tax officials to begin investigating the charges, and that, too, may lead to legal trouble. A New York business journal reports he may owe $400 million. There’s another lawsuit related to one of his charities, or rather “charities”, since they often seem to have benefitted Trump and his children. On 23 November, Reuters reported that the New York state attorney general, Barbara Underwood, could pursue claims “alleging breach of fiduciary duty, improper self-dealing, and misuse of assets belonging to the Donald J Trump Foundation. Underwood sued Trump and his adult children Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka on 14 June, after a 21-month probe that she said uncovered “extensive unlawful political coordination’ between the foundation and Trump’s campaign”.
The emoluments clause of the constitution forbids elected officials from accepting gifts and payments from foreign governments, and Trump has been violating it all along, most notably with his hotel in the nation’s capital that is frequented by foreign emissaries apparently seeking to curry favor with him. An earlier lawsuit over violation of the emoluments clause was thrown out because the plaintiffs didn’t have standing, but the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia are moving forward with a suit that does have standing, and they won a fight to gain access to the pertinent documents this September. It will be the first emoluments case in US history to go to trial, NPR reports. The Daily Beast reported in February that the Trump hotel paid millions in fines on liens for stiffing contractors. Associates of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the Trump administration has been defending for his role in the grisly murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, spent more than a quarter-million dollars at Trump’s New York hotel earlier this year, according to the Washington Post.
All this trouble exists in addition to whatever the Mueller investigation will bring as allegations and charges and perhaps grounds for impeachment. On 29 November, the Mueller investigation seized tax records from the law offices of Trump’s Chicago lawyer, Ed Burke. Maybe the most important new possible charge, a law professor noted to me, emerges from the report in BuzzFeed that Trump planned to offer Putin a $50m condo if he succeeded in building a Trump Tower in Moscow, while he was running for the presidency. If true, it is a spectacular violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This 1977 law makes it “unlawful for certain classes of persons and entities to make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business”. Trump seems to have admitted he was doing exactly that and apparently thinks that justifying it aloud was good enough.
Of course, Trump denied that he was doing business with Russia or in contact with Russian officials many times during the election and since. Paul Manafort was charged with lying to the Robert Mueller investigation last week, which seems, atop everything else, stunningly stupid (along with the witness tampering he was also caught doing). Didn’t he think that the legal team would notice if he lied to protect himself or Trump? Or are the circles he moves in so routinely dishonest that the habit is hard to break? Liars abound in Trump’s circle; Michael Cohen turned himself in for some more lies too, and his lies – about when discussions about the Trump Tower Moscow terminated – seem to have been told to protect the president. But it seems likely that for the first time in his life, nothing can protect Donald J Trump from the trouble he’s made, and the sheer scale of it is astonishing. Justice means there are consequences for your actions.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. She is the author of Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions