Yes, the details were engrossing. The photograph of the empty lunch table where President Trump and Kim Jong Un were supposed to celebrate the deal they never signed. The menu of the meal that they did consume: grilled steak with pear kimchi and hot chocolate lava cake, surely the worst of two cultures combined. The little dramas of the Michael Cohen hearings are also the ones that commanded attention on the day, the checks he produced with Trump’s signature, allegedly “hush money” payments meant to be paid to a porn star, or what looked like Cohen’s tears at the end of the session. But long after this weird double news story is forgotten, long after anyone has ceased to remember these juicy details, a longer shadow will remain.
One of the arguments I now hear frequently in European capitals — and I suspect the same is true in many other places all over the world — is the one about what happens after Trump. Will the next president of the United States, whether it’s in 2020 or 2024, return the United States to the standing that it once had? Will he or she be able to speak again, in the way American presidents have all done in recent memory, with the authority that comes not only from a large army but also from confidence in American democracy and values? Will we return to some kind of “normal” — a world where U.S. leadership lies at the heart of a series of alliances, from Central Europe to the Korean Peninsula?
I am afraid the events of the past day are proof that we won’t. Trump is creating facts on the ground that cannot be erased. On the Korean Peninsula, we have enhanced the power and prestige of one of the world’s bloodiest and cruelest dictators. We have lost our credibility, both as a military power in the region and as a diplomatic leader: Nobody can be quite so certain, in the future, of our absolute willingness to defend South Korean allies who have received so much less attention from this president than their enemies in the North. Other countries in this region will no longer have faith in our ability to run a consistent sanctions policy, over a long period of time — the only kind of sanctions policy that works — and they will be less willing to follow us if we try. The same, of course, is true of sanctions on Iran. Why should anyone pay a price, sacrifice an investment, in order to support a U.S. policy that might alter radically at our next election? If this president can shift his loyalties so rapidly, then the next one might, too, or else the one after that.
The same is true at home. Yes, eventually Trump will be gone. But the prestige and honor of the office of the presidency will not recover, or at least not very soon. We will not be able to erase the hard truth of the fact that the American people elected to the highest office a man who is, as his personal lawyer put it, a con man, a fraud and a racist. We will not find it possible to forget that one of our two great political parties, with decades of history and achievement behind it, maintained him in office even knowing that this was the case. Some of the Republicans at that hearing Wednesday did attack Cohen, questioning his reliability or his veracity. Notably, none dared question the specific charges he made — because they all knew, of course, that they were probably true.
The Cohen hearings also created facts on the ground that cannot be erased. It will not be possible to argue, in the future, that the president’s “character” should matter to voters, because this one’s clearly doesn’t. It will not be possible to argue that the office itself deserves bipartisan respect, now that it has been held by a professional fraudster who sought it for personal financial gain. Whole elements of U.S. politics will now be weakened, perhaps permanently. Once, even those who disagreed with evangelical Christians and social conservatives conceded that they had a place in politics, that they deserved to be heard. But why should anyone listen to them now? They are hypocrites. They supported a man who consorts with porn stars, secretly pays them off, breaks laws on charity and defrauds the state.
“We have got to get back to normal,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) at the end of the Cohen hearings: “We are better than this. As a country, we are so much better than this.” He is right, of course. But the path back to “normal” may prove long and twisted, and I am not sure we will get to the end of it very soon.