Leppert: Politics draws distinction between wrong and illegal

November 11, 2017

The first indictments resulting from the work of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller are in. So is the first guilty plea.

There will likely be others.

More important for the nation, though, is the question of how so many people of questionable background became prominent in Donald Trump’s campaign to begin with. These initial targets of Mueller’s are now being discarded by the White House as unimportant or even trivial players in the process. No matter how utterly outlandish those suggestions are, Trump Press Secretary Sara Sanders Huckabee is making them.

Her suggestions that these men didn’t matter are wrong.

George Papadopolous, who participated as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, pleaded guilty to “lying to the FBI.” Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner, Rick Gates, have been indicted on a variety of charges. One particularly awful-sounding charge is “conspiracy against the United States.” Yikes.

Manafort served as the campaign’s chairman. While his approach to business, government and campaigns all have led to the list of charges in his indictment, what is most striking is that apparently everyone inside the beltway knew of his “resume” long before this mess began.

Except the Trump “team.” Their lack of vetting is also wrong.

Even after several months and countless tweets from the president declaring “NO COLLUSION” has occurred in the Russia-election investigation, it is clear it absolutely has.

However, collusion is not a crime in politics. “Collusion” is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “secret agreement or cooperation, especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” But in the U.S. code, collusion itself is illegal only in the realm of anti-trust law, generally in circumstances of price setting or market manipulation.

Though collusion in the political arena is not illegal, most Americans would agree that it is wrong. There are specific prohibitions within American election and campaign law that might have been violated by any number of parties during the 2016 campaign. So, it seems almost ludicrous that this discussion is even worth having.

The reason for the discussion, though, is an attempt to find what the American people will tolerate. Will finding illegal behavior in the Trump administration do it in, or will a collection of obvious wrongdoing be enough? Does any of this matter at all?

What ultimately did President Richard Nixon in was doing wrong things. The Watergate break-in was described by then-White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler as a “third-rate burglary.” But the cover-up by the administration is what eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. His behavior was technically defined as obstruction of justice, but it was mainly a collection of simple wrongdoing.

Papadopolous’ crime of lying to the FBI is a felony. Manafort and Gates are indicted on charges that are far more serious, with far greater penalties than the Watergate break-in and lying to the FBI combined. Times ten.

Manafort and Gates are what Trump voters would call “The Swamp.”

Gallup estimates that 33 percent of voters approve of President Trump’s job performance. Within that group, I am certain a significant number of people believe he has done at least a few “wrong” things in his still-young presidency. As more members of his team are found to have done things that are “illegal,” that dismal 33 percent will almost certainly sink even lower.

Panic motivates politicians to do the wrong thing. And while the wrong thing can sometimes also be illegal, when a presidential administration starts out there, it is very difficult to heal along the way.•


Leppert is a public and governmental affairs consultant in Indianapolis. He writes at HeartlandNow.com.Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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