‘People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” So said President Nixon.
What about President Trump?
“Crook” is a funny word. The armchair Nietzscheans out there will be warmed by the knowledge that “crook” over the years has described both a bishop’s crozier and an instrument of deceit — “crook” meant “trick” in Middle English, but that noun sense of the word did not quite survive into modern English except for in the expression “by hook or by crook,” the first recorded use of which is found in a John Wycliffe tract from 1380.
The episcopal and criminal applications of “crook” both are straightforwardly metaphorical, hence the modern English “crooked” as well as the punchier “bent,” which has been used both to mean “deviant” (often as a synonym for “homosexual”) as well as “corrupt”: Mickey Spillane, whose literary output since the time of his death has been remarkable, wrote of the danger of a “bent cop,” two perfectly Spillanean syllables.
(Mickey Spillane was Ayn Rand’s favorite novelist not named Ayn Rand.)
Nixon seems to have been using “crook” to mean “criminal.” His famous “I’m not a crook” declaration came during a controversy involving his personal finances, and the next sentence was: “I’ve earned everything I’ve got.” Merriam-Webster defines “crook” as “a person who engages in fraudulent or criminal practices.” If by “crook” we mean “criminal,” then President Trump is not that: He has been on the wrong side of the law on a few occasions, but those were civil rather than criminal matters, for instance his payment of a settlement in a federal housing-discrimination lawsuit. “We settled the suit with zero — with no admission of guilt,” Trump insists.
“No admission of guilt” is not quite “I’m not a crook,” but something closer to Al Gore’s pleading that “no controlling legal authority” prevented him from engaging in various questionable fundraising antics. As Charles Krauthammer wrote at the time: “‘Controlling legal authority.’ Whatever other legacies Al Gore leaves behind between now and retirement, he forever bequeaths this newest weasel word to the lexicon of American political corruption.”
The American Heritage dictionary defines “crook” as “one who makes a living by dishonest methods.” That sounds a bit more like Trump, who is inordinately proud of his own adventures in apple-stealing, boasting of his buying political favors from the likes of the Clintons: “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.” Trump made clear that what he is talking about is quid pro quo political corruption: “When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” The real-estate business is heavily regulated, from planning and zoning to labor rules. (That touches another Trump legal misadventure: a dispute over unpaid wages to the illegal immigrants who worked on Trump Tower.) A friendly decision from a local agency can be worth millions of dollars, maybe hundreds of millions. So, is Trump a “crook” in the American Heritage sense? Yes, by his own description.
The president is ensnared in a mess of nested corruption claims: that he or members of his campaign had improper contact with shady Russians monkeying about with the U.S. presidential election and/or other foreign actors; that he pressured subordinates to show him political favoritism in investigating these claims; that he fired James Comey because the FBI director would not promise him favorable treatment; that these alleged actions constitute obstruction of justice or a similar serious offense.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that all of these claims end up being completely without merit. How should we go about investigating them?
It is impossible to get at that in a meaningful way without considering the unsettling question: What sort of man is the president of these United States? We know he is a habitual liar, one who tells obvious lies for no apparent reason, from claiming to own hotels that he does not own to boasting about having a romantic relationship with Carla Bruni, which never happened. (“Trump is obviously a lunatic,” Bruni explained.) He invented a series of imaginary friends to lie to the New York press about both his business and sexual careers. He has conducted both his private and public lives with consistent dishonesty and dishonor. He is not a man who can be taken at his word.
Conservatives used to care about that sort of thing: Bill Bennett built a literary empire on virtue, and Peggy Noonan wrote wistfully of a time “When Character Was King.” But even if we set aside any prissy moral considerations and put a purely Machiavellian eye on the situation, we have to conclude that having a man such as Trump as president and presumptive leader of the Republican party is an enormous problem for conservatives and for the country corporately. Allegations of petty corruption against Donald Trump cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, because no mentally functioning and decently informed adult thinks that Donald Trump, of all people, is above that sort of thing. Quid pro quo patronage? He’s proud of it. Dishonesty? He boasts about it in a book published under his name. Question: If a young, attractive, blonde woman employed by the Trump Organization came forward claiming to be having an affair with the president, why wouldn’t you believe her? Because Donald Trump isn’t that kind of guy? He’s precisely that kind of guy — that’s the main reason anybody outside of New York ever knew his name in the first place.
Of course it is the case that Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans are predisposed to believe the worst about the man. But the fact is that doing so is not obviously wrong or unreasonable. Trump apologists instinctively want to treat Democrats’ exaggeration and hysteria as contemptible scandal-mongering, but their defenses — no hard evidence of collusion with the Putin regime! — sound a lot like “no controlling legal authority.”
The question isn’t whether the president is a crook. The question is: What kind of crook is he?
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.