When he accepted the Republican nomination for president, Donald Trump pronounced himself the “law and order candidate.”
Instead, he has bestowed a new political cachet on the criminal class.
Sure, the mention of Hillary Clinton’s name can still provoke chants of “Lock her up!” at Trump’s rallies. And the president continues to blame immigrants for the imaginary violent crime wave that he says is gripping the nation.
But an actual criminal record has become a badge of kinship with a president who constantly rails about witch hunts, a rigged system and prosecutors run amok. It is also the latest evidence that Trump has taken us all to a place that seems beyond parody.
This year’s election has produced the spectacle two recently freed inmates — ex-congressman Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., and former West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship — running for Congress while proudly touting their time behind bars as bona fides.
“You know, I’ve had a little personal experience with the Department of Justice. They lie a lot too,” Blankenship said Tuesday night, when asked during a GOP Senate debate whether he thought Trump should be allowed to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The Morgantown, West Virginia, audience erupted in applause and laughter at this reference to Blankenship’s conviction on misdemeanor charges stemming from the nation’s deadliest mine disaster in four decades.
That same evening, in Tempe, Arizona, Vice President Mike Pence was slathering praise on former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio as a “tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.”
A federal judge in 2017 thought differently, when she found Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt of court for his “flagrant disregard” of an order to stop racially profiling Latinos in traffic stops. Trump pardoned the 85-year-old Arpaio, sparing him what could have been six months in jail. His get-out-of-jail-free card in hand, Arpaio announced he was running for the Senate to “bring some new blood to Washington.”
Arpaio has become a sought-after fundraiser for other Republican candidates. So has former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who awaits his own sentencing for lying to the FBI. If Trump is ultimately found to have obstructed justice in the ongoing Russia probe, the original sin will have been his efforts to get then-FBI Director James Comey to back off his investigation of Flynn for having made false statements about conversations with the Russian ambassador.
“So General Michael Flynn’s life can be totally destroyed while Shadey [sic] James Comey can Leak and Lie and make lots of money from a third rate book (that should never have been written),” Trump tweeted last month. “Is that really the way life in America is supposed to work? I don’t think so!”
The destruction of Flynn’s life seems something less than total. He will be the star attraction May 6, when he appears with Senate candidate Troy Downing in Montana. As my colleague Michael Scherer reported, Flynn has a good time in store: “He plans to shoot skeet, dine with donors and hold a rally in the state, where select VIPs will be offered a chance to take their picture with him.”
Grimm, meanwhile, is trying to win back his old Staten Island House seat after serving eight months for tax fraud and other offenses. He has been shunned by local Republican leaders. But some polls are showing him ahead of Rep. Daniel Donovan, the Republican who replaced him.
On Monday night, Grimm jubilantly announced that Anthony Scaramucci, who did a brief and embarrassing stint as Trump White House communications director, will headline a money-raising event for him on May 19.
“Excited to welcome former White House comms director and one of our President’s staunchest allies, Anthony Scaramucci, to Staten Island on May 19! You don’t want to miss it,” Grimm tweeted.
The person who has made this whole trip through the looking glass possible is a president who promised in his convention acceptance speech that he would “work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials to get the job done.”
Instead, Trump has demonized those very people — and the institutions they represent. In doing so, he has bestowed martyrhood on criminals, at least those who are his cronies and his clones.
The question now is whether voters can still tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.