Following the news – which, as with much of the news out of the Trump administration, is astounding but not surprising – that Trumps inauguration committee is under federal investigation for potentially illegally accepting funds from countries including Saudi Arabia, Trump has plumped for his usual line of defence: deny, and claim ignorance.
In fact, about the only stable thing about this government of instability is how reliable it is in giving a response, like the Shaggy song, of blanket denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: it wasnt me.
As is often the case, the denial came not from Trump directly, but from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, who hilariously said on Wednesday that she wanted her tenure to be remembered for being “transparent and honest” but, of course, will actually be remembered for the impossible contortions into which she has bent language in trying to extricate her boss from one lie after another.
The inauguration committee “doesnt have anything to do with the president or first lady,” Sanders told a press gaggle on Thursday when the news of the investigation broke. “The president was focused on the transition during that time and not on any of the planning for the inaugural.”
This is, of course, disingenuous nonsense. “Its HIS inauguration. When your name is plastered in large type at the top of every single event invitation, you dont get to say, I was too busy to oversee my own activities,” Norm Eisen, ethics chief in the Obama White House – there is no equivalent in this current administration – tweeted on Thursday.
The inauguration itself was to all intents and purposes a flop, famous only as the originator of the first ridiculous lie by the administration – that his crowd was bigger than that of Obamas in 2008 (it wasnt) – but Trumps inaugural committee still raised considerably more money than Obamas inaugural committee did. The committee, which was formed during the 2016 campaign at a time when the campaign was short of funds, suddenly gained a lot of money after former campaign chief and now convicted felon Paul Manafort took a cruise in which he met, among others, the former head of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, the New York Times reports. Lots of countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, were looking for inroads with the new administration, according to the Times – the implication being, they found it here.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the new investigation arose from documents found during the raid on Trumps fixer Michael Cohens office in the spring (Cohen was sentenced this week to three years in jail for a “smorgasbord” of financial crimes) and that there are three separate federal crimes in respect to the inaugural committee now being investigated of which Trump could be liable.
First, investigators are looking into whether foreign money – such as from Saudi Arabia or Qatar – made their way into the fund either directly or through intermediaries, which would constitute an illegal campaign contribution. Second, they are looking into whether the inaugural fund misspent some of its funds; and third, they are investigating whether contributors to the fund were offered access to administration officials in exchange for donating – pay-for-play.
None of those sound remotely difficult to believe, which is why Sanders – check out that transparency and honesty again – is so desperate to distance the president from his own inauguration. “This didnt have anything to do with the president,” she said. “The president was focused on the transition, and building out a new government, and preparing to take office. The role that the president had in the inauguration was to raise his hand and take the oath.” As Vanity Fair points out, Sanders went on – preposterously – to blame the Democrats for the snafu.
This is also nonsense. Trumps obsession with crowd size, as well as the multiplicity of injured tweets from the then president-elect bemoaning how celebrities were snubbing his invitations to attend the event made clear at the time that the inauguration ceremony was, if anything, a higher priority for him than perhaps even the presidency itself.
Could this spell legal difficulties for Trump? Well, absolutely, sure. Just add them to the growing pile. At some point, surely, with his former lieutenants – especially Cohen, who as Trumps former fixer knows where the bodies are buried – now largely cooperating with federal authorities, Trumps strategy of deny, deny, deny is going to run out of effectiveness. But for him to face actual legal ramifications, he first would need to be impeached – which, while not impossible, is still extremely unlikely to be completed while the Republicans still hold the Senate. Or, he might face charges should he not be reelected in 2020. While he still has the office, and the publics attention, hes still going to double down on the Shaggy strategy: “It wasnt me.”
Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.