Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, told a congressional panel1 and the press this week that he “did not collude” with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign. The closed-door meeting with investigators is just the latest dramatic moment in a fast-moving scandal that has dominated much of the first six months of Trump’s presidency and has ensnared senior members of Trump’s campaign, administration and family.
The Russia story has begun to follow a familiar cycle: A major development or revelation is made public, followed by a flurry of follow-up stories that add new details. Democrats express outrage; a handful of Republicans express concerns. Perhaps a congressional hearing is held. And then the story fades into the background without anything fundamental changing, at least immediately.
The cycle has played out repeatedly since Trump took office. The story of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign to seek damaging information on Hillary Clinton followed the pattern. (Though this week’s hearings with Kushner, who also attended the meeting, are arguably a continuation of the Trump Jr. cycle.) So did the story of Trump’s surprise decision to fire James Comey as director of the FBI. So, to a lesser extent, did the story of Michael Flynn’s resignation earlier this year over allegations that he had inappropriate contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and then lied about it.
It’s important to note that just because the hype around a story dies down after a few days doesn’t mean that nothing is changing beneath the surface. As Jonathan Bernstein points out, the Senate investigation of the administration is proceeding in a serious way. It looks like Trump Jr. will be called to testify before the Senate Judiciary committee. Special counsel Robert Mueller, by all accounts, is doing what special prosecutors do. These things take time; after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” which most people think of as the beginning of the end of the Nixon administration, nine months elapsed before the House Judiciary Committee sent articles of impeachment to the floor.
But while changes may be in the works, much of that is happening behind closed doors, so the rest of us can feel like we are stuck in an endlessly repeating cycle where stories break and then fade away Part of the issue is the sheer volume of news: The constant stream of personnel issues, policy battles and presidential tweets makes it hard for any one story to dominate the headlines for long. But social science research also offers some hints as to why the system may be so slow to change. Regardless of what’s revealed about a president or an election, there’s no automatic process for evaluating accusations or holding powerful people accountable. Change only comes when someone has the political incentives to make it happen — and there aren’t many such incentives built into our system. Instead, many of the strongest political forces in U.S. politics are likely to ensure a slower formal response and to filter any developments through a partisan lens.
Our system is designed for stasis — and a powerful presidency
As I noted a few weeks ago, the American founders cared a lot about stability. The federal government was specifically designed to withstand fluctuations in the public mood — what many of the writers of the Constitution considered the whims of popular passions. In order to get things done, you have to get a lot of people on board. (Political scientists refer to this as a system with a lot of “veto points.”)
The American political system has evolved to overcome some of this built-in inertia. But it’s done so in a way that’s especially ill-suited to addressing the current situation: by putting more power in the hands of the president. This trend has its roots in the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which argued that a stronger presidency would make the government more responsive to the will of the people. Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and, later, Franklin Roosevelt started communicating directly with the public more often, and through their efforts, the office of the presidency was expanded to give the role more policy power and, importantly for our current circumstances, presidents became much more influential within their parties.
Congress, of course, still has the power to check the presidency. But in the modern era, it has largely been the president, not Congress, who sets the agenda. This means that we should expect the process of investigating the president to be slowed down by veto points just as much as anything else in American politics — and we know that because presidents wield a lot of formal and informal influence, it’s challenging for members of their own parties to stand up to them. Although Trump has an unusual history with his party (he was once a Democrat and was opposed by much of the Republican Party’s power structure) and has had a tough time with some congressional Republicans, we’ve still seen fellow GOP politicians make a fair amount of effort to rally around him.
Scandal coverage doesn’t change the political environment
In theory, Russian interference in a U.S. presidential election shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Both parties have an interest in ensuring fair elections, and Republicans have historically been at least as concerned about Russian behavior as Democrats.
But it is impossible to divorce any political scandal from its partisan context. Trump is a Republican president, which means Republicans have a strong incentive to downplay scandals involving him, and Democrats have a strong incentive to play them up. This is reflected in media coverage: In a 2011 study of how newspapers covered political scandals from 1997 to 2007, Riccardo Puglisi and James Snyder found that the partisan leanings of the paper influenced how they covered national scandals — Democratic newspapers were more likely to cover Republican scandals and vice versa. Media historian Nicole Hemmer points out that the conservative press played an important role in defending Nixon as Watergate unfolded — their perception of him as a victim of liberal media “persecution” made him a more sympathetic figure to right-wing media. It’s not hard to see how both of these dynamics play out in the even more polarized environment of 2017. By some accounts, the Russia investigation is hurting Trump with Republican voters, but his job-approval rating is still over 70 percent in that group. And partisan perceptions of the news media still color how people treat the news itself.
In other words, scandals are just as likely to reinforce partisan views as to change or transcend them. Scandals also contribute to another long-term trend in American politics: distrust in government and institutions. Another line of research, mostly conducted in Western Europe, suggests that scandals have affected the long-term evaluations of democracy and trust in politicians (at least at the local level). This appears to be true in the United States as well, where declines in political trust have been linked to Watergate. Americans’ trust in institutions has been low for years, so the way that scandals are covered and received reinforces the existing structure of the political environment. Partisanship and low trust are already the norm. New revelations in the Trump-Russia story may chip away at the president’s political strength, but so far they haven’t changed the fundamentals that much.
There’s no blueprint
The United States has had presidential elections with razor-thin margins, where every question about the integrity of the voting process and ballot procedure mattered. And we’ve had elections where there have been reports of inappropriate influence from a foreign government. But the situation we’re facing now combines these factors and throws in some investigations for obstruction of justice plus a number of known links between Trump associates and Russian actors.
There’s very little in the way of historical guidance about how to approach this. In the worst-case scenario, if the wrongdoing can be traced back to the president, the main constitutional remedy is impeachment. We’ve had two presidents go all the way through that process, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Neither were removed from office, and both cases are basically regarded as partisan endeavors without much merit. Richard Nixon resigned before impeachment proceedings could get into full swing, which leaves the country without a precedent for what happens when a president is removed from office. Maybe nothing that Trump has done rises to this level of seriousness, but if it does, the past doesn’t give us much to go on. What we do have suggests that political incentives play an important role in holding leaders accountable. Many features of our system — a powerful presidency, strong partisanship — are unlikely to create incentives for a strong response to new revelations in the short term.