The great American cavalcade of liars and lawyers slithers into Courtroom 2. Just outside the chamber, high above us as we enter, there are red stains in the plaster, reminiscent of the scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles in which Mrs. Brooks looks up to see “The oblong white ceiling, with this scarlet blot in the midst”—the oozing blood of the rapist whom the heroine has killed.
It is a Friday morning in the District of Columbia’s federal courthouse, one of those grandiose buildings where the Ten Commandments meet the Seven Deadly Sins. In this case, as in so many others in this town and in these times, the admonition not to bear false witness is grappling the tag-team of Pride and Greed, their latest battle in a rivalry that started east of Eden, long ago.
“Is this the trial of the century?” someone asks out loud as the black-robed judge arrives, and if it isn’t, it certainly is a chapter in the paramount criminal case of the century’s first fifth—the scandal that may, eventually, ensnare a seething president. In addition to at least 40 reporters, there are a dozen splendidly-suited barristers and law clerks in attendance, proving that, in Washington, senators and Congressmen may come and go, but it’s always a good time to be a tailor.
Or a lawyer. Yet the youngest legal eagles in the room, a reporter in the press pews muses, may well be the last inhabitants of this shire of wooden gavels and yellow notepads and fallible human memories and judgments, an institution little changed since the first prosecutor asked history’s first criminal suspect, “Where is Abel thy brother?”
Soon we all will live in what the scientists call the Age of Ubiquitous Surveillance, when voice and facial-recognition bots will record every person’s every move, every word, every action, every fiction. Courtrooms, judges, juries, witnesses—all will be automatic. Punishment still will be necessary, but what kind?
On this particular morning in Courtroom 2, the purpose is to determine the sentence to be imposed on a man named Paul Manafort, a millionaire businessman, consultant to foreign governments, and campaign manager to Donald John Trump in the summer of 2016. Like the others ensnared in untruths and illegalities by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Manafort already has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and has been convicted of fraud and he has forfeited, through no one’s fault but his own, his elegant homes, his snazzy wardrobe, most of his fortune and all of his once-sacred honour, if honour he ever felt at all.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson is expected to announce how long the disgraced Manafort must spend in the calaboose for all of his transgressions. Meanwhile, in other courtrooms in other cities, other men are being called to answer for their calumnies and their cover-ups and, Mueller hopes, to illuminate the most vital question of all: “While all of these crimes were being committed, and all of these meetings with Russians were being secretly convened, and all of these lies were being cooked, where was Donald thy brother?”
By the time we get to Courtroom 2 on the last day of November, you need a scorecard to sort out all the perps. Gen. Michael Flynn (Ret’d.) has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Trump’s ex-lawyer, Michael Cohen, has copped to bank fraud, tax fraud, and lying to the United States Senate. George Papadopoulos, a juvenile campaign minion, is doing 14 days of soft time in Wisconsin after confessing to fibbing to the feds. And while the president tweets rabidly against Mueller and his “angry Dems,” the long-faced investigator remains inaudible and ghostlike, as in Thomas Hardy’s Tess, when Mrs. Brooks musters the courage to go up the stairs to the bedchamber above the kitchen, where “She listened. The dead silence within was broken only by a regular beat.
“Drip, drip, drip.”
The ambition here is not so much to answer questions but to pose them—to scholars, parents, voters, politicians:
What will this mean long after it is over and all these men—confessed, convicted, corrupted, condemned to prison—are dead? Who will remember who lied, who cried, who testified—and who tried to put the shattered eggshell of honesty back together again?
Will it be about one president’s personal destruction, or about partisan retribution, or Original Sin, or a mighty nation’s morbid fear of a single shirtless Russian?
Will the sad saga of the late 2010s help us to teach our children that you will get in trouble if you lie?
To be clear: the case in Courtroom 2, and all the others, is not about policy or political philosophy. You can be a Tariff Man, argue for a wall at the Mexican and Canadian borders, and comp Kim Jong-un an ocean-view suite at Mar-A-Lago and still not get impeached or go to jail. This is not about agricultural subsidies or the Second Amendment.
It’s about lying.
“The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them,” George Herbert Walker Bush once said, but the 41st president would pass away on that same last day of November, leaving the country bereft of at least one bright point of light. So a reporter goes around to people in government and outside it, and asks those questions listed above.
As it happens, later on that very same day, several of the Democrats who will assume control of the House of Representatives on the morning after the day after New Year’s Day are gathering in the Congressional cellar with their leader, Nancy Pelosi. Not a single one of them, including the once and future Speaker, professes that she or he has been sent to Congress explicitly to impeach, convict, and evict Donald John Trump. Just the opposite: for all the courtroom drama and tear-stained pleas of mea culpa in Washington and New York, the great scandal is low on almost everyone’s list back home.
“People didn’t want to send us here just to resist,” says Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali immigrant and one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to the House. “People don’t want us to be part of a resistance—they want us to further a sense of values that have been lost.”
A new member—and a former judge—named Veronica Escobar from El Paso, Texas reports that the issues that people really care about in her district are the separation of families at the Mexican border and the reconstruction of Puerto Rico.
A new member—who once snarled that Donald Trump shows “an obscene fondness” for dictator—named Tom Malinowski from New Jersey argues that having to pick between investigating the president and crafting real legislation that helped real people is “a false choice.”
A new member—and former undercover CIA agent—named Abigail Spanberger from Virginia affirms that not one person in her district urged her to prioritize the eradication of The Donald and his enablers—not one!
What if—to the majority of working, striving Americans who live far from the Muellers and the Manaforts—all of this fire and fury is just irrelevant noise and nonsense?
What if, simply by electing a less maddened and mendacious president next time, the bloodstain on the nation’s ceiling can be Mr. Cleaned and forgotten?
“The point is to have people have faith in government again,” a new member from New Hampshire named Chris Pappas says in reply. This cannot be achieved simply by impeaching the combover-in-chief. The new members themselves will have to exemplify the ideals of probity, honesty, integrity, humility and service.
They all will have to be George Herbert Walker Bush.
An older hand on hand is Maryland’s John Sarbanes, who will be starting his seventh term in January.
“For the past two years, the country has been sliding on loose gravel, too close to the edge,” Sarbanes says. “The country needs to find its footing again.”
“Does that mean you need Robert Mueller to get behind the wheel and shift the car to low gear?” a clever journalist retorts.
“Our job is to put as much information out before the public and let them act as the jury in 2020,” Sarbanes replies. “You always want the public to be the ones who are issuing the verdict.”
“What will this mean long after it is over and all these men are dead?” a new member from Pennsylvania named Susan Wild—a lawyer of 35 years’ experience—is asked. “Will this help us to teach our children that you will get in trouble if you lie?”
“That’s a really great question,” answers the Representative-elect.
Same day. In a Congressional office building, a panel of legal scholars is conducting a discussion titled “Exploring the Impact of Federal Diversity Jurisdiction.” The event is taking place directly above the chamber where the House Committee on the Judiciary will or will not initiate impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. If you’re downstairs when that happens, keep an eye on the ceiling.
One of the panelists is Alan B. Morrison, dean of the department of Public Service and Public Service Law at George Washington University and a veteran of the capital of such longevity that the Honourable Amy Berman Jackson was one of his students.
“What will this mean long after it is over and all these men are dead?” the professor is asked.
“In some ways, it’s nothing new,” Dean Morrison answers. “Watergate was all about lying and covering up and trying to get elected in ways that were not moral and right. We told our children not to lie back then. But people are human beings.
“What was different in the ‘70s and the ‘80s was that you could go to Congress and hope that Congress could get something done. Now, Congress can’t do anything. Back in the day, people on the Hill understood that their job was to do things. But that’s not the case anymore.”
Even Richard Nixon, who still is seen by some as Satan’s spawn, got things done, Dean Morrison lists: the startling opening to Communist China; the Environmental Protection Agency, and more. But history mostly remembers Richard Nixon for quitting and for lying and for saying “I am not a crook.”
“Will the sad saga of the late 2010s help us to teach our children that you will get in trouble if you lie?” the Dean of Law is asked.
“Or you’ll end up being president!” Alan Morrison mordantly ripostes.
“No, I think Alan is wrong (which is rare),” counters John Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel and a leading protagonist of the Watergate affair and its aftermath, in an email to Maclean’s. “Just as happened following Watergate, and Nixon’s downfall, the Trump presidency will trigger reforms. There was something called post-Watergate morality, and I suspect there will be a similar reaction to the Trump presidency.
“In the broader view of his election, it was a fluke. Many voters were anti-Hillary. While Trump has a base, it is not sufficient to reelect him in 2020 unless the Democrats foolishly nominate and opponent who will turn voters off. By all metrics Trump should lose in 2020. But it will take time to repair the damage he has done.”
“In the early years of elementary school, students hear stories about being honest and telling the truth,” says Sharon, a West Virginia native and the mother of two middle-schoolers who has been teaching elementary school for more than 20 years. “But when children see adults around them lying, it is easier to get on social media and text information that is untrue not understanding or caring about how this can impact the emotions of other people.
“The spirit of young children and teens can be seriously harmed by the spreading of lies. They are being attacked by their peers. I can only imagine how difficult it is for young people to sort out what is true and real. How confusing it must be to have mistruths told about you or to you.
“We are asking our children to act on a higher level of moral development than many of the adults that are around them.”
Let us venture even closer to the nub.
“At the very base, a lot of it has to do with what is our understanding of the human person, and does the human person answer to any moral code or any higher authority?” wonders Fr. Dennis J. Billy, C.Ss.R., a Redemptorist priest and professor emeritus of the history of moral theology and Christian spirituality at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome, who (obviously) does.
“What is a human person’s understanding of himself or herself?” posits Fr. Dennis, the holder of an M.A. from the University of Toronto, among about a thousand other degrees, in an interview. “In the world today, there is no solid foundation—people are acting according to their own perception of what morality is, believing that ‘What is correct is what I say is correct. God should not limit me. I am the centre of my own moral universe and I will decide what is right and what is wrong.’ That’s the whole basis for fake news!”
(The Iranian mullahs, ISIS, fundamentalists of all stripes hold a different view: conform to their constrictive moral codes, or die. But Paul Manafort, it must be said, is no holy man.)
“If a person is the center of his own moral universe, then lying is fine,” says the priest. “But this culture of lying did not just appear within the last couple of years. From a Christian perspective, there is a tendency in all human beings toward evil.
“We should teach our children that this world is not perfect—it’s a world that has weaknesses and tendencies toward evil and there is an underlying self-centredness in all human beings that can manifest itself in any number of ways.
“The Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Anger, Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth—these temptations have existed all throughout human history. They’re not going to go away. But lying has an effect on the self. It has an effect on the soul. At the end of it all, are the people who succeed by lying, by manipulating, in the end, what kind of people are they?
“What kind of people do they want to be?”
Tess of the d’Urbervilles is hanged for murder, and Cain is condemned by God to wander as a vagabond. But Paul Manafort never slew nobody, and neither did Michael Flynn or Michael Cohen or George Papadopoulos. For that matter, Donald Trump didn’t stab anybody through the heart while he slept, or murder his own sibling in the field. All Trump did or didn’t do is surround himself with criminals and fools and collude with the Russian tsar. If the Mueller inquiry is a “disgusting WITCH HUNT,” as the president likes to say, the special counsel has tracked down a whole Hogwarts of sorcerers.
So we assemble in Courtroom 2 to watch Judge Amy Berman Jackson try to calculate how long a man should be sent up the river as a lesson to us all for violating the Eighth Commandment, and for raking in millions of Ukrainian hryvnia while doing so.
President Trump, of course, already has been exiled upstream—he was 11 when his father marched him to a military academy on the Hudson, where he would remain until his 18th birthday, learning how to parade, how to fight, and—above all else—how to win. The ex-cadet’s own sentencing awaits Robert Mueller, and Nancy Pelosi, and the Iowa caucuses, 14 months from now.
Inmate Manafort, who already has served some time at a prison in Virginia’s chillingly-named Northern Neck, and who last was seen in Judge Jackson’s chambers in October in a jumpsuit and a wheelchair, doesn’t show up. Not that a man’s presence in a courtroom equals an education in honesty—to paraphrase Garrison Keillor’s famous jibe about church-going, “Anyone who thinks that sitting in a court of law can make you a moral person must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.”
In fact, the only issue today is whether or not Paul Manafort has continued to lie to the Mueller posse since his guilty pleas and conviction, and whether or not he should be confined even longer for doing so. So the sharp-dressed attorneys palaver with the judge about the correct interpretation of Paragraph 4 (b) of Section 3 (c) 1.1, and so forth and so on.
“You’re in agreement on this matter,” the jurist beams when both parties concur on a date a week hence for the prosecution to submit its latest evidence of the defendant’s confabulations. “Congratulations!”
Courtroom 2 empties into a frosty morning. In Houston, on this same day, George H.W. Bush is drawing his last breaths while his son and successor as president massages his father’s weary feet. In uptown D.C., Stormy Daniels is on her book and striptease tour. East of Eden, the vagabond still wanders, and in Thomas Hardy’s Wintoncester, a black flag flutters over the gallows as “’Justice,’” as the author trenchantly styles it in quotation marks, “is done.”
Still be heard from—under oath, if that matters to him—is the tweeting, tortured man at the centre of it all. In Costa Rica, an online bookmaker called BetDSI is laying odds of 11 to 15 that Donald Trump will be indicted before the end of 2019. What a story. What a city. What a shame.
MORE BY ALLEN ABEL:
- At George H.W. Bush’s state funeral, every tribute seems a rebuke to Trump
- Behold! Unhinged Donald Trump brings Christmas to Washington
- Praise Trump or die: How to get the Medal of Freedom in today’s America