It’s not a great time to be a G-man. Donald Trump, clearly terrified of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and its offspring, has over the last two years demeaned, slandered, berated, doubted, and incriminated his own Justice Department and Intelligence officials, packing every critic regardless of partisan identification into an impossible “deep state” conspiracy against him. He’s likened them to Nazis, accused them of “treason,” and charged them in multiple quoted tweets of staging a coup. And though Mueller’s investigation (a necessarily broad and winding path not yet two years in the making) has ensnared six Trump associates in indictments or guilty pleas—and led to a federal investigation that included Trump as an unnamed co-conspirator in a felony indictment—weeds of doubt still sprout in every crack.
Which brings us, thankfully, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in her interrogation of Michael Cohen this week found the right way to remind everyone—even the most cynical among us—why the law matters to democracy, and why Trump must be brought to justice.
In her exchange with Cohen, AOC didn’t use her chair to grandstand or pontificate, and she chose not to dig into sensational, headline-driving questions about Russian collusion. She asked direct and fairly dry questions about Trump’s financial history. The answers she drew from Cohen, however, opened doors to new investigations, justified calling new witnesses against Trump, and probably also laid solid track to subpoena Trump’s tax returns.
Though AOC probably didn’t imagine these questions would draw headlines (they did) she did understand the urgent issue here: Donald Trump is a criminal and a disgrace in every dimension of his life, and we can’t forfeit our responsibility to the country and to justice generally by throwing our hands up and doing nothing about it. Even more importantly, though, AOC went a step further and made clear why the pursuit of justice isn’t an abstract and sometimes problematic concept, but critical to us in our daily lives. From her questions:
The last thing here. The Trump golf organization currently has a golf course in my home borough of the Bronx, Trump [Golf] Links. I drive past it every day, going between the Bronx and Queens. In fact, The Washington Post reported on the Trump Links Bronx course in an article titled, “Taxpayers built this New York golf course and Trump reaps the rewards.” That article is where many New Yorkers and people in the country learned that taxpayers spent $127 million to build Trump Links in a “generous deal” that allowed Trump to “keep almost every dollar that flows in.” On a golf course built with public funds. And this does not seem to be the only time that Trump has benefited at the expense of the public.
She goes on to get Cohen to agree about Trump’s particular fraud in this case, which involves inflating and deflating property value at whim, and which you can learn more about here.
Her point: Donald Trump’s criminality isn’t an abstract thing; he exploits and extorts real people. There are real victims here, she’s saying, and I’m in the position to use the powers of an institution to do those victims the justice we all owe them. Anyone can relate to this line of questioning, and anyone and everyone should be outraged at Trump’s brazen defrauding of the American people. AOC, it seems—in stark contrast to the Trump crowd—realizes the greater good she (and we) can do if we wield our institutions correctly and not in the name of a blind non-ideology that serves only the moment.
By extension, the Russian election interference exploited and extorted real Americans in a deeply personal way: Under the guise of the democratic process, they tapped into our America pride at our “free thought” and influenced the way we think about politics, about race, about our neighbors and our families. It warped our perceived free will. It seeded self-doubt and shaped us into cynical, political cannibals. In fact, if it weren’t for the salacious pee tape entry that distracts us from the actual criminality in the Steele dossier (and the three years of criminality in plain public view), we’d all see Trump’s central role in this conspiracy to once again defraud the people. And this has nothing to do with the election’s result: The crime was against the people of this country, and against the framework that binds us. Or did.
Look: The calumniator-in-chief’s unrelenting and unsparing campaign of invective has bit by bit (and selectively—you don’t hear complaints about the FBI’s counterterrorist or criminal divisions) corroded faith at the highest levels of U.S. law enforcement. But the larger point: It’s not just on the right wing.
Many on the left don’t seem to have an interest in holding Trump accountable for the criminal he is. The Russia ship has sailed, they might say, or it was the wrong ship to begin with, and we need to focus on other things. If we erringly write off the Mueller investigation and its offspring as either pipe dreams of impeachment or irrelevant to politics altogether—and entertain blanket dismissals of our institutions of justice—we dismiss justice, and we miss the point of democracy. This is a priori mistrust, and it’s a symptom of a troubling trend not isolated to any one party: We’re abstracting our anger.
But AOC knows better than to play on our pee-tape pipe dreams. She wants to wield the levers of power and use the system as designed: To serve the will of the people. I hope we have the right will.