Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “U.S. ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.
Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.
But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.
At the beginning of 2018, Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night. Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison. The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May. He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts, and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
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When this year began, Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings. Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary. David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.
At the start of 2018, casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.) Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an RNC deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant. (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)
As this year began, white nationalist Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.
In January, McClatchy reported that the FBI was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Associationto aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the NRA and Russia kept emerging, many on the right pooh-poohed it. (“This attempt to turn the NRA into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.) On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to NRA leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
If Trump opponents had known a year ago that 2018 would bring so many revelations and comeuppances, we might have assumed that the Trump administration would be entering its terminal phase. But living under Trump has inured many of us to shock; momentous developments, like Cohen being sentenced to three years in prison, end up feeling anticlimactic, particularly with most Republicans refusing to act.
Still, when you consider the events of the last 12 months together, it becomes clear how relentlessly justice has ground forward, and how much Trump and his flunkies have lost. As I was writing this, news broke that federal prosecutors have started a criminal investigation into Trump’s inaugural committee, adding to inquiries into his business, foundation, campaign and presidency. America is still in a perilous place, and even a weakened Trump can torment migrants, pack the courts, wreck the environment and suck up to tyrants. Nevertheless, this is the first year since 2015, when Trump rode down that cursed escalator to launch his bid for office, that is ending more hopefully than it began.