The fall of Eric Schneiderman is already being hailed as a victory for Donald Trump and a defeat for the resistance against him but, really, it’s too early to make either call.
Republicans will, of course, make much about the fall of New York’s Democratic attorney general who had achieved an almost cult-like status in the eyes of those opposed to Trump. The fact he resigned after stories surfaced about his use of physical violence in his private life will again lend credence to Trump’s claims that those taking the moral high ground are the ones who are truly corrupt. The reality, however, is that the headlines are distracting us from what’s actually going on.
Opposition to Trump has always revolved around a battle of big personalities. Schneiderman has taken on a role similar to that of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller: high profile figures in the law enforcement community who are beyond the reach of the President.
It’s easy to understand why. From the beginning, Donald Trump has reduced politics to petty insults. He has mocked Schneiderman’s eyes, accusing him of using too much eyeliner. But what must always be remembered when watching what happens in the US is that the fight has never been about the individuals. It just seems like that because of the egos involved. It is ultimately about a system of government that is withstanding (occasionally only just) the wills of those that would corrupt it to their ends.
Trump has always struggled to understand that the power of the presidency is limited in some quite deliberate ways. Much of his presidency has been characterised by his inability or unwillingness to recognise the separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government and, more broadly, the role of the free press in scrutinising all three (as well as itself). The oath he asked James Comey to make was just the most memorable of many instances where Trump fundamentally misunderstood the role he was undertaking, yet the same is also true about his attacks on the media, his negligent attitude towards Congress, and the boastful way he speaks about his appointment to the Supreme Court.
Where he has perhaps learned his hardest lesson, however, is with respect to how the federal government has only limited power over the individual states. Trump can pardon with relative impunity those convicted of federal crimes but cannot do the same to anybody caught in the state system. It’s why Schneiderman was considered a particularly troublesome thorn. He was the man who Trump could not touch and who had already scored a hit on the President when his investigation into Trump University landed Trump with a $25 million bill in 2016.
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The #MeToo movement might well have taken another scalp, but what it shows is that the system does work as intended. It underlines the important – and, more significantly, impartial – role the free press plays in American democracy. This time it was The New Yorker which played its part but recrimination. The fact that justice is blind and the media seek the truth, however unpalatable, should restore America’s faith in a system which is proving surprisingly resilient.