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Opinion

Column: The cheater in the Oval Office should be banished from the tribe

Donald Trump
Although President Trump denies it, he apparently cheats at golf.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

The Mueller report amply chronicles President Trump’s staggering, decades-long crime spree. Like an iron skillet to the head, the extent of Trump’s corruption seems to have stupefied voters, legal scholars and, of course, Congress, all of whom are currently at a loss for a remedy.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in her run for the Democratic nomination for president, put it best: “If he were any other person in the United States, based on what’s documented in that report, he would be carried off in handcuffs.”

But because our norms appear to be inadequate to the current catastrophe in the White House, Trump is not yet in handcuffs. So while Congress equivocates about the Mueller report and its implications for impeachment, voters ought to recognize a more homespun truth that it doesn’t take a degree in con law to understand.

The president is a cheater.

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We all know cheaters. Cheating falls into the you-know-it-when-you-see-it family of misdeeds, a set of dishonest strategies used to gain unfair advantage in endeavors that are bound by rules, customs, principles and mores.

Trump seems to have internalized the first rule of teen video gamers: ‘Cheating is gameplay.’

Cheating takes many forms: nepotism, cronyism, plagiarism, deck-stacking, table-tilting, cherry-picking, data-fudging, doping, calling bogus outs and fouls. Most cheating is an honor offense, punished not legally but socially — and often after a single offense — with banishment from the tribe.

Think of these notorious cheaters: cyclist Lance Armstrong, the Russian athletes at the Sochi Olympics, the research-faking anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield, fabulist Stephen Glass, the all-in parents and the witting students in the college admissions scandals. They’ve been benched by society under a cloud of dishonor.

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Cheaters are especially malevolent actors in a social system because they paralyze competitions and contracts, demoralizing both their teammates and their opponents. But cheaters only win when they destroy the integrity of a whole game. To prevent that from happening, we strip the medals and titles of known cheaters, and pock their names with asterisks.

If you make out with your husband’s brother, consult crib notes during a math test, shortchange your employees and pad your expenses, there may be no record book to correct, but, in a working social system, you’re shamed as faithless and suspect. You’ve proved you’re so incompetent that you can’t succeed without tilting the board.

But the cheater in the Oval Office seems to be wired for shamelessness.

Trump seems to have internalized the first rule of teen video gamers: “Cheating is gameplay.” Most people outgrow this adolescent logic, or get flunked out of geometry class for it.

Not Trump. We know Trump’s history. We’ve heard about his life of deceit and absence of honor from his former lawyer, Michael Cohen. He’s a rich man who pays no taxes (“that makes me smart,” he says). He’s been caught cheating on his wives, ritually humiliating his first wife, Ivana, his third wife, Melania, and the two women’s children — Don Jr., Ivanka, Eric and Barron.

And, though the president denies it, it appears he cheats at golf. According to the eye-popping new book “Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump,” by Rick Reilly, Trump kicks his ball so often from the rough to the fairway that caddies have nicknamed him Pele, after the legendary Brazilian footballer.

And now we can say that Trump won at the ballot box with the wrong kind of help. He was, at the very least, a beneficiary of cheating — and, in most contests and social circles, that would make him a cheater himself.

Think Trump didn’t know he was getting a shady assist? You decide. Here’s Mueller: “The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” Italics added.

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The report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III also says criminal conspiracy can’t be charged, but we know Trump and his cronies rolled out the red carpet for Russian military intervention into American democracy. And thus Trump became president in an election in which he overwhelmingly lost the popular vote, profited from voter suppression and gerrymandering, and from a military attack designed to throw the election to him.

Fair play has been absent from the White House for so long we are beginning to forget what it looks like. But that doesn’t mean the American people are powerless. We can, and should, pressure Congress to hold Trump accountable as a cheater.

When Trump owned his failing casino, the Taj Mahal, you better believe he didn’t think cheating among the hoi polloi at the tables was just gameplay. Casinos treat cheating with deadly seriousness, and void the victories of people who do so much as play with an unshuffled deck.

Oh, and casinos really don’t like it when a player “expects to benefit” from a dealer’s help. This kind of cheating usually happens with winks and hand signals. It’s hard to prove, but when it is discovered, it’s punished with particular severity because it compromises the reputation of a house so thoroughly.

There’s a term for that particular brand of casino cheating: “collusion.”

Twitter: @page88

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