El­iz­a­beth Drew

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - El­iz­a­beth Drew

If Don­ald Trump leaves of­fice be­fore four years are up, his­tory will likely show the mid­dle weeks of May 2017 as the turn­ing point. Chief among his mount­ing prob­lems are new rev­e­la­tions sur­round­ing the ques­tion of whether Trump and his cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia in its ef­fort to tip the 2016 elec­tion. If Trump has noth­ing to hide, he is cer­tainly jumpy when­ever the sub­ject comes up and his ev­i­dent worry about it has caused him to make some big mis­takes. The pres­i­dent’s trou­bles will con­tinue to grow as the in­ves­ti­ga­tors keep on in­ves­ti­gat­ing and the in­creas­ingly ap­palled leak­ers keep on leak­ing. Two es­pe­cially dam­ag­ing disclosures oc­curred on Fri­day, May 19, the day Trump de­parted on his first for­eign trip. That af­ter­noon, while Air Force One was in the air, The Wash­ing­ton Post broke an omi­nous story that law en­force­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors had un­der scru­tiny a “per­son of in­ter­est” on the White House staff, de­scribed as “close to the pres­i­dent.” No longer was the fo­cus on a small num­ber of peo­ple at some dis­tance from Trump, such as his for­mer cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort, long­time ad­viser and po­lit­i­cal trou­ble­maker Roger Stone, or Carter Page, briefly Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser dur­ing the cam­paign. The in­di­ca­tions are that the “per­son of in­ter­est” is Jared Kush­ner, the pres­i­dent’s son-in-law.

Though younger and more com­posed, Kush­ner is a lot more like Trump than is gen­er­ally un­der­stood. Both of them moved their father’s busi­nesses from the New York pe­riph­ery to Man­hat­tan. Like his father-in-law, Kush­ner came to Wash­ing­ton know­ing a lot about real es­tate deals but al­most noth­ing about gov­ern­ment. Both en­tered the cam­paign and the White House un­fa­mil­iar with the rules and laws and ev­i­dently dis­in­clined to check them be­fore act­ing. Thus, Kush­ner has re­in­forced some of Trump’s crit­i­cal weak­nesses. Trump has thrust project af­ter project upon him (the only top aide he could trust), and Kush­ner, who has a high self-re­gard, has taken on a pre­pos­ter­ous list of as­sign­ments. He was able some­how (likely through his own leaks) to gain a rep­u­ta­tion—along with his wife, Ivanka Trump—as some­one who could keep the pres­i­dent calm and pre­vent him from act­ing im­pul­sively or un­wisely.

In the days be­fore Trump’s for­eign trip, how­ever, others on the White House staff, by now not fans of Kush­ner, leaked that he had en­cour­aged Trump to make the short­sighted de­ci­sion in early May to fire FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey. By get­ting rid of the man who was over­see­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Trump cam­paign’s re­la­tion­ship with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, the pres­i­dent stirred wide­spread out­rage and re­in­forced suspicions that he had some­thing to hide. (Richard Nixon, who was a lot smarter than Trump is, sim­i­larly mis­read the way the pub­lic would re­act when he ar­ranged for the fir­ing of his spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor, Archibald Cox.) One con­crete and dan­ger­ous re­sult was that Trump was quickly con­fronted with some­thing worse: a spe­cial coun­sel—Robert Mueller, Comey’s pre­de­ces­sor as FBI di­rec­tor— who is re­spected by both par­ties and, un­like Comey, can fo­cus on this one as­sign­ment and will be much harder to fire.

But the widely ap­plauded de­ci­sion to name a spe­cial coun­sel won’t re­solve some mo­men­tous mat­ters raised by the Rus­sia af­fair. Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion is lim­ited to con­sid­er­ing crim­i­nal acts. His purview doesn’t in­clude de­ter­min­ing whether Trump should be held to ac­count for se­ri­ous non­crim­i­nal mis­deeds he or his as­so­ciates may have com­mit­ted with re­gard to his elec­tion, or vi­o­la­tions of his con­sti­tu­tional du­ties as pres­i­dent. The point that largely got lost in the ex­cite­ment over the ap­point­ment is that there are pres­i­den­tial ac­tions that aren’t crimes but that can con­sti­tute im­peach­able of­fenses, which the Con­sti­tu­tion de­fines as “trea­son, bribery, or other high crimes and mis­de­meanors.”

When it was con­sid­er­ing the im­peach­ment of Richard Nixon, the House Judiciary Com­mit­tee con­cluded that “high crimes” meant some­thing broader than of­fenses listed in the crim­i­nal code. The con­cept of im­peach­ment was largely lifted by the Founders from English law, which Ed­mund Burke ex­plained to Par­lia­ment meant that “states­men, who abuse their power” will be ac­cused and tried by fel­low states­men “not upon the niceties of a nar­row ju­rispru­dence, but upon the en­larged and solid prin­ci­ples of state moral­ity.”1 Among the crimes that the Water­gate de­fen­dants were con­victed of and that might be ap­pli­ca­ble to the more re­cent mis­ad­ven­ture are bribery, sub­or­di­na­tion of per­jury, crim­i­nal ob­struc­tion of jus­tice, money laun­der­ing, tax eva­sion, wit­ness tam­per­ing, and vi­o­la­tions of elec­tion laws in­clud­ing cam­paign fi­nance laws. Other crimes that might have oc­curred in the Rus­sia af­fair are vi­o­la­tions of the for­eign agent reg­is­tra­tion laws and the For­eign Cor­rupt Prac­tices Act, per­jury it­self (in­clud­ing ly­ing to fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors), plus es­pi­onage and even trea­son.

Un­like or­di­nary crimes, im­peach­able of­fenses are “po­lit­i­cal” ques­tions— ones that deeply af­fect the polity. Alexan­der Hamil­ton said that im­peach­able of­fenses were po­lit­i­cal, “as they re­late chiefly to in­juries done im­me­di­ately to the so­ci­ety it­self.” For ex­am­ple, of the three ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment adopted by the Judiciary Com­mit­tee against Richard Nixon in 1974, the most im­por­tant was for “abuse of power.” The crit­i­cal hold­ing by the com­mit­tee was that a pres­i­dent can be held ac­count­able for the acts of sub­or­di­nates as well as for ac­tions that aren’t, strictly speak­ing, crimes. In the end, an im­peach­ment of a pres­i­dent is grounded in the the­ory that the holder of that of­fice has failed to ful­fill his re­spon­si­bil­ity, set out in Ar­ti­cle II of the Con­sti­tu­tion, to “take care that the laws be faith­fully ex­e­cuted.” Un­less a sin­gle act is it­self suf­fi­ciently grave to war­rant im­peach­ment—for ex­am­ple, trea­son—a pat­tern of be­hav­ior needs to be found. That could in­volve, for ex­am­ple, emol­u­ments or ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

This con­cept of ac­count­abil­ity is crit­i­cal to pre­vent­ing a pres­i­dent from set­ting a tone in the White House, or drop­ping hints that can’t be traced, that lead to a pat­tern of acts by his aides that amount to, as in the case of Water­gate, a vi­o­la­tion of con­sti­tu­tional gov­ern­ment. Many of what seemed dis­parate acts—well beyond the fa­mous break-in in the Water­gate com­plex and the cover-up—were car­ried out in or­der to as­sure Nixon’s re­elec­tion in 1972, and they amounted to the party in power in­ter­fer­ing with the nom­i­nat­ing process of the op­po­si­tion party. That way lay fas­cism.

Sim­i­larly, in the case of the Rus­sia af­fair, even if the pres­i­dent’s fin­ger­prints aren’t found on any sin­gle act, mis­deeds com­mit­ted by Trump’s aides and close as­so­ciates could amount to an im­peach­able of­fense on the part of the pres­i­dent. By def­i­ni­tion, im­peach­able of­fenses would ap­pear to con­cern con­duct only dur­ing a pres­i­dency. But a num­ber of con­sti­tu­tional law schol­ars, in­clud­ing the Har­vard Law pro­fes­sor Lau­rence Tribe, who was du­bi­ous at first, be­lieve that if a pres­i­dent or his as­so­ciates work­ing on his be­half acted cor­ruptly and se­cretly to rig the elec­tion, then the prein­au­gu­ral pe­riod should be in­cluded.

Mike

Flynn, Trump’s for­mer cam­paign ad­viser and dis­missed na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, is ob­vi­ously a prob­lem for the pres­i­dent, who has acted to­ward him in a most bizarre way. Trump ig­nored the warn­ings of Obama and Chris Christie not to hire Flynn. Then he re­sisted fir­ing him even though, six days af­ter the in­au­gu­ra­tion, then-act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral Sally Yates warned the White House that Flynn had been “com­pro­mised” by Rus­sia, and that Flynn had lied to Pence about his con­ver­sa­tions with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador, Sergey Kislyak, in late De­cem­ber 2016. Yates also al­luded to what she called Flynn’s “un­der­ly­ing con­duct.” Trump asked for Flynn’s res­ig­na­tion only on Fe­bru­ary 13, af­ter sto­ries about Yates’s warn­ing ap­peared in the press—and then, two days af­ter he fired him, the pres­i­dent called Flynn “a won­der­ful man.” Ig­nor­ing ad­mo­ni­tions not to be in touch with some­one un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Trump has done so and, weirdly, re­cently told aides that he’d like to have Flynn back in the White House. Trump’s con­duct has the un­mis­tak­able ring of a man con­cerned about what the other man has on him. More re­cently, the McClatchy news or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ported that Flynn, in con­ver­sa­tions with out­go­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Su­san Rice dur­ing the tran­si­tion, asked that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion hold off on its plan to arm Kur­dish forces to help the ef­fort to re­take Raqqa, the ISIS cap­i­tal in Syria. Since Flynn was a paid lob­by­ist for the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, which strongly op­posed the plan, this ac­tion could pos­si­bly lead to a charge of trea­son. In late May, it was re­ported that Flynn had told Kislyak that it would be prefer­able if Rus­sia didn’t re­tal­i­ate against sanc­tions im­posed by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in re­sponse to Rus­sia’s med­dling in the elec­tion. Flynn was lead­ing the Rus­sians to be­lieve that they’d re­ceive much bet­ter treat­ment un­der a Pres­i­dent Trump and the Rus­sians went along. (They’ve been

dis­ap­pointed be­cause once Rus­sia’s be­hav­ior in the elec­tion be­came known it was clear that Congress wouldn’t al­low Trump to lift the sanc­tions.) A big ques­tion is whether Flynn dis­cussed such im­por­tant pol­icy mat­ters with the Rus­sians with­out the knowl­edge of the pres­i­den­t­elect. Once it be­came clear that Rus­sia wasn’t re­tal­i­at­ing, Trump tweeted: “Great move on de­lay (by V. Putin)—I al­ways knew he was very smart!” An­other ma­jor ques­tion is how far the Rus­sians got in re­cruit­ing al­lies in the Trump cam­paign. Re­cently, for­mer CIA di­rec­tor John Bren­nan tes­ti­fied that last sum­mer he’d be­come con­cerned about the num­ber of con­tacts be­tween Rus­sians and peo­ple in­volved in the cam­paign, so much so that he told a bi­par­ti­san group of con­gres­sional lead­ers, in­clud­ing House Speaker Paul Ryan and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell, nei­ther of whom has yet to show any sign of be­ing per­turbed. (But they are peo­ple to watch closely for any sign of move­ment away from Trump.) Bren­nan said he was wor­ried that the Rus­sians may even have re­cruited some Amer­i­cans to co­op­er­ate with their ef­fort to tilt the elec­tion. In­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts picked up con­ver­sa­tions by Rus­sians in which they bragged that they’d cul­ti­vated Flynn and Manafort and be­lieved they would be use­ful for in­flu­enc­ing Trump. (This doesn’t prove guilt on the part of ei­ther man.) Ac­cord­ing to CNN, some Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials viewed Flynn as a se­cu­rity risk. While Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion could pre­empt some con­gres­sional in­quiries, it still leaves them im­por­tant work to do. It doesn’t fall to the spe­cial coun­sel to con­sider the enor­mous and press­ing ques­tion of how to pre­vent a for­eign power from in­ter­fer­ing in our elec­tions again. It’s up to Congress to de­ter­mine what new laws to write to deal with that. Con­flicts are likely to arise be­tween what Mueller says he needs by way of se­crecy and not sub­ject­ing wit­nesses to self-in­crim­i­na­tion, and the com­mit­tees’ de­sire to re­main in­volved; these will have to be ne­go­ti­ated.

Lau­rence

Tribe is gath­er­ing what he be­lieves are im­peach­able of­fenses com­mit­ted by Trump.2 Go­ing back to the first days of the Trump pres­i­dency and con­tin­u­ing up to the present, Tribe sees Trump flout­ing the con­sti­tu­tional ban on ac­cept­ing “emol­u­ments”—pay­ments by for­eign gov­ern­ments that might com­pro­mise the pres­i­dent’s pre­sum­ably un­di­vided com­mit­ment to US in­ter­ests. Ex­am­ples in­clude ac­cept­ing money paid by for­eign gov­ern­ments to Trump’s lux­ury ho­tel just down the street from the White House in or­der to curry fa­vor with its owner, and Trump’s fail­ure to cut him­self off from own­er­ship of a busi­ness that has pro­jects all over the world.

Also, Trump may be held to have at­tempted to im­pede the FBI’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In ad­di­tion to his re­quest to Comey that he “let . . . go” his in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Flynn, this could in­clude Trump’s fir­ing of Comey for, as he ul­ti­mately ad­mit­ted, “this Rus­sia thing.” Or Trump’s say­ing to Rus­sia’s for­eign min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov and to Am­bas­sador Kislyak, of fir­ing Comey: “I faced great pres­sure be­cause of Rus­sia. That’s taken off.” Col­lec­tively, these acts could amount to the im­peach­able of­fense of cov­er­ing up other po­ten­tial, sub­stan­tive mis­deeds. There were also Trump’s ef­forts very early in the ad­min­is­tra­tion to get Comey to pledge “loy­alty” to him (Comey dodged, say­ing he’d give him his “hon­esty”). In an­other form of pres­sure, Trump asked Comey when the FBI would an­nounce that he wasn’t un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Comey didn’t re­spond.

When it was re­vealed that Comey had taken notes of their con­ver­sa­tions, there came Trump’s not-very-veiled threat that Comey “bet­ter hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our con­ver­sa­tions.” Whether this was a feint or Trump had ac­tu­ally taped some con­ver­sa­tions is as yet un­known, but by now Trump’s ha­bit­ual ly­ing has put him in a dif­fi­cult spot when it is his word against Comey’s— or pretty much any­one’s. Whether or not Trump has rec­og­nized it—af­ter all, he deals in threats—the rev­e­la­tion that Comey had notes of Trump ask­ing him to drop the Flynn in­ves­ti­ga­tion was a clear sign that Comey wasn’t go­ing to sim­ply go away.

here are all the leaks com­ing from? Many Repub­li­cans want to make this the is­sue rather than what the leaks re­veal, but the fact that they keep com­ing is a sign of the state of near col­lapse of the White House staff. It’s not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that Trump has the most un­happy staff ever, with some feel­ing a higher duty to warn the pub­lic about what they see as a dan­ger to the coun­try.

From the sto­ries that em­anate from 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue the im­pres­sion one gets is that Trump is a nearly im­pos­si­ble per­son to work for: he screams at his staff when they tell him some­thing he doesn’t want to hear; he screams at them as he watches tele­vi­sion news for hours on end and sees sto­ries about him­self that he doesn’t like, which is most of them. Some White House staff are pol­ish­ing their ré­sumés. Leaks are also be­ing made by the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, many of whom see Trump as a na­tional men­ace. Peo­ple who have been to the Oval Of­fice have come away stunned by Trump’s min­i­mal at­ten­tion span, his ap­palling lack of in­for­ma­tion, his ten­dency to say more than he knows. (In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have been in­structed to put as much of his daily brief­ing as pos­si­ble in the form of pic­tures.) Aides have been sub­jected to pub­lic em­bar­rass­ment by his propen­sity for chang­ing his story.

Trump sul­lies the rep­u­ta­tion of peo­ple who have signed on with him. The re­spected gen­eral H. R. McMaster, now the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, hu­mil­i­ated him­self by try­ing— pre­sum­ably un­der or­ders—to com­bat the Wash­ing­ton Post story on May 15 that Trump had re­vealed highly clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence about ISIS to Lavrov and Kislyak. What made this even worse was that the in­tel­li­gence had been passed on to the US by Is­rael un­der a strict in­ter­na­tional con­cor­dat that clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion shared be­tween al­lies is not to be re­vealed to any­one else. McMaster has yet to re­cover his rep­u­ta­tion from hav­ing em­phat­i­cally re­futed things the Post story didn’t say. Over and over, McMaster char­ac­ter­ized the pres­i­dent’s pass­ing along to the Rus­sian of­fi­cials the most sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion as “wholly ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Trump’s reck­less act is be­lieved to have en­dan­gered the life of an Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence as­set who had been planted among ISIS forces, some­thing ex­tremely hard to pull off. Trump’s mis­han­dling of the in­tel­li­gence pro­voked dis­may in Wash­ing­ton. Dur­ing his visit to Jerusalem on May 22, Trump claimed that the press sto­ries about it were wrong be­cause he hadn’t men­tioned Is­rael; but the re­ports didn’t say he did.

That same day, The Wash­ing­ton Post dis­closed that Trump had asked the heads of two ma­jor in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to an­nounce that there had been no col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and Rus­sia. Both de­clined. Some Trump de­fend­ers will ar­gue that he didn’t know enough to un­der­stand that he shouldn’t have made those calls, or to try to get Comey to back off in­ves­ti­gat­ing Flynn—what might be called the ig­no­rance de­fense. But while ig­no­rance of the facts might be an ac­cept­able de­fense in crim­i­nal or im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings, ig­no­rance of the law isn’t.

The par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges of serv­ing in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have led some peo­ple to make com­pro­mises that out­siders are prone to judge. In very short or­der, the same per­son can be al­most rap­tur­ously ad­mired as a hero and then scorned as a cow­ard and a loser. Con­sider Rod Rosen­stein, a

ca­reer gov­ern­ment pros­e­cu­tor with a rep­u­ta­tion for in­tegrity who be­came deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral in April. Within a cou­ple of weeks Rosen­stein found him­self in a meet­ing with Trump and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions (who had sup­pos­edly re­cused him­self from any deal­ings on the cam­paign and the Rus­sia mat­ter) to write a memo ex­press­ing his own strong neg­a­tive views of how Comey had han­dled Hil­lary Clin­ton’s e-mail case. The choices be­fore Rosen­stein were to write the re­port, know­ing that Comey was go­ing to be fired any­way, or refuse to and re­sign or be fired. Then what use could he be? Trump had re­port­edly thought that Democrats, still un­happy over Clin­ton’s loss, would be pleased with his fir­ing of Comey if his ra­tio­nale was Comey’s han­dling of her case. But that made no sense; the tim­ing was in­ex­pli­ca­ble; Democrats were in­cred­u­lous that Trump was now sud­denly sym­pa­thetic to Clin­ton. While Trump was within his le­gal rights to fire Comey, his do­ing so risked politi­ciz­ing the FBI and set a ter­ri­ble prece­dent.

Now Rosen­stein was the scape­goat. But de­spite nu­mer­ous Democrats’ harsh con­dem­na­tion of it, Rosen­stein’s memo reads as if it had been writ­ten by any num­ber of the Democrats or ex­pe­ri­enced pros­e­cu­tors ap­palled by Comey’s be­hav­ior in the Clin­ton case. The memo set forth views widely ex­pressed at the time that Comey had made a num­ber of pros­e­cu­to­rial mis­judg­ments. These in­cluded his tough pub­lic com­ments about Clin­ton’s han­dling of clas­si­fied ma­te­rial even though he said there weren’t grounds for prose­cut­ing her—this isn’t done—and his let­ter to Repub­li­can com­mit­tee chair­men, which he had to know would be made pub­lic, eleven days be­fore the elec­tion, say­ing that the in­quiry into her han­dling of clas­si­fied e-mails was be­ing re­opened, break­ing a long-stand­ing rule that pros­e­cu­tors don’t com­ment on the sta­tus of con­tin­u­ing cases.

Comey’s prob­lem was that in try­ing to pro­tect his rep­u­ta­tion he kept do­ing things that fur­ther dam­aged it. In his tes­ti­mony be­fore the Se­nate Judiciary Com­mit­tee on May 3 he spoke melo­dra­mat­i­cally of his an­guish in hav­ing to de­cide be­tween two choices: to “speak” or to “con­ceal.” But many ob­servers be­lieved that he had a third choice: qui­etly to get a war­rant and check out some of the e-mails that had trav­eled from Clin­ton’s lap­top to her close aide Huma Abe­din’s to that of Abe­din’s then-hus­band An­thony Weiner be­fore re­open­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, much less an­nounc­ing one and per­haps af­fect the out­come of the elec­tion. Comey’s tes­ti­mony also an­gered Democrats by wildly ex­ag­ger­at­ing the num­ber of Clin­ton’s e-mails that had landed on Weiner’s lap­top—“hun­dreds and thou­sands,” he said, when ac­tu­ally there had been just a hand­ful. Comey’s com­ment that the thought that his ac­tions may have af­fected the elec­tion made him “mildly nau­seous” en­raged Trump. Trump sum­moned Ses­sions and Rosen­stein and de­manded the re­port on Comey. Rosen­stein was at the least naive if he didn’t un­der­stand that his re­port would be used as the ra­tio­nale for the fir­ing, but when that en­sued, draw­ing in­tense crit­i­cism of him, he in­di­cated he might quit. That Trump changed his story two days later, now say­ing that when he fired Comey he was think­ing about “this Rus­sia thing,” showed how ex­as­per­at­ing and even dam­ag­ing it could be to work for him. Every­one who hewed to the White House line that the fir­ing had been based on Rosen­stein’s memo, in­clud­ing Pence, was now em­bar­rassed and lost cred­i­bil­ity with the press and the pub­lic. And then Rosen­stein was the hero again when just over a week later he ap­pointed Mueller as spe­cial coun­sel.

The sur­vival of Trump’s pres­i­dency may de­pend most of all on con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans. Un­less the Democrats take both cham­bers in the midterms, the Repub­li­cans will de­cide his fate. At what point might their pa­tience with Trump be ex­hausted? How will they re­spond if high pres­i­den­tial as­so­ciates or even the pres­i­dent him­self are in­dicted and he chooses to fight it out rather than re­sign? Is it pos­si­ble that a Congress in which the Repub­li­cans con­trol both or even one cham­ber would con­sider im­peach­ing Trump? The im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings against Nixon were ac­cepted by the coun­try be­cause they were bi­par­ti­san and con­sid­ered fair. Too many dif­fer­ent un­knowns are in play to pre­dict the out­come of the midterms, though the re­spected Cook Re­port an­tic­i­pates sub­stan­tial Repub­li­can losses in the House. Repub­li­cans are start­ing to panic.

Their chal­lenge is how to over­come the twin blights of Trump’s chaotic gov­ern­ing and his lack of achieve­ments on Capi­tol Hill (the ex­cep­tion is the con­fir­ma­tion of the very con­ser­va­tive Neil Gor­such to the Supreme Court). Trump’s sole sub­stan­tive ac­com­plish­ment thus far is the House’s ap­proval of a health care over­haul that re­quired all but a few of them to vote to throw tens of mil­lions of peo­ple off of health in­sur­ance. (It was fol­lowed by a grand cel­e­bra­tion at the White House.)

The Repub­li­cans are in a bit of a spot: they don’t par­tic­u­larly like Trump and to them he’s an in­ter­loper. One rea­son many of them, es­pe­cially Ryan, al­lied them­selves with Trump was that they thought he would get their pro­grams, es­pe­cially tax cuts, through Congress, but prospects for ma­jor leg­is­la­tion are re­ced­ing. And there’s no rea­son to think that a Pres­i­dent Mike Pence wouldn’t back the same pro­grams.

The prob­lem with much of the pre­dict­ing about what will or might hap­pen in Wash­ing­ton is that it pro­ceeds from an as­sump­tion of sta­sis—as if things won’t hap­pen that could change the politi­cians’ cal­cu­la­tions. When it comes to how long Trump will re­main in of­fice, one pos­si­bil­ity of­ten dis­cussed is that things might get so bad for him that he de­cides to re­turn to his much eas­ier life in New York. But he in­sists that he’s not “a quit­ter.” (There’s also a ques­tion about the cor­pu­lent Trump’s health, but that’s not con­sid­ered a proper topic of con­ver­sa­tion.) Politi­cians are prag­ma­tists. Repub­li­can lead­ers urged Nixon to leave of­fice rather than have to vote on his im­peach­ment. Sim­i­larly, it’s pos­si­ble that when Trump be­comes too po­lit­i­cally ex­pen­sive for them, the cur­rent Repub­li­cans might be ready to dump him by one means or an­other. But the Repub­li­cans of to­day are quite dif­fer­ent from those in the early 1970s: there

are few mod­er­ates now and the party is the pris­oner of con­ser­va­tive forces that didn’t ex­ist in Nixon’s day.

Trump, like Nixon, de­pends on the strength of his core sup­port­ers, but un­like Nixon, he can also make use of so­cial me­dia, Fox News, and friendly talk shows to keep them loyal. Crack­ing Trump’s base could be a lot harder than watch­ing Nixon’s di­min­ish as he ap­peared in­creas­ingly like a cor­nered rat, per­spir­ing as he tried to talk his way out of trou­ble (“I am not a crook”) or fir­ing his most loyal aides as if that would fix the sit­u­a­tion. More­over, Trump is, for all his deep flaws, in some ways a can­nier politi­cian than Nixon; he knows how to lie to his peo­ple to keep them be­hind him.

The crit­i­cal ques­tion is: When, or will, Trump’s vot­ers re­al­ize that he isn’t de­liv­er­ing on his prom­ises, that his health care and tax pro­pos­als will help the wealthy at their ex­pense, that he isn’t pro­duc­ing the jobs he claims? His pro­posed bud­get would slash nu­mer­ous do­mes­tic pro­grams, such as food stamps, that his sup­port­ers have re­lied on heav­ily. (One won­ders if he’s aware of this part of his con­stituency.)

Peo­ple can have a hard time rec­og­niz­ing that they’ve been conned. And Trump is skilled at flim­flam, cre­at­ing il­lu­sions. But how long can he keep blam­ing his fail­ures to de­liver on others—Democrats, the “dis­hon­est me­dia,” the Wash­ing­ton “swamp”? None of this is know­able yet. What is know­able is that an in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated Don­ald Trump’s hold on the pres­i­dency is be­gin­ning to slip.

—May 25, 2017

Don­ald Trump

Mike Flynn

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