When the nation is caught in a vise
American politics has moved into a dangerous realm without precedent
Let’s stipulate, for purposes of analysis, that presidential candidate Donald Trump did indeed collude with Russia in an effort to influence the electoral outcome to the benefit of himself and that foreign power. If so, he is trapped, caught in an investigative net that will tighten until he is exposed and brought down. It will be wrenching for the nation but probably won’t cause lasting civic damage. We will have elected a bad president and will have taken necessary steps, upon exposure, to rectify it.
Now let’s suppose, again for purposes of analysis, that there was no collusion. What are we then to make of a situation in which the mere suspicion of collusion, based on nothing more than political name-calling, sets in motion allegations, suppositions, and ultimately an unbridled investigation that likely will ensnare this president — as it would just about any president.
In that event, the nation is headed toward a constitutional crisis of far greater magnitude. If stealthy maneuvering, selected leaks, media firestorms, manufactured outrage, and Javert-like prosecutorial zeal can bring down a president based on revelations having nothing to do with the initial allegations, then American politics has moved into a new and dangerous realm — dangerous for any president and dangerous for the republic.
Such precedents have a way of eroding past practices that gave stability to the nation’s politics. Consider the response of Richard Nixon, hardly a man of the highest character, to allegations that the 1960 Electoral College vote in Illinois was stolen from him and awarded illegitimately to John Kennedy.
Nixon declined to pursue it. But did Kennedy collude? Should there have been an independent counsel to place the matter — and anything else even remotely related — under a prosecutorial microscope? If that had happened, could the Kennedys, with their now-famous corner-cutting ruthlessness, have weathered that storm? Would endless subpoena power, brought to bear on what the family did to win the 1960 West Virginia primary, have exposed something impeachable?
And what about Lyndon Johnson? He was a crook whose crookedness was under serious investigation at the moment of his presidential elevation. Rather than double down on the investigation — very close to nabbing the guy, according to Robert Caro’s latest LBJ book — investigators stepped away in what they considered the national interest. Having had a president assassinated, they wondered, should the nation really go through the agony of putting a sitting president in the dock?
Certainly Franklin Roosevelt never deserved to be hounded by any independent counsel, right? Not exactly. FDR almost surely violated the U.S. Neutrality Act in 1940 by making destroyers available to Britain in exchange for property in Canada and the West Indies for U.S. naval bases. Roosevelt negotiated the deal in secret, without congressional authority.
When it was discovered, he brushed it aside blithely as a “fait accompli.” He added defiantly, “It is all over; it is all done.’’ Michigan’s Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg called the deal “the most arbitrary and dictatorial action ever taken by any president in the history of the United States.’’ And yet the word “impeachment’’ never passed Vandenburg’s lips or the lips of any other responsible politician, though it was probably an impeachable offence. Such transgressions were considered political matters, to be dealt with in the political arena.
This is not to argue that, in the case of Mr. Trump, there was collusion or wasn’t collusion. But the investigation of possible meddling in last year’s presidential election has been in progress for nearly a year, and nothing of substance has yet emerged — at least not publicly — in a climate that has spawned a steady flow of anti-Trump leaks from people involved in or knowledgeable about the multiple investigations. The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel calls it a “so-far scant case against Mr. Trump.”
So it is. And yet he finds himself in what conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan calls “a kill box from which there may be no bloodless exit.’’
It’s easy to make the case that Trump is handling the situation horribly. He lashes out wildly, lacerating his most trusted allies. He demonstrates his congenital selfabsorption and lack of strategic or tactical dexterity. He presents himself at his famous worst even more than normal.
But, if we place ourselves in the no-collusion scenario, it’s difficult to envision precisely how a more measured and controlled president would or should handle it.
More significant is the question of how the Trump constituency will handle it in the event of an impeachment crisis unrelated to the initial suspicion of collusion. It’s far from a majority, but the president enjoys the solid and apparently unwavering support of about a third of the country.
These are people who think the nation’s elites — government bureaucrats, think tanks, the media, the popular culture, university thought enforcers — have sought to ace them out of the political arena. They looked to Mr. Trump to take on the elites, restore their political standing, and protect their interests.
It isn’t difficult to see the narrative that would emerge among these people if the elites manage to keep events moving along the current trajectory through stealthy actions in Washington. The polarization besetting the nation will likely intensify. The juices of frustration, animosity, and rancor will flow with greater force than ever. The day of restorative politics will seem ever more distant.
But how does a nation caught in such a vise turn back from such an ominous course?
It’s easy to make the case that Trump is handling the situation horribly. He lashes out wildly, lacerating his most trusted allies.
Robert W. Merry, editor of The American Conservative, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century,” is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.