When the na­tion is caught in a vise

Amer­i­can politics has moved into a dan­ger­ous realm with­out prece­dent

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Robert W. Merry

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.

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