The Rus­sian-roulette Pres­i­dency

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - El­iz­a­beth Drew

Un­less US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­cides that he has had enough, and re­turns to his gilded Man­hat­tan tower, his pres­i­dency’s metas­ta­siz­ing cri­sis will con­tinue to haunt him. In­ves­ti­ga­tions in the United States Se­nate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives are un­der­way, and the most se­ri­ous in­quiry is be­ing con­ducted by a spe­cial coun­sel, Robert Mueller, who is hir­ing a fear­some team of spe­cial­ists in crim­i­nal law.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors are look­ing into what Rus­sia did to try to tip the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Trump’s fa­vor, and whether Trump’s cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sian of­fi­cials in that ef­fort. The con­gres­sional in­quiries are also sup­posed to rec­om­mend ways to pre­vent for­eign pow­ers from in­ter­fer­ing in fu­ture elec­tions, es­pe­cially af­ter re­cent re­ports sug­gest­ing that Rus­sia’s med­dling was even more am­bi­tious than was pre­vi­ously known.

In a sign of where the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion may be headed, Mueller, a former FBI di­rec­tor known for his thor­ough­ness, re­cently hired a spe­cial­ist in fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct. US banks will not lend to Trump, owing to his pri­vate com­pany’s long his­tory of not re­pay­ing debts, in­clud­ing those from an ill-fated plunge into At­lantic City casi­nos in the 1990s. So he’s had to find other sources of fi­nanc­ing. His most re­cent lender, Deutsche Bank, was charged ear­lier this year for laun­der­ing money on be­half of Rus­sian en­ti­ties.

Trump’s jumpi­ness when­ever the Rus­sia ques­tion comes up has only added to sus­pi­cions that he may have some­thing to hide. It has also led him to make a se­ries of mis­takes. For ex­am­ple, in what was ap­par­ently a rare in­stance of truth telling, Trump re­vealed to NBC News’ Lester Holt that he had fired FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey be­cause of “this Rus­sia thing.” With that sin­gle state­ment, he gave the lie to the of­fi­cial story re­cited by Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and var­i­ous White House aides: that Comey had been fired for mis­han­dling the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s use of a pri­vate email server.

This is far from the only time Trump has un­der­mined his own peo­ple. He is ac­cus­tomed to run­ning his own busi­ness, and is obliv­i­ous to the rules of Wash­ing­ton. He of­ten gets him­self in trou­ble through ill-ad­vised tweets, but so far no one has been able to per­suade him to tone down his use of so­cial me­dia.

By fir­ing Comey, Trump landed him­self in even more se­ri­ous trou­ble. The dis­missal not only led to the hir­ing of a spe­cial coun­sel with the power to in­ves­ti­gate crimes re­lated to the 2016 elec­tion, but also could con­trib­ute to a charge of ob­struc­tion of jus­tice against Trump.

An ob­struc­tion charge could be re­in­forced by Comey’s al­le­ga­tions that Trump had said pri­vately that he “hoped” the FBI would stop in­ves­ti­gat­ing Trump’s former na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn. When Comey balked, Trump re­port­edly asked the heads of two other in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to an­nounce pub­licly that there had been no col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and Rus­sia, a move that could pro­vide fur­ther le­gal grounds to charge Trump with en­gag­ing in a pat­tern of ob­struc­tion.

More re­cently, a Trump con­fi­dante told an in­ter­viewer that Trump was con­sid­er­ing fir­ing Mueller as well. Tech­ni­cally, that de­ci­sion must come from Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, who has said that he sees no cause for fir­ing Mueller. If Trump were to force the is­sue, per­haps fir­ing both Rosen­stein and Mueller, the en­su­ing po­lit­i­cal erup­tion would make the out­cry at Comey’s fir­ing seem like a small squeak by com­par­i­son.

Rosen­stein has ju­ris­dic­tion over Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, the first Repub­li­can se­na­tor to en­dorse Trump in the 2016 cam­paign, has re­cused him­self from mat­ters re­lated to the cam­paign and Rus­sia. Ses­sions is one of sev­eral Trump ad­vis­ers who for­got that they met with Rus­sian of­fi­cials dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign or post-elec­tion tran­si­tion.

An­other for­get­ful ad­viser is Trump’s son-in­law, Jared Kush­ner, who failed to dis­close meet­ings with key Rus­sians on his se­cu­rity-clear­ance form. Kush­ner has a pre­pos­ter­ous port­fo­lio of as­sign­ments, and is clearly in over his head. Hav­ing been named a “per­son of in­ter­est” in the FBI’S Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Kush­ner’s grow­ing prob­lems could even­tu­ally spill over to af­fect his fa­ther-in-law.

While run­ning his own fa­ther’s real-es­tate busi­ness, Kush­ner over­paid for a prime property in New York City (666 Fifth Av­enue), and has been try­ing to raise cash to pay off the ex­ist­ing debt on it. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are now at­tempt­ing to de­ter­mine whether this was why he met in De­cem­ber (dur­ing the tran­si­tion) with Sergey Gorkov – the head of Rus­sia’s Vneshe­conom­bank and a close ally of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

A spe­cial coun­sel can in­ves­ti­gate only crimes that are on the books. But there are other acts that could amount to im­peach­able of­fenses – as de­scribed by Amer­ica’s founders – such as trea­son, bribery, “and other high crimes and mis­de­meanors,” with the term “high crimes” hav­ing been taken to mean some­thing be­yond the items in the crim­i­nal code.

In the case of former Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, the most sig­nif­i­cant ar­ti­cle of im­peach­ment adopted by the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee stip­u­lated that the pres­i­dent could be held ac­count­able for his sub­or­di­nates’ ac­tions. So, even if Trump’s fin­ger­prints are not found on the mat­ters the spe­cial coun­sel is in­ves­ti­gat­ing, he could still be found re­spon­si­ble for a pat­tern of mis­deeds com­mit­ted by his as­so­ciates.

It’s widely con­sid­ered very un­likely that the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress – or even the Congress fol­low­ing the 2018 midterm elec­tions, in which the Democrats could re­take the House – would move to im­peach Trump. De­spite the sense that Repub­li­cans would try to oust him be­fore his four years are up, if they feel that he is caus­ing them too much po­lit­i­cal trou­ble, they have shown no such in­cli­na­tion so far.

Trump could also be re­moved from power by a com­pli­cated process, spelled out in the 25th Amend­ment to the US Con­sti­tu­tion, in which he’s deemed unfit to serve. But that process has never been used, and it’s not clear how well it would work. None­the­less, it has come up among elected politi­cians wor­ried about Trump’s fit­ness. As for Trump him­self, his gilded tower in Man­hat­tan will al­ways be beck­on­ing him.

El­iz­a­beth Drew is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The New York Re­view of Books and au­thor.

el­iz­a­beth Drew

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