Will President Trump see out the year?
Whoever said that a week is a long time in politics may want to revise his line in light of Donald J Trump’s presidency, where so much high drama can happen in a matter of hours. Where so much happens yet so little is done. We see his administration lurch from scandal to crisis to twitter storm on a daily basis. His first two months have been a car crash, a hundred mile an hour car crash which leaves you breathless and convinced that things cannot possibly continue in this way for another 4 years.
I look at this presidency with an increasing conviction that Trump will not last the year. There are any number of things that could potentially bring him down, but this Teflon Don can brush most of these aside. So what could herald the early inauguration of President Pence?
It won’t be Trump’s unpopularity, although this will increasingly define his tenure. Although he still retains the support of a large, loyal and vocal base, it seems that more or less everyone else detests him. He is one of the most divisive, polarising leaders in recent memory. On one level, his appeal to the hardcore support will sustain him, but wider public opinion will weigh him down in two ways. Firstly, his acute narcissism causes him to overly focus on perceived slights in the media and he will take his eye off the ball in other areas. Might he have been able to achieve the repeal of the Affordable Care Act if he’d been concentrating on that instead of picking fights with the mainstream media?
And secondly he could lose the support of the Republican party. He is not of the party, which he hijacked to advance his political career, but this distance from the mainstream is part of his appeal. He is the non-politician a chunk of the electorate felt they needed to cut through the stagnation in government. He still needs the party though. He may have spent his first two weeks in office firing off executive orders, but he needs Congress to actually pass laws to get policies through.
Until now Trump has largely had the backing of the Republican majority in the House and Senate. With a few notable exceptions like John McCain, these career politicians are a pragmatic bunch and they looked to be sticking with Trump, no matter what he says or does. This is partly because this is a generational chance to push through their policy agenda with majorities in both houses and a Republican in the White House, but also because they fear Trump’s popularity. They already have an eye on the mid-term elections and the calculus so far has been that if they go against Trump they could well lose their seats. That could very easily and very soon turn 180 degrees.
It won’t be that Trump gets caught lying. He does this with such a scattergun regularity that it has de-sensitised us to the concept. He is almost indulged in his fantasies. That’s just Trump being Trump, right? His Press Secretary Sean Spicer gets the job of spinning out his lies in press conferences that have become unintentional comedy gold. Of course he isn’t the first politician to deceive us, but the size and frequency of his whoppers is ‘unpresidented’ (sic). This is the man who told us as fact that Obama was born outside the US, that climate change was a fallacy spread by the Chinese, that thousands of Muslims celebrated in the streets of New Jersey on 9/11, that 3 million people voted illegally in the election and most recently that President Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. Right now it would come as more of a shock if Trump was caught telling the truth.
And it won’t be the nepotism and the conflicts of interest. Well, at least not the publicly known conflicts of interest. He has appointed his daughter and son-in-law to key White House positions with barely a murmur of dissent. His has broken with precedent by not divesting himself of his business interests, simply passing day-to-day control to his two sons. He spends most weekends and hosts meetings at his Mar-A-Lago hotel in Florida, Members get to be extras in an international diplomatic soap opera, and their fees have doubled as a consequence.
Neither will it be his incompetence. President Obama described Trump as ‘uniquely unqualified to be president’, and President Trump is going all out to prove him right in this. He has blamed Democrats in the Senate for blocking appointments to his administration. But the truth is that the Senate gets to approve around 550 positions – Trump has put forward fewer than 50 nominees. Put simply he simply does not have the team in place with the knowledge and experience to help him achieve his policy goals. We see this in his inability to frame his immigration order (that definitely isn’t a Muslim ban) in any way that is acceptable to the courts. And most embarrassingly for him, his failure on Obama Care. The man who wrote Art of the Deal is showing a remarkable inability to get things done.
No, it will be Trump’s Russian connections that bring his term to a premature end. Much of this is the subject of an FBI investigation so is not yet in the public domain, but there is much we do know and much we can surmise. Trump has attacked China, Germany, the EU, NATO, the media, the judiciary, Saturday Night Live and Meryl Streep. But he won’t have word said against Vladimir Putin. Trump and his team hinted at rolling back on sanctions, and went so far as changing the Republican platform to tone down the language on Ukraine. It is clear that Putin stood to gain a lot from Trump. It is less clear what America would get in return.
All the President’s Men
One by one his campaign team have fallen by the wayside because of connections to Russia. Or more specifically being caught lying about their connections to Russia. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from Trump-Russia investigations after being caught lying to the Senate Judiciary Committee about two conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador, during the campaign. His conversations may have been completely innocent and innocuous, but then why the need to lie?
Roger Stone, part-time Trump adviser and full-time nutcase, has admitted to contact with Julian Assange and with Guccifer 2.0, the Russian hacker of the DNC in advance of the release of e-mails on Wikileaks. Then there is Carter Page, whose name Trump picked seemingly out of the air as a key foreign policy adviser. Page, a murky character with connections in Gazprom and Rosneft (Russia’s state gas and oil companies), is the most likely bagman in any collusion with Russia. He traveled to Russia often and met with Kislyak several times during the course of the campaign. Trump is quick to distance himself from any connection to these two now.
He is also keen to distance himself from Paul Manafort and one can see why. Manafort was political adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, the former President of Ukraine, who robbed his country of billions and was forced to flee to Russia after ordering the use of lethal force on peaceful protesters. Yanukovych had to depart so quickly that he left behind ledgers detailing off-the-books cash payments. These ranged from small amounts to be given to Titushky (thugs hired to beat up protesters) to larger amounts for political kickbacks. The ledger made record of 12 million dollars paid to Paul Manafort for services rendered. On the discovery of these payments, which Manafort denies, he withdrew from his position in Trump’s campaign team. It has recently come to light that Manafort also accepted 10 million dollars from Russian Oligarch and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska to ” influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government”.
In trying to distance the Trump campaign from Manafort, Sean Spicer described him as playing “a very limited role for a very limited length of time.” Manafort was Campaign Chairman.
It would be impossible for Trump to distance himself from General Michael Flynn though, the man he named his National Security Adviser.
Michael Flynn was an embittered former intelligence chief until brought back into the fold by Donald Trump. On the day that President Obama placed increased sanctions on Russia for their hacking of the US election, Flynn was on the phone to Ambassador Kislyak. The message was clear. Just hold tight and we’ll roll these back for you when we get into power. Of course that would have been completely illegal and inappropriate, by engaging in diplomacy without any authority and also by colluding with a foreign power. So Gen Flynn denied it. Then he found out he’d been caught on tape taking to Kislyak. So first he denied that they’d talked about sanctions, then he admitted they may have discussed them in general terms, then he resigned.
Later it transpired that when Gen Flynn was on the campaign stage leading chants of “Lock her up!” he was actually an unregistered foreign agent, in the employ of the Turkish government. This week it has been alleged that while working as an adviser to President Erdogan he discussed the illegal abduction of Fethullah Gulen from the US and return to Turkey where Gulen is suspected of coordinating a failed coup attempt. If we were to lock Hillary up for use of an insecure e-mail server, what should we do with Michael Flynn? I suspect he knows, and that is why there are strong rumours he has cut a deal with the FBI.
House of Cards
So what happens next? Events are unfolding at a rapid rate. Devin Nunes continues to compromise himself by being a very partisan head of a bi-partisan Congressional investigation. Manafort, Page and Stone have all requested hearings with Nunes’ investigation. I suspect that this is less of an urge to come clean and more of an attempt by the Trump team to control the narrative and put a lid on further investigation. I suspect they will fail in this. Even if the Congressional investigation is effectively shut down, there is still a Senate enquiry, and of course as was confirmed last week an FBI investigation. Not everyone will be easily fobbed off.
Flynn has gone quiet, fuelling the suspicion that he may have turned State’s evidence. Christopher Steele, the British security consultant whose dossier on Trump / Russia connections brought so much into the public domain, is also due to appear before the Congressional Committee in the next week. The drip-drip-drip of allegation is becoming a deluge.
There are some documents that could go a long way to settling all of this. Firstly, Trump’s tax returns, which he is very keen for us not to see. Of less interest to this issue is the actual amount he pays in tax. The crux is the source of his income and whether any of it has come directly or indirectly from Russia.
The second set of documents which would prove extremely enlightening would be anything connected to the sale of a 19.5% stake in Russian state oil giant Rosneft. It is not at all clear who this stake has actually been sold to. The Steele Dossier alleged that a stake in Rosneft was offered to Trump via Carter Page in return for dropping sanctions. It would be good for Trump to have the evidence to lay this allegation to rest.
And finally, the report of James Comey’s FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign team and the Russians, whenever it is completed. I suspect that Comey knows and will shortly confirm all he needs to put this matter to bed. Investigative journalists like Louise Mensch and John Schindler, who have sources in the intellegence community and who broke many aspects of this story, are convinced it is only a matter of time.
And when it all comes out, either Trump will be able to continue his car-wreck of a presidency without all of this background noise – or he will be impeached. And if the worst of the allegations are true he will be imprisoned.
Let’s hope for his sake that the baying choruses of “Lock her up!” that he led throughout his campaign do not come back to haunt him. He could expect little sympathy.