As the US president’s troubles deepen, he could drag the United States into a full-blown constitutional crisis
At the end of April, the Trump administration was struggling to defend its record over the traditional presidential benchmark of the first 100 days. Many commentators are now wondering whether the incumbent will still be in the White House in another 100 days. Trump’s administration is turning out to be even more shambolic than his worst critics feared. To be described as ‘Nixonian’ is about as bad as it gets for modern presidents; the shadow of the only presidential resignation still hangs over the White House. That was the label senior Republican John McCain has recently attached to the atmosphere developing around Trump and his team. For the American ruling class, any reminder on one of their greatest humiliations is unwelcome. Trump is currently unlikely to share the same fate as his predecessor from the 1970s but we should not underestimate the ruthlessness of the political elite if they feel their legitimacy is threatened by a rogue elephant like Trump.
The President’s current troubles began in early May when he sensationally fired FBI Director James Comey. The latter was apparently addressing new recruits at the Bureau when he was handed a note informing him of his surprise sacking. Ever the grandstanding egomaniac, Trump could not resist indulging in hyperbolic delivery in his note to Comey: you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.
The President’s initial explanation that this bolt from the blue was caused by a delayed reaction to Comey’s re-opening of the investigation of Hilary Clinton’s emails was scornfully dismissed by virtually everyone on Capitol Hill. Trump then resorted to referencing a feeble technicality that Comey had overstepped his remit by announcing the re-activation of the investigation without consulting the Justice Department. The suspicion of many of Trump’s enemies in the higher echelons of the political establishment is that Comey had to go because he was closing in on hard evidence of collusion between the president’s campaign team in 2016 and the Russians. Trump is also accused of trying to exert pressure on the direction of Comey’s investigation at a private meeting between the two men shortly before the sacking: I hope you can let this go. It is equally likely, however, the president’s notoriously short fuse was lit when Comey told a Senate hearing he now felt nauseous about re-opening the Clinton.
The Russian connection?
It is impossible at this point to assess whether these suggestions are substantive but there are a few aspects of the controversy that are worth considering. Firstly, the breathtaking hypocrisy of the American ruling class complaining about unethical interventions in electoral processes. William Blum, a radical historian of US foreign policy, has calculated Washington intervened on seventy occasions around the world between World War Two and the Iraq War in order to secure pliant regimes. This litany of shame can, of course, now be extended into this decade with recent duplicitous operations in Honduras and Venezuela. Democrat grandees complaining about dirty tricks in the White House also appear to have quickly forgotten how their party establishment blatantly interfered in the nomination process last year to ensure the defeat of Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign. On an even wider scale, of course, it was on Obama’s watch that Edward Snowden uncovered the massive surveillance operations the US state was carrying out on potentially every person on the planet.
Trouble at the top
The other aspect of Trump’s travails that might be in play is the hostility to his rapprochement with Moscow from within the foreign policy and national security establishment. As the world’s biggest military spender, the US requires one of its putative rivals to be demonised as a global threat. Trump’s tentative efforts on the campaign trail to downplay the Russian threat has set alarm bells ringing among the think-tank hawks and arms dealers who rely on the unwavering assertion of US military hegemony around the globe. John McCain, the Arizona Senator, who has raised the spectre of Nixon over the Trump administration, has been one of the most vociferous advocates of an interventionist foreign policy. The links between Trump and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, with Russian oligarchs are well documented and may have influenced both men to initially consider the financial benefits of a diplomatic re-set with Moscow.
In the few months after winning the November election, it appeared the Trump administration had consequently selected China as the principal rival to US military power. The longer the president and his inner circle are exposed to the advice of the Washington establishment, however, the more they will be coaxed back onto focusing on Russia as the traditional foe. The symbiotic nature of its economic relationship with China means the US elite is less enthusiastic about that state becoming a possible target of military conflict. Insider speculation indicates Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have become conduits for this revival of the anti-Russian mentality among the elite.
Shambles in the brambles
The Russophobes among the elite were even more startled the day after the Comey sacking when the president (with a spectacularly bad sense of timing) met with the Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. His political enemies were suspicious even before the incredible accusations that emerged shortly after. Trump was accused of inadvertently revealing to Lavrov classified details of US intelligence assets in the Middle East that are operational in the campaign against Isis. A senior US official told the Washington Post: “This is code-word information… [Trump] revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”
This alleged blunder was followed by another comedic episode in the increasingly shambolic nature of the administration. Press secretary Sean Spicer was spotted hiding in the White House foliage in a desperate attempt to avoid, for the umpteenth time, having to defend the indefensible. Next in line for public humiliation was Trump’s national security advisor, Michael McMaster. The latter strode confidently into a press briefing to announce there was no evidence the president had compromised US intelligence – only for Trump himself, hours later, to blatantly contradict McMaster and to unashamedly admit he had disclosed information with the Russians as he regarded them as allies. It is hardly surprising elements of the US elite are starting to look for ways to eject the incumbent from the White House.
The impeachment option has been mooted by a handful of Democrats in Congress but as the legislature is currently controlled by the Republicans it is unlikely the president’s own party will move against him for risk of blowback. Paul Ryan, the supine Speaker of the House, has given the president his backing up to this point. There has also been speculation that Mike Pence, the vice president, couldinvoke a clause in the 25thamendment that enables the cabinet to remove the president on the grounds he is not fit for office. Again, this seems currently unlikely as Pence so far has proved himself to be a mechanically loyal acolyte of Trump. If anything, the prospect of Pence carrying the nuclear codes is even more terrifying than Trump possessing them. The latter is clearly just an unprincipled opportunist, whereas Pence actually believes the evangelical nonsense he spouts about the end of the world and other assorted ramblings of the Christian right.
Trump’s response to this fiasco has somehow managed to raise even higher his bar of ludicrous hyperbole. He has reacted to the crisis like the overgrown spoilt brat he really is:
Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history . . . has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysers get in the way of your dreams.
He is seemingly unaware that four of his predecessors were assassinated. Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven years in prison were also apparently nothing compared to Trump’s travails.
Can Trump survive?
Without his approval, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the veracity of the claims Trump has being obstructing justice. Former FBI boss Robert Mueller has been selected for this task which will remind many of how Bill Clinton was pursued by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr in the twilight of his Presidency. If Trump does end up following the example of Nixon and dragging the US into a full-blown constitutional crisis, it will exacerbate the long-term crisis of legitimacy facing the world’s most powerful capitalist state. The accusation in the 1970s that the latter had authorised break-ins at the Democrats’ Watergate HQ brought to a climax an era of political tumult that had included the civil rights campaign, the Vietnam war protests and urban insurrections in many US cities. A similar scandal today would re-ignite a rising radicalisation of Americans that now incorporates Black Lives Matter, feminist marches against Trump’s misogyny and the glowing embers of the Sanders campaign. Even if the President manages to ride out this mess, the next election looks a long way off for him even to survive one term.