Where will it all end? Like a contestant on his own TV show, The Apprentice, Donald Trump faces a daunting challenge over the next few months to cling on to office and survive the gravest of charges that, it now seems inevitable, will lead to some sort of impeachment process, or at least the threat of it.
It will be a titanic struggle the like of which America and the world has rarely witnessed. If nothing else, we have to concede, Trump has been good business for us in the media, driving web traffic, social media hits, TV viewing figures and newspaper and magazine sales.
The next chapter in the Trump story will be more enthralling still, it appears. But is all this excitement good for his people, or good for the world as a whole?
Much will depend on how he responds over the next year. Here’s how it could all pan out.
The threat of impeachment
Some sort of proceedings now look inevitable, with the devastating announcement of the appointment of a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller. The next few months will see Trump publicly embarrassed, starting with the evidence that will be given by the FBI boss he fired, James Comey, supposedly after having attempted to persuade him to obstruct justice and abandon his investigations into links between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And then threatening Comey, on Twitter no less, with (possibly non-existent) recordings of their conversations.
Mr Mueller was given the job by the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, because the Attorney General himself, the Forrest Gump-like Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself because he is compromised by his own contact with the Russians during Trump’s run for office last year.
Sooner rather than later, Comey will tell curious members of Congress and the special prosecutor precisely what passed between him and Trump on the subject of the Russians. It won’t be nice.
And once Mueller gets going, who knows where he’ll end up? With his extensive business interests, Trump may need to show that these too have not influenced him as a candidate, and that he maintained proper distance between himself and his relations, notably his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Sessions, Vice-President Mike Pence and General Mike Flynn would face more questions. So might those closest to Trump, such as friends and family members. More resignations and scandals could follow. The tide could rise closer and closer to the Oval Office.
All of this would demonstrate the power of the “permanent government”, the checks and balances built into the American system by independent or semi-independent agencies, bureaucratic norms, public accountability, the attentions of the media (especially the Washington Post, an odd echo of Watergate), and judicial and legislative oversight.
Against that may be placed The Donald – and he is a man not to be underestimated.
His first tactical weapon of choice is the tweet. Every time Comey says something that Trump disagrees with – and that will be frequently - he will be straight out of the trap on social media, denouncing it as “fake news”, flatly denying the FBI boss’s version of events (“his word against mine”) and throwing all manner of chaff around to confuse anyone still inclined to follow the labyrinthine twists and turns of the story.
That very complexity may also serve Trump well if the story becomes more about process than politics and begins to look like an “inside the beltway” obsession, of little interest to the people in West Virginia or Alabama who want Trump to get on with the job he was elected to do and for congressmen and bureaucrats to just get out of the way.
In other words, Trump, by going off every weekend to some vast rally of supporters, will remind his persecutors and prosecutors that he has that most valuable of assets – the faith and confidence of the American people. Abraham Lincoln put it best: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. He who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or decisions possible or impossible to execute”.
Second, he can use the prerogatives of the presidency to distract and trivialise the allegations he faces. One dramatic move, I’d say, would be a visit to North Korea. The appearance of Donald Trump with Melania, Ivanka and the rest lined up alongside Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang would certainly stop the traffic.
The biggest ever display of synchronised dancing in front of the globe’s two largest most volatile egos would be the greatest show on earth. It would make Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 look like a photo-op at a mid-west school. I suspect neither Kim nor Trump, each facing troubles of very different kinds at home and hungering for attention, could resist the temptation. It would certainly make Mueller look very small indeed.
Third, Trump can simply deploy the established Trump defence: “Sure, it’s true. So what?” In other words, he can quite easily say that asking the FBI Director to go easy on the Russian thing was a routine bit of business that all Americans will recognise from their daily lives.
To get all prissy about it is to be naïve about what really happens in the corridors of power, and every president has these sorts of conversations with the people who run their agencies every day, he will suggest. Indeed, in the good old days of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, it was the FBI guy who abused his position to subtly blackmail presidents whenever they tried to curb his power or get him to retire.
Politics, like business, can be a rough old game; surely, Mr Trump will ask, folk get that?
Last November America elected a man who set out to be an unconventional leader, a man they voted for to get things done and “make America great again”. Like others before him – such as liberal hero Franklin Roosevelt’s struggles with the Supreme Court in the 1930s, which he ended up “packing” and undermining – Trump has to cut though some of the niceties to get on with the job of saving the United States from industrial decline at home and threats abroad.
Who cares what he said to Comey, because Comey didn’t have to take any notice anyhow? OK, he sacked him – but he has every right to do so.
Timing is also on Trump’s side. To see him impeached, a motion would have to gain approval from a majority in the House of Representatives, and conviction would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate. It is a deliberately difficult process to remove America’s head of state and there are plenty of ways to frustrate and delay it for many years.
Meantime, the Congressional mid-term elections will take place in November 2018. Politicians will be looking carefully at how public opinion is treating “Trumpgate” or whatever they’ll call it. Chances are the voters won’t care much if President Trump has brought the jobs back home, kept the stock markets happy and their savings safe, crushed Isis, and built his promised wall on the Mexican border.
Never forget that Bill Clinton, loathed as he was by the political establishment and in the end duly impeached after the relentless pursuit of the truth by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, was acquitted because he enjoyed the support of his party in Congress. What’s more, Clinton would have won a third term easily in 2000 had the Constitution permitted it, just as Reagan would in 1988 even after the scandalous Iran-contra affair.
Like Lincoln, and I daresay Trump, Clinton understood that with the public behind you in a free democracy there is a lot you can get away with. Yet Trump cannot automatically assume he will always have that backing.
If the economy is a mess, and America is no more secure against its foes and the terrorists than it is today – both perfectly plausible outcomes – then Trump will be in much more trouble. A relatively narrow issue about a past campaign will turn into a broader one on his presidency and the “betrayed” hopes of all those who turned to him last year.
Ill health could be real, or a convenient, excuse. It may be in poor taste but it is impossible to look at Trump and not think about life insurance, though he hardly needs the financial security. He looks like the fattest president since William Howard Taft a century ago (he weighed in at 27 stones/172kg, and once had to be rescued from the presidential bathtub, so obese had be grown). Trump says he weighs 236 pounds (17 stones/107kg).
He is, let us not forget, the oldest man ever to take office in the US and will be 71 in June. He seems vigorous enough, but we occasionally catch a glimpse of a strikingly plump Trump rump and he does seem a bit chunky all round.
The doctor’s certificate issued during his campaign was famously dashed off in five minutes, but still recorded remarkably low blood pressure (110/65), and declared: “His strength and physical stamina are extraordinary… Laboratory test results are astonishingly excellent.” According to his physician, who cannot actually be in a position to know, Trump is the healthiest individual ever to enter the White House.
Even so, age is a factor; Trump does not drink or smoke, but with the stress of high office, keeping himself in “astonishingly excellent” form may be difficult. His tweets and interviews reveal a man all too easy to wind up, and his tormenters are tireless in their efforts to do so.
So how does he unwind? A bit of golf, but he likes his food too, and his favourite treats may lead to mood swings: bacon and eggs, overdone steaks, KFC buckets, McDonald’s meal deals, meatloaf and Doritos do not make for a balanced diet, or balanced judgements. President George HW Bush famously enjoyed being president because it meant nobody could force him to eat broccoli.
At some stage, perhaps, Trump’s physical or mental health may become so poor that he himself decides to quit on health grounds, or is made to do so under pressure from his advisers and family – or, in extremis, under the constitutional provision to appoint an acting president in such circumstances.
Of course, a number of presidents in recent decades have lived well into their nineties. Power may not be the ultimate aphrodisiac, as Henry Kissinger once said, but it could well be a tonic for an ego that craves it and the prestige it carries with it.
So the presidency isn’t an automatic hospital pass, literally or metaphorically.
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