There are times, and this is one of them, where the world seems quite simply back to front. During his annual phone-in marathon on Thursday, Russia’s President was asked about US moves to impose more sanctions on Russia. After insisting that Russia had not done anything to warrant new sanctions (true), Vladimir Putin said that it was all part of a power struggle in Washington.
And he was right there, too. What is going on in Washington is the sort of power struggle that Russians, and their leaders down the years, know all too much about. They know how they start – with rumour and innuendo; they know how they continue – with purges and trials; and they know how they end – pretty ruthlessly, as someone has to win. This is what we are watching in Washington – or rather, for the most part, not watching, because, in this supposed paragon of an open society, so much of the real fighting is happening behind closed doors.
The latest salvo was fired with the revelation that Donald Trump is under FBI investigation for possible obstruction of justice. How did we learn about something even the President himself did not know? The same way we have discovered almost everything of significance in this battle between the Washington establishment and Donald Trump – by a leak to the US media, in this case, the Washington Post.
The news – which had the rest of the US media joyously scrambling to catch up – prompted a new bout of speculation about the law, the constitution and parallels with the downfall of Richard Nixon. Was it possible for a sitting President to be prosecuted? At what point could impeachment proceedings begin? Wasn’t it always the cover-up, never the crime? Corporate sponsors might have had second thoughts about a production depicting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump, his enemies in the “nation’s capital” have few such qualms. They are out to get him, and they may yet succeed.
Before they do, though, it is worth setting out a few facts. Donald Trump is an elected President. You may or may not like the electoral college system that allows someone to lose the popular vote, but still win. But that is what the rules say, and there is no suggestion – indeed there have been multiple denials – that there was any interference with the count. Nor was it a victory bought by money; this was a rare election where the candidate with the fattest war-chest failed to win.
Donald Trump is detested by large parts of the American establishment, including much of the press, which regards him with undisguised contempt. (Think Jeremy Corbyn.) His enemies include many within the Republican Party, whose candidate he was and whose nomination he won fair and square. They would love to be rid of him (think Jeremy Corbyn again), but that is easier said than done.
If there was one policy that infuriated the elite, it was his professed hope of improving relations with Russia. It was also one of the few policies he stuck to from beginning to end of the campaign. It is not clear to me whether Trump’s enemies really believe that his Russia policy is a risk to US national security and so disqualifies him from the highest office, or whether Russia – because it can still inspire such fear in American minds – is being used as an emotive stick to beat him with (rather as “Putin-wants-Brexit” was used by the Remain campaign in last year’s UK referendum).
But an undoubted achievement of the anti-Trump crusaders has been not just to have blurred this distinction, but to have pursued the campaign slanging match over Russia into the actual Trump presidency. In the space of five months, they have claimed the scalp of the National Security adviser, Mike Flynn; gained currency for the idea that the president was elected with the aid of a hostile power, and secured a formal FBI investigation to prove it.
Washington may be in full cry, but the actual evidence against Trump remains highly dubious. Russians – associated with the Kremlin or not – may or may not have hacked the Democratic National Committee computer, but so, I suspect, did many others. There is no reason to believe that Russia backed Trump – or even believed he could win. Who did? The supposedly conclusive report compiled by a number (not all 17) US intelligence services is pathetically thin, ditto the “dodgy dossier” compiled (to order) by the British ex-spook, Chris Steele.
Trump sometimes evinces bafflement as to how it now seems completely accepted in Washington that he is in league with Putin. I share his bafflement. The difficulty for him is that it is almost impossible to prove the negative, and the Washington coalition ranged against him is powerful, not least because a Watergate-driven press dreams of reliving its glory days.
At the Senate hearing last week (part of its Russia investigation), the ex-head of the FBI, James Comey, was asked direct questions about alleged Russian hacking and interference. He answered each with a confident “Yes”. He suggested further that Trump wanted him to end the FBI investigation into Mike Flynn; that his own dismissal could have been connected with the FBI’s wider probing of Russia ties, and that Trump had been desperate to know whether he was under FBI investigation, too.
All this was bad for a President in a country with strict constitutional separation of powers, but not yet fatal. And in one crucial respect, Trump emerged unscathed. Comey said that in his view Trump’s intervention such as it was concerned only the Flynn investigation, not the wider Russia inquiry.
This, however, did not stop parts of the US media relaying leaks to the contrary. Which is where we are now, with the disclosure that Trump is indeed under FBI investigation, even if he wasn’t before. But, of course, the accusations now having nothing directly to do with anything Russia might have done, but with suggestions that the President tried to stop one or more investigations. The “cover-up”, in other words, not the “crime”.
Where does this leave things? Trump is furious that he has become a subject of Mueller’s investigation, because this is bound to weaken his beleaguered presidency further. He is also furious – again rightly – that the information was leaked. He may be additionally aggrieved, given the lack of evidence that he did anything at all to frustrate Mueller’s Russia inquiry. Any indications point the other way: that Trump saw the widely-trusted Mueller as a source of possible salvation, and wanted him to work a bit faster.
Trump’s obvious fury and sense of injustice make these dangerous days for an impetuous president. The mood of Washington, so entrenched in its belief in Russian guilt, only makes things worse. It would be a foolhardy prophet who foretold that this presidency will end well.
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