Two years after Donald Trump stunned the world by winning America’s presidential race, there appears to be no let-up in the controversy surrounding this most bombastic of all White House masters.
Last week saw Michael Cohen go on the record to say that the president directed the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal – and that he, Trump, knew the payments were wrong. When Trump suggested that Cohen only became a “rat” after the FBI broke into his office, many responded with the obvious point that “rats”, in mob lingo, tell the truth.
Meanwhile, having decided to replace John Kelly as his chief of staff, the president for a few days appeared to be facing the prospect that nobody else fancied the job – until eventually he shifted the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, into the role (at least for now). Immediately afterwards he was faced with another loss, as it was announced that interior secretary Ryan Zinke was to quit. Zinke himself had faced accusations of using his position for his own ends.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, having apparently cracked Michael Cohen – as he had previously cracked Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos – was reported by The Daily Beast to be preparing “phase two” of his inquiry into alleged ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian state (and possibly other foreign actors). Commentators have suggested that the speed with which Cohen was sentenced last week was indicative of Mueller being close to finalising a damning report.
Of course, Trump continues to excoriate Mueller’s inquiry as part of a conspiracy against his leadership – the investigation of a mere “hoax”; another “fake news” machine. Now though there are murmurings of a separate examination by federal investigators looking into the fundraising for Trump’s presidential inauguration. The president’s organising committee raised nearly twice as much as the previous record for inaugural fundraising.
One of the questions being examined is whether any donations came from foreign sources. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have all been mentioned in that breath – just as the former two and Israel are now said to be of interest to Robert Mueller. Time will tell whether there is any substance to such alleged connections; but already critics of the president are now examining his attitude towards Saudi Arabia in particular in a different light.
Until now, his backing for the present leadership in Riyadh – both in respect of the war in Yemen and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – had been set in the context of the Trump administration’s broader (anti-Iranian) view of Middle East affairs, and against the backdrop of domestic economic needs (ie big orders for US-made weapons). A suggestion that Trump is indebted to Saudi Arabia because of assistance given to his election campaign or that oh-so-famously-well-attended inauguration paints the relationship in a very different light.
To make matters trickier for the president, he already knows that the Republican-controlled Senate doesn’t have his back when it comes to US-Saudi relations. Its resolutions condemning Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder and calling for an end to US military support for Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen are diametrically opposed to White House policy. When the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives next year – and potentially back the Senate’s position – the president will come under even more pressure.
The response of the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs to the Senate vote on Khashoggi was to condemn it as having “contained blatant interferences in the kingdom’s internal affairs, undermining the kingdom’s regional and international role”. Given Trump’s seeming intention to stand by the Saudi crown prince – and to veto legislation that he regards as damaging to his Middle East policy – the reaction from Riyadh is hardly helpful. It simply serves to emphasise the fact that the president is more in tune with the leaders of foreign states than with his own lawmakers.
As to whether the circling wagons will make any difference to Trump’s policy-making or his braggadocious personal behaviour remains to be seen of course. After all, he has faced criticism from multiple quarters for the whole of his presidency and has yet to be derailed, with positive economic results at home enabling him to present his administration as a success.
Nevertheless, as investigators open new lines of inquiry, and as Trump’s hirings and firings become ever more shambolic, it is hard to conclude that 2019 will be any easier for the president than this year was – and it may be an awful lot worse.
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