Wait until 2018
It seems quite possible that Donald Trump will not survive his full term, writes Peter Manson. But don’t expect any formal moves towards impeachment just yet
Donald Trump: $110 billion in weapons
The possibility that Donald Trump will eventually be impeached has greatly increased over the last couple of weeks - not least since the president fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, on May 5.
The reason why this caused such a furore, of course, was that the FBI under Comey had been investigating whether Trump’s aides had been colluding with Moscow in the run-up to his election - a US intelligence assessment had expressed “high confidence” that Russian president Vladimir Putin had personally ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances, using disinformation, data theft and leaks. A Senate inquiry is also currently underway into whether the Trump campaign was linked to this Russian ‘meddling’ in the election and, in fact, Comey had been due to testify before it. Just before his dismissal he had been seeking more funds specifically for the FBI investigation into the Trump-Russia link.
The idea that a sitting president should act in a way calculated to hamper an official investigation into his own alleged misdemeanours has been likened to the behaviour of Richard Nixon, who dismissed the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal in 1973 - Nixon, of course, jumped before he was pushed by resigning the following year.
The initial excuse given by the White House for Comey’s sacking was that he had mishandled an earlier FBI investigation - into the alleged leaking of official emails, some containing classified information, by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to her husband’s laptop when she was secretary of state. Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein issued a document listing Comey’s alleged shortcomings - most notably over his handling of the revelation concerning the Clinton investigation just before the presidential election.
The obvious response to that excuse is: ‘Why did it take so long for Trump to act?’ In fact the Republican candidate had praised Comey for his “guts” in reopening the investigation into the leaked emails back in October 2016. Trump had said, “I respect that very much”, and added: “What he did - he brought back his reputation”.
With accusations flying thick and fast, it is claimed that prior to Comey’s sacking Trump’s team had called on the attorney general to “come up with reasons” to give him the boot. But most of that team were apparently kept in the dark before the announcement of the dismissal, leaving them scrambling around for a persuasive explanation for the president’s action.
Trump and Comey had been at loggerheads for the past couple of months - particularly after the president accused Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in March - a claim publicly refuted by the FBI director. Then earlier this month, in giving evidence to the Senate judiciary committee, Comey said the thought that he may have influenced the outcome of the presidential election by announcing the fresh Clinton investigation made him feel “mildly nauseous”. Not that Trump took this personally, of course!
Trump himself is still fixated with something else which he said influenced the election result - something that allegedly gave Clinton almost three million votes more than he got (even though he won as a result of the electoral college system). Trump has claimed that between three and five million immigrants voted illegally in November: “They all voted for Hillary ... I don’t believe I got one [of their votes],” he said earlier this year. So now he has set up a commission on “election integrity” to investigate voter fraud by “illegals”!
It was only the second time in over a century that an FBI director has been fired - obviously there must be a very serious misdemeanour for that to happen. But the sacking of Comey followed the dismissal by Trump of his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, in February. Flynn had failed to disclose what he had been discussing with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak - another Russian connection! But it seems that previously Trump had asked Comey to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn. Apparently Flynn and Kislyak had discussed setting up a communications “back channel” between Trump and Putin that would bypass official security surveillance - no wonder the ‘intelligence community’ was outraged! And then, after firing Comey, the president allegedly told the Russians that the sacked FBI director had been “crazy - a real nut job”.
And, if that was not enough, Trump was then accused of sharing “highly sensitive intelligence” with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov when they met in the White House earlier this month. Apparently the president described details of Islamic State threats relating to the use of laptops on passenger aircraft - “more information ... than we have shared with our own allies”, according to unnamed US officials. Ironically the president’s indiscretion was revealed just days before his visit to Israel - the alleged source of the information about the possibility of explosions being triggered by laptops.
After days of pressure from the Democrats, another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, was appointed special prosecutor to investigate the alleged ties of Trump aides with Russian officials - Democrats are making hay by claiming that Comey’s dismissal is “part of a cover-up” and is evidence of the White House “brazenly interfering” in the Senate probe. Of course, the same Democrats had themselves called for Comey’s head when he announced a fresh probe into the leaked emails allegation in the run-up to the election. Meanwhile, Comey himself is due to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 28.
Biding their time
Of course, Trump complains that he is being treated “worse than any politician” has ever been (a slight exaggeration, one feels), being the victim of “the greatest witch-hunt in American history”. But his actions have caused widespread disquiet - including in the FBI itself, where, according to one official, Trump has “essentially declared war on a lot of people”, which means that there will now be “a concerted effort to respond” from within the establishment.
Clinton herself has been eager to position herself as the head of the campaign to oust the president, setting up a new grouping called Onward Together to “advance progressive values”. And anti-Trump campaigners are also focussing on the president’s personal deficiencies - such as his inability to keep his own staff and aides onside - it is claimed he cannot fill hundreds of vacancies in policymaking positions as a result.
However, right now it is very unlikely there will be any move to impeach the president - there is the small matter of the mid-term elections in November 2018. Republicans know that Trump’s current loss of support - down to 38%, according to a recent poll - is likely to impact adversely on their own re-election chances, so very few of them are openly criticising his actions (a bit like the attitude of rightwing Labour MPs in relation to Jeremy Corbyn in the run-up to the UK general election). The likes of republican senator John McCain - who says that the whole business has “reached a point where it’s of Watergate size and scale” - are in a minority. But many more could side with an enlarged Democrat opposition after 2018.
According to The Daily Telegraph defence editor Con Coughlin, there is now great concern over
... the signal Mr Trump’s brutal dispatch sends to the outside world - particularly those countries like Britain that look to the occupant of the White House to provide the western alliance with strong and effective leadership. In recent weeks Trump had started to fill the role: the bombing of Syria had dissuaded the Assad regime from carrying out further chemical weapon attacks, and his robust response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme may yet pay dividends.
Instead the White House looks weak and disorganised ... (May 11).
As for Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, he wrote of the dismissal of Comey:
If Trump thought this would kill the inquiry and the story, or perhaps even just derail it somewhat, he’s made the blunder of the decade. Whacking Comey has brought more critical attention to the Russia story than anything imaginable. It won’t stop the FBI investigation. And the confirmation hearings for a successor will become a nationally televised forum for collusion allegations, which up till now have remained a scandal in search of a crime (May 11).
No doubt Trump was very relieved to get away from it all, as he embarked upon his first foreign tour, beginning in Saudi Arabia and then Israel.
The speech delivered by Trump to the gathering of Muslim heads of state in Riyadh was, it seems, written by none other than Stephen Miller - the architect of Trump’s notorious Muslim ban! In his election campaign he insisted that Muslims were so dangerous that they had to be denied permission to enter the US. But in Saudi Arabia he declared that Islam was “one of the world’s great religions”.
He urged everyone, including the “magnificent” Saudis, to stand up for our ‘common values’ and work to defeat IS - let us not dwell on the fact that the main source of IS and other jihadi sponsorship has been precisely Saudi royals and businessmen.
But what clinches it for the likes of King Salman is that there is one policy area that Trump is sticking to since the election campaign - the continued stigmatisation of Iran, the Saudis’ main regional rival. All “nations of conscience” (like the US and Saudi Arabia) must “work together to isolate” Iran, urged Trump - a message he repeated on the next leg of his tour, in Israel. And Trump has made much of the financial benefits to the US - in the shape of a $110 billion arms deal, under which Riyadh will buy US-produced helicopters, warships and missile systems.
Well, at least his continued hostility to Tehran was welcomed by the rightwing press: “The new US president’s administration has appeared worryingly chaotic in some areas,” complained the Telegraph editorial. “Happily not in this” (May 23).
Unfortunately for him, however, it does not look very likely that such policy areas will be enough to save his skin in the long term. His disdain for political correctness, his impetuous behaviour and his total unreliability have together reinforced the notion that the president the establishment never wanted will eventually be shown the red card.