Under pressure at home and abroad
Will Donald Trump survive his current difficulties? Only a fool would rule it out, argues Paul Demarty
It was one of the less likely headlines of 2017 - Donald Trump, the peacemaker, who would finally bring North Korea in from the cold, using his much-vaunted mastery of the deal.
When things look too good to be true, it is usually because they are. And so it proved at the final meeting between Trump and his counterpart - the hereditary autocrat, Kim Jong-Un - in Hanoi last week. The two sides disagree on exactly what was asked, and what was refused, but there is no doubt of the outcome - the historic deal did not happen, and we are back to talks between the various minions, underlings and cronies of the two men.
The problem seems to be not so much the possibility of striking a deal in principle. Both sides are willing to proclaim the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. This phrase is liable to get lost in translation - not only between said peninsula and the United States, but even between the two sides of the 38th parallel. For America and its allies in Seoul, it means: ‘North Korea must decommission its nuclear weapons and its nuclear facilities, and then - when we are satisfied that it is done - American weapons will be withdrawn from the south and the surrounding sea.’ In Pyongyang, it means more or less the exact opposite: only when there is no longer a direct threat to the North will disarmament be considered. The United States could, of course, simply accept Kim’s interpretation and make a deal on that basis; but such an outcome would be too obviously a climbdown, and neither the state department/intelligence gang that Obama used to call “the Blob” nor Trump’s ego could bear it.
So the contradiction proved insuperable. In the immediate wake of the failure of the talks, both sides seemed oddly sanguine about the whole thing. Trump stressed that there was still a good rapport between him and Kim - one of the more peculiar friendships of the early 21st century - but laid out fairly starkly his version of the talks, and their failure. The North Koreans - not usually shy to make aggressive statements, which they cannot possibly back up with action - were also cordial, even as they disagreed on exactly what the disagreements were.
Trouble at home
The tone shifted dramatically on the American side, however, as Trump’s attention was drawn necessarily back to the home front. From the insouciant “sometimes you just have to walk away” we were given in Hanoi, we shifted rapidly to the sort of frothy Dolchstosslegende gibberish to which we have become accustomed. For the Democrats had chosen that exact moment to call Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time fixer and soon-to-be jailbird, to testify before Congress.
It is, of course, plainly true that the timing was deliberate: Trump is merely lying when he suggests there is any evidence that it changed the outcome of the talks with Kim. It worked well enough; on February 27, Cohen spent 10 hours talking to the House Oversight Committee about his work for Trump over decades. The man who once said he would take a bullet for the president has turned on him with a vengeance. He called Trump a racist and a liar; he said that he was reimbursed for hush money he had paid to Trump’s various paramours; he refuted Trump’s claims to be ignorant of several meetings between his family and other cronies, and people close to the Russian state over the proposed Trump Tower in Moscow; of financial impropriety; and innumerable other sins. He concluded with a warning:
My loyalty to Mr Trump has cost me everything: my family’s happiness, friendships, my law licence, my company, my livelihood, my honour, my reputation and, soon, my freedom. And I will not sit back, say nothing and allow him to do the same to the country. Indeed, given my experience working for Mr Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today.
Cohen, a lawyer until his recent misfortunes, could tell you all you need to know about the reliability of a jailhouse snitch, and that should be borne in mind when evaluating his testimony. Certainly that was the line of attack used by Republicans on the committee, who questioned why they should believe a man convicted of perjury. That said, his most sensational claims tended to confirm press reports based on anonymous sources within special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s office; the surrounding details, like the offhand claim that Cohen might have put the heavies on Trump’s opponents over 500 times, serve to fill out a rather striking picture that anyone who knows anything about hustlers in New York real estate will recognise.
More ominously, perhaps, for Trump, the public hearing on February 27 was not the full extent of Cohen’s squealing. The day before and the day after, he spoke at similar length to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees respectively - in closed sessions. Again, the hucksterism inherent in Trump’s trade will have given Cohen plenty of material; all grist, ultimately, for Mueller’s mill.
Speaking of the special prosecutor, who has been fishing so productively for the last two years or so, we expect him to wrap up his investigation soon. So far as his findings go, things are a little more complicated. Mueller is obliged to send his report to the attorney general, who is to produce a summary for the consumption of congress. Typically such summaries omit unflattering material about people who have not been charged with crimes; however, Trump as president is not going to be charged. So the current attorney general, William Barr, is at liberty to omit any material about the president.
The question is whether he will. Barr is a hard-right lawyer, but a long-standing politician who owes his prominence as much to his earlier stint in the same job under George HW Bush as to Trump. He is politically sympathetic to Trump, but not his creature; and will look also to his own interests. If members of Congress are unsatisfied with the summary, they can subpoena the whole report, which House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff has already declared he is prepared to do; and if it turns out that Barr has been covering up sensational misdeeds, it will not look good for him. It is also worth remembering how leaky a boat the Trump administration is; someone may just FedEx the thing to the New York Times anyway.
Even if Trump is caught bang to rights, however, it may not finish him off. It is still necessary to impeach him - and, with a Republican majority in the Senate, enormously difficult to do so. We can expect these creatures to make a political calculation on the issue, rather than be blown over by vast evidence of fraud, mobsterism and collusion with foreign governments (the worst-case Mueller report). Trump is unpopular, to be sure, and has enjoyed a negative approval rating continuously since his inauguration; but he is not political kryptonite - indeed, for safe-seat Republicans, he is quite the opposite.
So the run-up to next year’s presidential election, then, is riven with uncertainty. Much depends on whether Trump can hold his base together - if so, he will certainly survive to fight the election, and it would be foolish to rule him out. For his aid, he has almost totally bewitched Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s infamous cable news network. Its figureheads are happy to promote the idea that Trump is a victim of a deep-state conspiracy, and it should be by no means assumed that the network’s loyal audience will accept at face value significant findings against him.
Cohen is not the only one to believe that Trump will simply refuse to accept defeat. He has also in his favour a generally strong economy with high employment figures; his other central promise than the Mexican border wall, remember, was jobs, which he can claim to have achieved. The wall’s failure, of course, can be blamed on the Democrats.
Which brings us to the matter of who is supposed to oppose him. The big news here is that Hillary Clinton has ruled herself out of the race - a truly miraculous feat of humility, for which we must all offer thanks to our deities of choice. The Washington rumour mill has been achurn with the idea of Hillary 2020 for months, presumably in aid of getting pollsters to measure her up against her opponents. Instead, her career in high office will serve future generations as a monument to failure - the most vanilla Wall Street/‘Blob’-loyal Democrat in living memory, who chose a moment of war-weariness and economic collapse for her first run in 2008, and the nadir of establishment respectability for her second in 2016.
The early running, instead, is being set by the left; for those of us who remember the lonely figure of Dennis Kucinich flying the flag for single-payer healthcare and peacenikkery in Democratic primaries dominated by ‘sensible’ types, it will be quite interesting to see several left candidates - even ‘socialist’ candidates - in the mix, and quite alarming for the sort of people who shilled for Hillary last time out. The way things are running now, the establishment Democrats are being pulled left - at least, those among those who hope to pick up a few primaries. (Bipartisanship is not so great if it is a matter of getting $2 billion for chauvinist ‘border security’ theatre into the budget rather than six.)
That is one consideration for them; but there is another. That is that Hillary lost because she was one of them, not because she was a woman, or merely personally unlikable. It was the fact that she was a Clinton in the cosmic sense - a dynast, a neoliberal, a technocrat hiding behind a wall of statistics and expert advisors. The silence of Democratic ‘moderates’ reflects that they have nothing more to say than she does. When they do pipe up, however, it is likely to be to shift right, and try to steal Trump’s chauvinist clothes. (Think of Bill Clinton’s decision to be seen to execute a mentally disabled man, Ricky Ray Rector, in order to distract the news agenda from his philandering, in 1992 - only on a much wider canvas.)
The Democratic primaries are going to be wide open - and ugly as war.