New York: Forty four years ago, on a warm summer night in August 1974, three men made a short trip from the US Congress building to the White House in Washington DC, they told then US president Richard Nixon the Watergate scandal enveloping him had gone too far and they were abandoning him. Nixon resigned the next day — it was 9 August 1974. Echoes from the politics of 70s are the loudest gong in today's American politics.
There is an obvious parallel and there isn’t. Trump’s short-circuiting of various investigations into his personal and business affairs that may have compromised America and Nixon’s disasters of his own making are the stuff of popular allegory but the Trump presidency has gone way beyond Watergate level already, say Nixon era prosecutors. Hush money payments to two women - to keep a potentially game-changer story from American voters in 2016 — is merely one piece of a rapidly expanding patchwork quilt of probes that has gone global.
Other bizarre details are steadily filling the paint-by-number puzzle that’s looking like a shoddily managed mob operation, with Trump's mob slang vocabulary to match. As 2018 comes to a close, talk of impeachment is at fever pitch and Trump’s survival, more than ever before, depends on fellow Republicans. His troubles are coming via the courts, his (and others’) politics will decide how this ends.
Results of the November 2018 midterm elections showed Trump remains more popular with Republican voters than others in the Republican Party which is why his party folks are wary of speaking out against him ahead of the 2020 elections and instead maintain a thin skinned veneer of unity. Trump's political pivot for the next election hasn't yet happened and by all accounts, his base is not enough to do an encore of 2016. All the investigations, taken together, cast long shadows on the continuity of the Trump administration. It's why (even) a 36 year old declined the job of Trump's chief of staff in December.
Despite his troubles, Trump is less likely to be impeached, given the high water mark for political collaboration. If prosecutors hound and hurt Trump so much that his authority is undermined, it is more likely he, like Nixon, will resign and let his vice-president, Mike Pence, serve out the rest of the term. If he doesn't step down, Trump will drive his own hardline restrictionist policy agenda in 2019-20 and focus on policy that does not require Congressional approval which means more wingnut immigration action and tantrums of the sort we're seeing in the final fortnight of the year — Give me my $5 billion for a border wall or I'll shut down the government, put tens of thousands of people out of their weekly paycheque and watch the fires burn on my always-on telly.
As on date, the Trump edifice is being shaken to the core by at least 17 court cases brought on by seven sets of prosecutors and investigators — a legal assault that no US president has dealt with before in history, meandering across a wide swathe of the political, personal and the criminal: Campaign co-ordination with Russia, Hush money payoffs to women, Trump family members’ talking with Russian operatives for dirt on Hillary Clinton; Trump pursuing a real estate project in Moscow while running for President, business transactions with foreign governments, how $107 million was raised and spent by Trump’s inaugural committee, tax underpayment by the Trump empire, potential violations of laws for charities, Turkish and Middle Eastern influence in Trump’s politics, obstruction of justice.
Four decades ago, Nixon met his match in prosecutors who did not combat the president’s excesses and scrapping of norms with their own. Faced with unceasing attacks on their work from the most powerful political office in the United States, Watergate prosecutors went strictly by the book. Robert Mueller is serving up the same treatment to Donald Trump and it’s driving the US president nuts. Drunk and raging when Watergate’s wounds were cutting too deep, Nixon is known to have railed at paintings on the walls of the White House; Trump doesn’t drink but he’s up at 3 am and 4 am, bunging out tweets riddled with typos and vitriol; spun out of thin air on the fly. Consider the backdrop at this time: Mueller hasn’t yet played all his cards, power on Capitol Hill will officially shift in January 2019, more and more of Trump’s former hit-men are singing to investigators in order to avoid jail time; the cold, wintry air is thick with the scent of a denouement.
William Goldman, director of All The President’s Men based on the Watergate era bestseller book by the same name, crafted the movie’s most famous line delivered in a parking garage by Bob Woodward’s mysterious source Deep Throat: “Follow the money”. It led Woodward and Bernstein to paydirt. Mueller’s breadcrumbs are pointing in the same general direction: that a candidate for high political office sold America short in return for the promise of crummy real estate projects featuring tawdry gold plated faucets in the bathrooms. Donald Trump remains defiant, because he believes he (still) has Republicans on his side and that may indeed be true. For all he cares, mixing business and politics is all “very legal & very cool”.
Based on all the Trump dirt, might US Congress start impeachment proceedings next year, when Democrats take official control of the 435 member House? Technically, yes. If that happens, it would go to the Senate for trial where a conviction would need a two thirds majority. Republicans control the 100 member Senate with fifty-three seats, which means a two thirds majority translates to ~67 votes. In the Nixon case, all this was unnecessary because influential Republican senators informed the president that they are pulling the plug. So far, there’s no sign of Republicans doing a reprise but even in the Nixon era, the move to withdraw support came as a shock. “Nothing focuses the mind in the night like an execution in the morning”, says William Cohan, author of three non fiction narratives about money and power on Wall Street, about the White House’s collective state of being right now.
Cut to December 2018. The conspiracy in plain sight has nothing to do with Russia. For 19 months now, special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators have waded deep into the possibility that there was a criminal conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign to poison the outcome of the 2016 election. The so-called ‘final’ Mueller report isn’t out yet but he has already released damning information. Far more damning, however, is what New York prosecutors have told America — that Trump is a central figure in an entirely different plot that has nothing to do with Russia but was designed explicitly to help Trump’s election chances. It’s about payments to two women designed to cover up Trump’s alleged extramarital relationships and therefore influence the outcome of the 2016 election (based on what voters could not know).
Could this then become a story about indictment and not impeachment? For that, prosecutors must prove intent to prove any case against Trump. Experts are increasingly saying there is no convincing legal basis to the position that a sitting president cannot be indicted. In a scathing op-ed published by The Washington Post, George Conway ( husband of White House counselor and top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter and former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal attacked Trump and the notion that Trump cannot be charged.
"The president could face criminal charges for conspiring with Cohen to make the payments because the evidence shows the payments were made, at least in part, for campaign purposes. As for what the jury concluded in the Edwards case, there’s good reason to believe that the evidence in a criminal case against Trump would be much stronger," the three co-authors wrote, referring to the 2011 case against former Senator John Edwards which established a payment in an extramarital affair could be considered a campaign contribution.
As this stuff hits the ceiling, the questions — and real dangers — are mounting. They go something like this:
1. Will Republicans withdraw support to Trump?
2. If yes, when does that happen?
3. If Republicans don’t budge, can a sitting president be indicted?
4. When does Robert Mueller close shop?
5. Will the Donald Trump exit be dramatic or quiet?
Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon is warning that it might not take long for the rats to jump off the ship. The former Trump strategist told Washington Post 2019 would be a year of “siege warfare” for the White House. “The president can’t trust the GOP to be there when it counts...They don’t feel any sense of duty or responsibility to stand with Trump.”
The (former) fixer
Donald Trump’s former attack dog cum legal fixer Michael Cohen’s sentencing before Christmas has suddenly changed the direction and pace of the story. Cohen turned on Trump without revealing everything about every bum dollar he’s earned; he’s told Mueller and New York prosecutors enough about the President that his sentencing memo implicates Trump in plain language: “at the direction and in co-ordination with Individual 1”. Cohen’s garden-variety tax fraud pales against the growing corroboration from multiple flanks of how Trump’s corporate interests compromised the US presidency. Among the many charges against Cohen, he “caused” a $150,000 and a $ 130,000 payment to hush up Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels who wanted to go public about what they calls their affairs with Candidate Trump. Both the amounts are effectively “campaign contributions” to Trump and in excess of what is allowed. Trump first denied all knowledge of these payments, then directed hacks to go “ask Michael” and now says these were personal payments. His shifting explanations alone are enough, lawyers say, to implicate him.
In a few quick weeks after the midterm elections, Robert Mueller and the Southern district of New York have concentrated our minds on the very real possibility that precedent from the Watergate era or earlier may not apply in Trump’s case and may not be needed either. Public mood is concentrated more keenly on claustrophobia and a gut tightening sense of dread that power has come unhinged from reality, that no one in the palace or outside is safe from the wild impulses of Trump’s wrecking ball. James Comey, the fired FBI chief, suggests his favourite ending: “Democrats have to win. We must use every breath we have to ensure the lying stops…If he is impeached, one third of the country will think there’s been a coup. This must end in a landslide.”
“It seems so like the 60s and the 70s again, the way it was during the Civil Rights protests and then Watergate. There’s not the same kind of danger or edge to it, we’re not on the streets but we are, in a way. Politics is fun again”, says my dinner guest Peter Chen, a US Marine at home for the holidays in New York.
Plea deals and sentencing memos central to a White House in turmoil
The Christopher Steele dossier, first published by BuzzFeed News in January 2017; received significant public attention for its lurid details of Donald Trump’s alleged sexual escapades in Russia and compromising material that Russia allegedly used to mess with the 2016 election.
The Maria Butina plea deal
The Michael Cohen sentencing memo, which lists Donald Trump as ‘Individual 1’
The Michael Flynn sentencing memo
Non prosecution agreement with tabloid publisher American Media Inc, which explains damning (to Trump) details of hush money payments to Karen McDougal.
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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2018 06:40:32 IST