Will 2019 be the year Trump goes down?
With the chaos of the Trump administration growing more intense by the week, U.S. Politics in an Age of Uncertainty: Essays on a New Reality, considers the shape of things to come., editor of the book
AS DONALD Trump heads toward the second anniversary of his inauguration as president, the prospect grows that he may not make it to his third anniversary.
At least that’s the conclusion that increasing numbers of Washington establishment figures are drawing, given the multiple legal threats and political crises that Trump, his family and his administration face. Consider these:
The Justice Department investigation of possible collusion between the Trump team and Russian operatives during the 2016 election has netted prosecutions and guilty pleas from Trump’s campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, his former National Security Advisor, Trump’s chief legal fixer and a host of minor players, all of whom have ratted out (or will rat out) their boss.
Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s guilty plea to a charge of campaign finance violations has essentially fingered Trump as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a scheme to pay off women with whom Trump had affairs to keep their stories out of the press before the 2016 election.
The probe led by former FBI director Robert Mueller has opened multiple avenues of investigation of Trump, his inner circle and his administration, including influence peddling by Gulf monarchies, money laundering and corruption in Trump’s inauguration committee.
With the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives on January 3, the White House and administrative agencies will face a flurry of subpoenas that will tie up its personnel with multiple document requests, congressional hearings and crushing legal bills. Expect disclosures of more corruption and self-dealing in the administration.
Key administration personnel, from the White House chief of staff to the defense secretary, are fleeing what appears to be a sinking ship, and Trump is having a difficult time filling vacancies.
U.S. stock exchanges experienced their worst December decline since the Great Depression, with Wall Street analysts reporting worries about Trump trade policies and a potential recession. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s calls to the heads of the largest U.S. banks to assure them that the government had sufficient monetary liquidity provoked an even stronger sell-off in the markets.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, 2019 began with a Trump-forced shutdown of the federal government that left more than 800,000 federal workers without paychecks during the holidays.
But something appeared to change in December when Trump announced a pullout of U.S. forces from Syria. This action apparently prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State alliance in Syria.
Suddenly, the bipartisan war party in Washington was warning of dire consequences and expressing concerns that Trump had gone too far.
Even those who had stood by Trump when he refused to criticize white supremacists in Charlottesville, forced the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, or tried to take away health care coverage from millions discovered that Trump now posed a threat to the republic. They treated Mattis’s resignation letter, where he chided Trump for disrespecting allies and having illusions in “malign actors” (read: Russia) and “strategic competitors” (read: China), as a historical document of U.S. statecraft akin to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Leave it to one of Washington’s chief imperial scribes, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, to call for the Republican Party to stage an “intervention”:
Up to now I have not favored removing President Trump from office. I felt strongly that it would be best for the country that he leave the way he came in, through the ballot box. But last week was a watershed moment for me, and I think for many Americans, including some Republicans.
It was the moment when you had to ask whether we really can survive two more years of Trump as president, whether this man and his demented behavior — which will get only worse as the Mueller investigation concludes — are going to destabilize our country, our markets, our key institutions and, by extension, the world. And therefore his removal from office now has to be on the table.
More disgraceful were the liberals whose criticism of Trump’s Syria policy began to echo talking points one would have expected from former President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. New York Magazine’s Frank Rich was typical:
We have a president of the United States who is moving to shut down the government at the same moment that he is inviting America’s adversaries to breach its defenses. The withdrawals in Syria and Afghanistan, combined with the exit of the last top administration official who aspired to serve the national interest rather than Trump’s, invites hostile moves against the United States from ISIS, Russia, China, North Korea, and the Taliban.
This has even grabbed the cynical Mitch McConnell’s attention: He has declared himself “distressed” by Mattis’s resignation, a major step in rhetorical escalation in a party where Susan Collins’s pathetic periodic expressions of “concern” are what pass for criticism of an outlaw president. Marco Rubio’s words were stronger, a move to protect his viability for another presidential run, but more outrage from more GOP leaders will follow.
What will move them is not necessarily Trump’s hara-kiri isolationist agenda but the damage his behavior both abroad and at home is inflicting on the financial markets. The sheer uncertainty of a chaos presidency is pushing the Dow to its worst December since the Great Depression.
McConnell and his humiliated departing peer Paul Ryan have tolerated Trump’s racism, misogyny, and nativism, his wreckage of U.S. alliances, his kleptocracy, and his allegiance to Vladimir Putin. They have tolerated as well his con job on the coal miners, steelworkers, and automobile-industry workers of his base. But they’ll be damned if they will stand for a president who threatens the bottom line of the GOP donor class.
AT LEAST Rich was onto something by the end of that quote. The factor that has empowered Trump throughout his rule of ruin has been the willingness of the rich and their servants in Washington to look past his transgressions as long as Trump’s policies were lining their pockets with tax cuts and deregulation.
If that bet stops paying off, then Trump should start to worry.
Almost from the time he took office, political observers have warned that Trump’s administration might end in his impeachment and removal from office.
While the most fervent supporters of the Democratic Party have been hoping this for two years, the Democratic Party leadership has tried to steer away from any talk of impeachment. During the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats didn’t want to play up impeachment talk for fear that Trump would use that to animate his core supporters.
In the end, Trump did succeed in firing up his supporters — mainly with his racist campaign against the migrant caravan. The mobilization of Trump’s supporters, along with the huge anti-Trump mobilization on the Democratic side, combined to produce the highest midterm voter-turnout rate in a century. But even with the mobilization of the Trump base, the Republicans still were blown out in the midterm elections.
But now that the Democrats are safely in charge of the House of Representatives, their calculations may change.
Certainly, the Trump administration, from the “lumpen capitalist” at the top to the cast of grifters and industry toadies in administrative offices, will provide congressional investigators with a full roster of corruption and unseemly acts that could lead to prosecutions.
But a political earthquake will rumble through official politics if Mueller’s report documents Trump engaging in illegal and impeachable offenses.
UNTIL NOW, the conventional wisdom assumed that Trump would be able to ride out the storm to face re-election in 2020.
First, even if House Democrats impeached him, Senate Republicans wouldn’t vote to remove him from office. Second, internal Justice Department memos drawn up during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s suggest that a sitting president can’t be indicted. If Mueller and the Trump Justice Department hold to that policy, then Trump has every incentive to hang on as president to avoid ending up being prosecuted.
Finally, Democrats, having seen how effective Trump is in rallying the Democratic base, have an incentive not to see him removed from office.
But the 2018 election weakened Trump’s standing in Washington, and the other signs of chaos, from the plunging stock market to high-level resignations, have made impeachment more probable.
This was the message of veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew’s December 27, 2018 New York Times op-ed article.
Drew, whose early career included incisive coverage of the Watergate scandal, wrote that she thinks Mueller has uncovered enough evidence for Trump’s impeachment. She concludes that Trump may face the choice that Richard Nixon faced in 1974 — resign or be removed from office:
I don’t share the conventional view that if Mr. Trump is impeached by the House, the Republican-dominated Senate would never muster the necessary 67 votes to convict him. Stasis would decree that would be the case, but the current situation, already shifting, will have been left far behind by the time the senators face that question. Republicans who were once Mr. Trump’s firm allies have already openly criticized some of his recent actions, including his support of Saudi Arabia despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and his decision on Syria. They also openly deplored Mr. Mattis’s departure.
It always seemed to me that Mr. Trump’s turbulent presidency was unsustainable and that key Republicans would eventually decide that he had become too great a burden to the party or too great a danger to the country. That time may have arrived. In the end the Republicans will opt for their own political survival. Almost from the outset some Senate Republicans have speculated on how long his presidency would last. Some surely noticed that his base didn’t prevail in the midterms.
At year’s end, Trump ally and leading hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was busy trying to help Trump dampen the furor over the Syria decision by getting him to extend the timetable.
So Trump’s Republican enablers may not yet be ready to abandon him — but that doesn’t mean they won’t have to soon enough.
THE LAST time the U.S. government faced a crisis like this, during Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the U.S. was on the verge of suffering its greatest military defeat to that point in Vietnam.
The crisis over Vietnam, along with the era’s social movements, produced protests and dissent throughout U.S. society. Ultimately, Watergate emerged from Nixon’s war on dissent as it moved from targeting radicals to the Democratic Party and the political establishment.
While today’s crisis in U.S. imperial policy may not be as severe as the one Cold Warriors faced during Vietnam, there are some similarities worth considering.
The U.S.’s plan to remake the Middle East through the war in Iraq failed miserably. U.S. troops in Afghanistan have already been engaged in the longest U.S. war, with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is adjusting to the next several decades where it will face both economic and military challenges from China. If it isn’t necessarily facing a Vietnam-like imperial crisis now, the U.S. is certainly in a period of transition where imperial structures set up after the Second World War don’t reflect the emerging balance of power in the world.
Trump’s “America First” policies of trade protectionism, anti-immigration and transactional bilateral relations with both “allied” (Canada, Britain, France) and adversarial (China, Russia) countries clashes with the world view of sections of big business and the foreign policy establishment. This is why Trump’s announced pullout from Syria and Mattis’s resignation touched off a freak-out across official Washington.
Trump may not know what he’s doing, but his administration’s actions have consequences that are unsettling to the bipartisan guardians of the status quo. So far, these consequences haven’t played out in such a way as to break the partisan polarization that has kept Trump afloat, despite consistent and historically low levels of public support.
But in late December, Trump’s popularity fell to a low point last seen when he was making excuses for neo-Nazis in 2017. And all of this is taking place before a major recession hits, before Mueller has delivered his final report, and before Democrats have geared up the congressional investigation machine.
If key elite supporters of the Republican Party, from the Pentagon brass to leaders of the major banks, begin to conclude that Trump is a liability to U.S. economic and military power, then elected GOP politicians will start to distance themselves from him.
At that point, Trump’s strategy of avoiding removal from office as long as only a few more than half of Senate Republicans support him may fall apart. Trump, of course, will not go quietly.
We may not be at that point now. But it could be upon us before this New Year ends.