Trump Under Scrutiny: Expect Watergate on steroids

File: The leaks alone will probably make President Donald Trump’s future tweets on this increasingly unbelievable and ineffective. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

We settle down to watch the televised hearings concerning the surreptitious Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election in America, and the screen shows Adam Schiff – he’s brooding at his subordinates that a good surmise about all that lying and perfidy in high places isn’t going to be sufficient. What they need now is proof. “Now get out there and find it! Connect those dots,” he growls. “Damn straight,” you want to shout right back at the screen.

Oops, wrong channel. We’re watching a classic episode of the television police/courtroom drama, Law and Order, not the intended broadcast of the hearing. A quick hunt for the remote, a change of channels, and now the right drama is unfolding. And amazingly, there is yet ANOTHER Adam Schiff, again leading the charge this time.

Of course, this second Adam Schiff is not the one portrayed by actor Steven Hill for over 200 episodes. Instead, he is a very prosecutorial but low-key congressman from California, with degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Law School in his background. As we watch the hearing’s progression, this Schiff is methodically setting out the case for a possible future prosecution of a president (gasp) and that of a slew of the president’s men and women (and gasp again) as well for consorting with (or perhaps being unwittingly bamboozled by) the Russians in their sub rosa effort to deep six Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency because of Vladimir Putin’s visceral hatred for Clinton. Schiff has clearly set up the playbook, passing off to several other Democratic members (nicely balanced racially and in gender terms) and then picking up the whip to flail away all over again, after he had taken a breath or two.

That very last little bit of revelation – the part about Putin – comes courtesy of the two senior officials who are testifying: James Comey, the director of the FBI, and Admiral Mike Rodgers, head of the National Security Agency. That latter is the ultra-secret agency that does all the electronic surveillance around the world for the US. Comey is now giving a pretty fair impression of a rock-solid G-man, and, just perhaps, one who is a little bit embarrassed for what he may have helped unleash with his revelation – very late in the campaign – of yet more Clinton e-mails to be examined, that before he finally announced there was no there, there, but too late to have much impact on the outcome.

But this very interesting news only comes after the two men drop a couple of other even more dramatic bits of testimony. The first is that they know of no evidence, no way, no how, none, nada, zilch, evidence that the previous president carried out any eavesdropping of the then-candidate’s Trump Tower, despite all those nasty, snarling, petulant tweets from Trump. And the British didn’t carry out any imaginary ones either, despite those fake news revelations on Fox News, so lovingly embraced by the president. That first statement was pretty much to be expected, but that second shoe to fall was an unexpected public admission by two rather secretive men that, yes, the FBI WAS already looking into the possibilities of co-operation or collusion between the Trump campaign and its many minions and those pesky Russians – and that the FBI had been doing this since July 2016.

July 2016.

Given those first dropped breadcrumbs, there are now going to be many more revelations, rumours, false leads, true leaks, surmises, and – most important – an implacable grinding away at things; a process that will continue to sap the energies of the Trump administration for months to come. The hunt will be on by both House and Senate committees, the FBI investigators, and innumerable media investigators, all eager to get a scoop. The model will, increasingly, be Watergate, but this time on steroids, given the number of investigations, as well as the multiplicity of media avenues eager for an earth-shattering score.

In Monday’s hearing, meanwhile, the Republicans, in between their squirming, sounded like they were taking plays called from the White House, niggling about coulda, shoulda, woulda type issues and – especially in the person of South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy – trying to skew the show away from the possibility of an assault on the entire democratic (small “d” and capital “D”) process and, instead, trying to make the hearing about the drip-drip-drip leakage of information into the media about the carryings-on by people like the now-former and unlamented national security adviser Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. In this effort, Manafort was suddenly demoted to a marginal figure in the Trump campaign, after having headed that campaign for months.

Real aficionados of American politics will recall that Gowdy spent years, and the GDP of a small Pacific nation, trying to prove something on the order of a fable that Hillary Clinton had personally killed her own ambassador and several other embassy staffers in Benghazi for some undefined reason or another, but without ever proving anything more than that Clinton could sit through a full day’s worth of interrogations without ever copping to anything more than some badly drafted media guidance about those deaths.

Sooner or later, amid all this investigating, the drumbeat for a special prosecutor, or a special independent prosecutor, or such a prosecutor and a special commission, will probably overwhelm Trump’s straw men, deflections, and defences. Once that happens, such a prosecutor or commission will be appointed.

The resulting prying will only get more and more embarrassing for the Trump team, even if no one ever finds a smoking gun of a joint memo signed by both the Russian GRU or FSB and the Trumpians. The leaks alone will probably make Trump’s future tweets on this increasingly unbelievable and ineffective, even for the purpose of bolstering the spirits of many of the Trumpentariat and the president’s congressional defenders. As things stand now, the Gallup polling organisation has just reported that the president’s support has descended, in just his first two months, to a near-subterranean level of 37 percent – a level lower than for any president at this point since such soundings have been taken.

Now, of course, polling popularity does not a successful presidency make all by itself, but it helps. Much more important, perhaps, are actual accomplishments. And here the new president is foundering as well. His two executive orders restricting visitors from seven – now six – mainly Muslim nations have been stopped in federal courts, despite his angry statements that these actions deeply endanger the security of the nation.

Meanwhile, his “repeal and replace” campaign to change the 2010 Affordable Care Act’s extension of healthcare insurance to millions is now threatening to grind to a less than satisfactory conclusion in Congress. Budget hawk Republicans are rebelling at what they see as an Obamacare lite measure. Meanwhile, social conservatives are insistent that Medicaid be driven back further. Moreover, Democrats in the Senate are likely to try to stall the measure there as well.

The Congressional Budget Office’s determination that the measure, as initially envisaged, would denude at least 24-million people of healthcare insurance in a decade has ratcheted up the anger of more and more constituents of Republican congressmen. These ordinary citizens are starting to smell a king-sized rat in this repeal-and-replace nonsense, especially since the GOP measure is nowhere even close to the Trumpian promise that Republicans would give everyone good medical coverage and would do so at a much cheaper cost than Obamacare – and implying that it would help everyone return to those days of the kindly family doctor who made house calls at 3am in snowstorms.. (Look for more clarity on this point under: “mechanisms of the bursting of the bubble of the illusion of a free lunch” campaign promise.)

Along the way, the Trumpian federal government budget was released as well. Even Republicans are starting to announce that this atrocity was dead on arrival in Congress, what with its harsh cuts across the board, save for the military budget (with its $54-billion bump upward), and nothing said about Medicare, Social Security, and the like. (That would have appeased GOP budget hawks somewhat, but this budget does not come with anything remotely like a tax increase or benefit cuts to pay for the ugly thing.) Those latter programmes are transfer programmes that aid those older than 65, and presumably disproportionately Trump supporters. Any questions?

However, as more and more people begin to discover the draconian hacking away at a whole raft of other programmes such as the ongoing Great Lakes restoration programmes and even “Meals on Wheels”, constituent pressure groups, the usual range of lobbying groups, social activists, and almost every Democrat and not a few Republicans will all start to line up against the various provisions of the budget plan. Expect a wave of continuing resolutions until the Congress may – or may not – come up with something like a budget in the end. Even the country’s generals have been bemoaning the proposed cuts to the State Department, foreign aid, and contributions to UN peacekeeping.

Meanwhile, the Trumpster has been carrying out his own Scorched Earth campaign among the nation’s allies as well. Following Trump’s performances with the Mexican president, the Australian prime minister, among others, Max Boot, writing for Foreign Policy on Tuesday, observed that following those bizarre public moments with German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

“Trump hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House for what looked to be the first date from Hell. With cameras rolling, Merkel asked Trump if he wanted to shake hands; he pointedly ignored her. Trump then used their joint news conference to demand not only that Germany and other Nato partners increase their defence spending ― a standard trope of past administrations ― but that they pay back the United States ‘vast sums of money from past years’ that ‘they owe’ us for defending them from Russian aggression. To make sure that no one missed the message, he followed up with tweets reiterating: ‘Germany owes… vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!’”

All those accumulating wild swings at allies and neighbours stand in increasingly bizarre contrast to a continuing absence of a single discouraging word directed against Trump’s erstwhile friend in the Kremlin, even as the Syrian cataclysm continues, and as that trail of those breadcrumbs discussed above gets more visible. Curiously, when Trump dispatched his Secretary of State on a swing through East Asia in the light of continuing threatening noises and missile tests by North Korea, the Trump team ended up sending confusing mixed messages. Secretary Tillerson adopted so much of the Chinese rhetoric on US-China issues that there was some seriously disquieting commentary about his trip, even as other Trump administration statements insisted China must do much more to reel in Kim Jong-un’s wild and potentially crazy behaviour. And that red line pronounced by Michael Flynn on North Korea has never been drawn back either.

With all this behaviour, taken together, the question must be asked of the Trump foreign policy and its promulgators: Who in the world is in charge in this, and what in the world do they hope or expect to gain from this outlandish way of conducting business? Maybe it is all just the simple, but profoundly depressing and dangerous, fact that Trump really sees everything as a live performance designed to please himself and his fans. This is instead of performance in the usual way of measuring presidential success, that of getting adult, well-considered things accomplished nationally and internationally.

Oh, and one other thing. If Congressman Schiff continues to lead his interrogation of the Trump-Russia axis successfully, with some real rigour and tenaciousness, just maybe he will start to wake up at three in the morning (as may others) and begin to think about what might happen by the time 2020 rolls around – and the next presidential election beckons.

Discussion Policy

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