Open Essay

Crisis, What Crisis?

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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Donald Trump is unpopular, unsuccessful, the subject of a counter-espionage investigation—and perhaps set fair for re-election

LIKE A FROG in a pan of steadily heating water, millions of Americans are becoming accustomed to a degree of institutional damage that would until recently have seemed appalling to them. Mounting evidence that Donald Trump was installed in the White House with the help of Russian spies suggests their democracy system has been badly compromised. Meanwhile, almost every day, Trump’s administration launches a fresh assault on the judiciary, Congress and the free press, further reducing public trust in the very institutions in which America’s strength resides (contrary to what many Americans have come to believe, tragically).

Consider just the past fortnight. It has witnessed a highly respected former FBI director, Robert Mueller, indicting two former advisors to Trump—including his sometime campaign manager, Paul Manafort— with crimes including serving as an unregistered lobbyist for a Ukrainian regime beholden to Vladimir Putin, money laundering on a grand scale, and making false statements to the FBI. It has seen Trump attempt, openly and unashamedly, to browbeat the justice department and FBI into investigating spurious allegations against his political opponents. It has seen the president continue his attacks on a shrinking media industry that is working manfully to hold him to account, and to the dismal consequence of those slanders. Almost two- thirds of Republican voters say their media—including storied organs such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times that are the envy of the world—are an ‘enemy of the American people’.

Of course, many Americans still have the capacity to be shocked by such things. Trump took power as the most unpopular new president on record, and his ratings have since plummeted. Despite a robust economy and no major foreign misadventures, only one in three Americans approves of his performance as president, according to the latest polling. That puts him, only nine months into his term, about where George W Bush sat in the public esteem during the worst of the Iraq war debacle. Surely, this cannot go on?

Most Democrats seem convinced that it cannot—that Trump will lose the next election, due in 2020, or be forced out before then. The investigation being undertaken by Mueller, who as special counsel has been charged with looking into allegations of collusion between Trump’s election campaign and Russia’s hackers, is the main source of that second conviction. With Mueller showing signs of building a strong case against the President’s campaign team, there is talk of impeaching the president; some Democrats have already proposed this. Yet, this is wildly optimistic. Though plainly unfit to be president, and perhaps a danger to the world (or else, why would he threaten North Korea with military action?), Trump faces no immediate threat of being removed from power. Indeed, he may conceivably be laying the foundation for his re-election.

That is not to underplay the seriousness of Mueller’s findings. To the contrary, at still an early stage in his inquiries, they are exceptionally damning.

Removing a president is extraordinarily hard to do. And when he is still supported by his party, as Trump is, it is almost unimaginable

Even the genesis of the Mueller investigation is compromising for Trump. It was launched by his deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein, after the president sacked his former FBI director, James Comey, allegedly because he was pursuing the collusion allegations too zealously. (Rosenstein had been put in charge of the Russia investigations after the Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself after he, too, turned out to have hidden secret meetings with Russian officials.) Besides indicting Manafort, Mueller, who has served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, also filed similar charges against another Trump advisor, Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates. Both men deny the charges; they face a dozen years in prison if convicted. Mueller is now believed to be attempting to persuade them to cooperate with his investigation—by divulging whatever secrets concerning the Trump team’s dalliance with the Russians they may know—in return for leniency.

Worse for Trump, the investigator also revealed that he had already struck such a plea bargain deal with another former aide to Trump, George Papadopoulos. A former foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, Papadopoulos sought to arrange meetings between the campaign and senior Russian officials, including to collect ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, in the form of emails apparently hacked by Russian spies. Papadopoulos had been rumbled by the FBI even before Mueller was appointed. So much for Trump’s claim that the investigation is a ‘witch-hunt’.

Under the terms of his plea bargain, Papadopoulos has admitted to lying about his activities to the FBI, for which he faces six months in jail. To avoid a stiffer penalty, he appears to have been cooperating with the investigation for some time. Some legal experts have surmised that towards the end of his contact with the Trump team, he may have been wearing a wire, a possibility that may persuade other members of Trump’s team to revise their testimonies to Mueller’s interrogators. The special counsel is planning to interview or re-interview Trump’s senior advisors in the next few weeks.

In short, it appears a degree of collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians has already been proved, albeit at a fairly low level in the Trump hierarchy. Meanwhile, a series of coordinated admissions by America’s tech giants, Facebook, Google and Twitter—unveiled in the same week as Mueller unveiled his indictments— have offered more evidence of Russia’s efforts on behalf of Trump. It turns out YouTube was running 18 Russian propaganda channels during the campaign, loaded with over a thousand films. Around 150 million American Facebook and Instagram users were exposed to clandestine Russian propaganda on Facebook, much of which was straightforward pro-Trump advertising. One ad included a depiction of Hillary Clinton, wearing a devil’s horns, having a fist-fight with Satan, under the headline: ‘‘Like’ if you want Jesus to win’. It is almost as if the Russian propagandists considered potential Trump voters to be Bible-thumping idiots.

The package of tax cuts that Republican congressmen are trying to pass may be his last hope of the big legislative success he craves

Yet, this deeply disturbing evidence is not going to stop Trump trying to rubbish Mueller. Nor should it encourage anyway to think he is on his way out of the Oval Office. Because removing a president is extraordinarily hard to do. And when he is still supported by his party, as Trump is, it is almost unimaginable.

The US constitution provides two ways to go about sacking a president. One, detailed in clause 25 of the constitution, ordains that the president can be removed if a majority of his cabinet testify that he is ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office’. This has never happened or even been seriously mooted before. A likelier means is through an impeachment proceeding brought by Congress.

This can be launched whenever a majority of members of the House of Representatives vote to put the president on trial for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’—which is essentially a political term, in that the congressmen are free to apply it as they see fit. That indignity has so far befallen two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Bill Clinton, in 1998 and 1999, both of whom were subsequently tried by the Senate. But neither president was actually removed from office, which would have required a further two–thirds majority vote. Given America’s fiercely partisan politics, that represents a formidably high bar.

Only Richard Nixon has come close to crossing it. A committed criminal, Nixon resigned in order to avoid facing impeachment in 1974, after the release of a tape-recording proving his complicity in the dirty tricks campaign against his rivals known as the Whitewater Scandal. Yet it is worth noting that right up to Nixon’s resignation, around 60 per cent of Republican voters still backed him, even after a tawdry two-year-long drip-feed of allegations about his wrong- doing. By contrast, over 80 per cent of Republican voters still strongly approve of Trump and, at a far more partisan time than the 1970s were, it would probably take a lot more dirt on the president to make a major dent in that support.

That explains why Trump has hardly been criticised by other elected Republicans. The only Republican congressmen who have dared point out his excesses are retiring at the next election (for example, senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake), or are terminally ill, in the case of Senator John McCain, who has an aggressive form of brain cancer. As for the rest of the Republicans in Congress, they are deeply unhappy with the president, but cowed. “What can I do?” a thoughtful, patriotic Republican congressman told me. “I know what the president is. But most of my voters love him.”

Some of those Republican voters are wedded to the nativist and populist issues Trump campaigned on. Analysis of exit polls finds no agreement on economic issues among his supporters; some Trump fans want less government, some want more. But they tend to be united in approval for Trump’s promised border-wall and his pledge to ban Muslim travellers to America. The fact that Trump has been unable to deliver either of these pledges may not discourage such true-believers in his agenda: it is not as if they have another politician to turn to.

Yet, a more important feature of Trump’s enduring appeal to Republicans is the extreme partisanship that long predated him, but which he has worked hard to exacerbate. Many Republican voters have little regard for Trump, yet dislike the Democrats even more, and therefore tend to regard any attacks on their president as a personal slight. At the same time, they tend to have even less regard for Republican congressmen, who have failed to pass any significant legislation since Trump took office, despite having majorities in both chambers of Congress. That helps explain why the lonely protests against Trump by Corker, a former ally of the president’s, who now calls him incompetent and a liar, have found little support in the party of Lincoln and Reagan. Given how unpopular he is nationally, Trump’s firm following among Republican voters is astonishing. Just 6 per cent of Trump fans say they regret voting for him.

On a recent tour through the former mining and steel towns of northern Pennsylvania, a hard-up region Trump swept last November, I heard almost no serious criticism of the president at all. Trump’s lies, policy ignorance and casual disregard for America’s basic constitutional norms (the president appeared not even to understand how Congress worked) were barely registered. Though, it is true, some Pennsylvanians thought he should spend less time on Twitter. If Trump’s contest against Hillary Clinton was rerun tomorrow, it is perfectly possible that he would win again, perhaps even without Russia’s assistance.

Ideally, Trump would like to give his supporters something more concrete to cheer for. The package of tax cuts Republican congressmen are now trying to pass may be his last hope of the big legislative success he craves. Yet if his presidency achieves nothing, he will still try to shore it up by escalating his attacks on his enemies—Democrats, the media, immigrants, Mexico and so forth. It is a dismal prospect Trump may be the first president not even to pay lip-service to the notion that his office has a responsibility to minimise, and not exacerbate, America’s divisions. Yet it could work.

Trump has already had some success in attempting to rubbish Mueller’s counter-espionage inquiry. His claims that it is politically motivated have been enthusiastically taken up by the right-wing press. Anything less than a damning indictment of Trump personally by the special counsel is liable to be shrugged off by these partisans, especially if the Republican president seems able to win re-election. And he may well be, especially if the US economy stays strong, and if the Democrats maintain their current state of disunity, both of which are solid likelihoods. In that case, America would have Trump for its president until 2025—a sobering prospect.