Letter From Washington

An American Disorder

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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Five scenarios in case of a Trump trainwreck

BRUISED AND RESENTFUL, after a month- long pounding at the hands of the national media, Donald Trump went back to the campaign trail to lick his wounds on February 18th. The venue was a small airport on Florida’s Atlantic coast, at a place called Melbourne, a short helicopter flight from Trump’s private member’s club, Mar- a-Lago. The crowd was the sort of lily-white and raucously adoring assembly Trump had gathered, to the disbelief of Republican grandees and journalists, throughout the long campaign. “This will be change for the ages, change like never before!” he roared.

But what sort of change did Trump mean? He has yet to turn almost any of his campaign slogans—such as ‘Bomb the hell out of ISIS!’ and ‘Make America safe again!’—into serious policy. And the criticism of his start in the Oval Office is deserved. In haste to honour his campaign pledges, Trump has signed a series of decrees, often amateurishly-drafted and apparently unseen by lawyers, that have tended to raise more questions about the wisdom and feasibility of his agenda than they have provided answers. An order seeking to halt America’s refugee programme and ban arrivals from seven mostly-Muslim countries (not including Pakistan, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, which have produced plenty of terrorists) has been shot down, at least temporarily, by the courts. An order to build the wall Trump promised along America’s southern border has highlighted how expensive, time-consuming and perhaps impossible, that is likely to prove. The border is almost 3,200 km long and most of the land alongside it is privately owned; to secure the rest will take years of legal battles, assuming Trump, or his successors, stick with the project.

The disdain many civil servants and spies feel for the 45th US president has been apparent in a torrent of damaging leaks—including even transcripts of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders. Thus we know Trump threatened to send troops into Mexico to take care of its “bad hombres”, and just about slammed the phone down on Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after he dared broach a pre-existing bilateral agreement over refugees. “This was the worst call by far,” he told the leader of one of America’s closest allies.

It was also thanks to leaks that we discovered the extent of Trump’s poor judgment in appointing Mike Flynn, a former military intelligence officer with a reputation for arrogance and an almost obsessive focus on Islamic militancy, as his national security adviser. He was sacked after only 24 days in the job, after it was revealed that he had held inappropriate and possibly illegal conversations with Russia’s ambassador, regarding some sanctions placed on Russia by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, in retaliation for its efforts to rig the election in Trump’s favour. Flynn had untruthfully denied discussing the sanctions with the Russian; the FBI, which taped the exchange, warned Trump that his national security adviser, one of the most powerful jobs in America, was a potential blackmail target for Vladimir Putin. Trump swiftly offered the job to a retired vice admiral, Bob Harward, but he refused the offer. Apparently he made his mind up after watching Trump deliver a press conference so emotional and unhinged it recalled lingering fears about the president’s mental stability. Trump lambasted the leakers for their treachery—while also maintaining that the journalists printing their leaked reports were liars. “The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake,” he ranted. In subsequent tweets, he declared America’s media, including The New York Times, which he has devoured most mornings of his adult life, “enemies of the American people”.

It was thanks to leaks that we discovered the extent of Trump’s poor judgment in appointing Mike Flynn, a former military intelligence officer with a reputation for arrogance and an almost obsessive focus on Islamic militancy, as his national security adviser

It was always going to be messy. Trump and his coterie of close advisers, led by Stephen Bannon, a former banker and media investor with alleged White nationalist sympathies, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s 35-year-old son-in-law, have almost no government experience. Moreover, Trump was sworn to cause trouble in Washington: an end to business-as-usual was another of his campaign slogans. Still, it remains hard to know how serious that promise was. For the most part, the Trump team have appeared more hapless than revolutionary. Beyond the West Wing, meanwhile, the emerging administration is giving off some mixed signals about Trump’s stated agenda.

A lot of the bomb-throwing was supposed to be directed at vested interests, including lobbyists and the campaign donors that have America’s big-buck politics in their grip. Yet Trump has so far appointed five former bankers from Goldman Sachs, epitome of the reviled status quo, to his government. His main foreign policy chiefs, including James Mattis, the defense secretary, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, also appear to hold conventional views about American power and its place in the world; so does Mike Pence, the vice-president. On a joint visit to reassure America’s nervous European allies last week, this trio maintained that America remains firmly committed to the trans-Atlantic alliance and to the European Union and intolerant of Russian meddling in Ukraine. That is not what Trump has been saying for the past year-and-a-half.

The result of these contradictions, as well as the many large protests against Trump that have been held in every large American city, is a profound uncertainty about the course and prospects of his administration. Indeed, there are growing doubts about whether Trump will even stay the cause; bookmakers are laying evens odds on whether he will resign or be impeached before his term is up.

A deep breath is in order. Trump’s administration is already scandal-prone, with potential conflicts of interests apparent in the president’s own affairs. Unlike all his recent predecessors, he has not fully separated himself from his business, which is being managed by his adult sons, Donald Jr and Eric. The requisite ethical firewall, such as it is, consists chiefly of their promise not to discuss business with their father, the president. That would seem rather unsatisfactory even if Trump were not already mixing business and power; earlier this month, he castigated a retailer, Nordstrom, on Twitter for having dropped his daughter Ivanka’s (badly-selling) clothing line. Meanwhile, his hotel division has announced plans to triple its US-based properties. The risk of financial impropriety is plainly large (though, at the same time, there is great uncertainty about the extent of Trump’s financial interests, because he has, again irregularly, refused to release his tax records). Yet there is yet no evidence that Trump has or will commit treason, bribery, or any other of the ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ required for an impeachment proceeding. And even if he did, it is currently hard to imagine the Republican-controlled Congress voting to turf out a president who has delivered the first unified Republican government in over a decade.

In that case, what are the prospects for Mr Trump’s administration? World War III? Or a plain vanilla conservative government, enlivened by a few histrionics in the Oval Office? The range of possibilities is enormous. Yet here, at least to give some sense of that uncertainty, are five imagined scenarios, ranging from the conventional conservatism those supine Republican congressmen are praying for, to complete meltdown.

MORE ORTHODOX THAN YOU MIGHT THINK: For those hoping Trump could turn out to be a second Reagan, albeit with strange hair and an orange sheen, there is plenty of encouraging evidence. It starts with the fact that Pence, a social conservative and former governor of Indiana, and his most important cabinet appointments, Mattis and Tillerson, would not have looked out of place in a traditional Republican administration. Trump called Nato “obsolete”; during his trip to Europe, Mattis called it the “fundamental bedrock” of trans-Atlantic cooperation. This is one of several examples of Trump’s incendiary pronouncements on global affairs being made safe. Shortly after his election, Trump indicated that America might use its relationship with Taiwan for leverage with China; he has now firmly endorsed the one-China policy that has defined US-China relations for over four decades. He once promised to shelve the international agreement to put restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme; he now seems to support it.

Trump’s main foreign policy chiefs, including James Mattis, the defense secretary, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, appear to hold conventional views about American power and its place in the world

Trump’s economic team is also more right-wing-normal than his populist rhetoric seemed to promise. It is led by the aforementioned Goldman Sachs crew, including Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic advisor, and Steve Mnuchin, his treasury secretary. Both appear to be fans of free markets and open borders; they are also expected, given their backgrounds, to be neuralgically attuned to financial markets’ view of Trump. In expectation of a stimulating tax cut, and apparently little fear of Trump’s threatened protectionism, it has so far been positive. But if the markets take fright at some protectionist measure or immigration clampdown, Cohn and Mnuchin would be expected to argue the business-like case for a rapid reversal.

Would Trump be swayed by them? The conventional foreign policy positions he and his cabinet secretaries are now taking suggests he could be. It seems hard to think he could personally restrain himself; he never has before. Yet perhaps he will have to, if only for the sake of his health. His emotional recent rants, against his political enemies and the media, are an inadvisable habit for an overweight 70-year-old who loves junk food.

POWER TO THE POPULISTS: The obvious alternative is that, even as criticism of Trump’s base-pleasing populism mounts, he refuses to bow to it. In this case, Bannon, who sees conflict as a vindication of his effort to take down the status quo, and is said to be counting on having only a year before the president tires of him, retains his influence. The government will then become largely dedicated to fulfilling the divisive promises Trump made on the trail. That could lead to a trade war with Mexico and at least the threat of one with China. Americans will nonetheless be distracted from the economic damage this will cause by an endless series of highly partisan political fights; Trump is locked in an ugly conflict with the judiciary and a handful of dissident Republican senators over his efforts to extend and enforce his ban on some Muslims immigrants.

Trump’s supporters are also cushioned from the economic damage done by his policies by decent growth and a strong jobs market, thanks to the president’s willingness to pump up the economy with deficit spending. Meanwhile, America slowly withdraws from the international architecture, including NATO and the UN, it was largely responsible for building—and the UN’s Paris climate agreement, too. Trump and his head of environmental regulation, Scott Pruitt, successfully dismantle or weaken many federal environmental regulations. American business is alarmed by the disruption and uncertainty this brings, but cowed by the threat of a tweet attack by the president. Mattis and Tillerson, after suffering one slight too many, and having concluded that their advice carries no weight with Trump, tender their resignations. Both are replaced by former generals; for the first time ever, a majority of America’s cabinet secretaries are former military men.

POPULISM AND SKULDUGGERY: Trump does enough to keep on side his two most important constituencies, angry White, working-class men, and Republican Congressmen, who are equally White, but less angry. His immigration clampdown and putative border wall are both mired in the courts. But a terrorist attack on the New York subway by a pair of Somali refugee brothers gives him political cover to launch a security register of American Muslims, which his core supporters like. Trump repeatedly describes himself as America’s “last defence” against terrorism. Some Republican Congressmen find the authoritarian tone of this boast disconcerting. But they are kept quiet by the threat of Twitter harassment by the president and abandonment by his supporters; though Trump’s approval ratings have never approached 50 per cent, it represents the continued support of most Republican voters. He has also bought his party’s acquiescence, by pumping up the economy with infrastructure building and jobs programmes, even as he has slashed the taxes of the wealthiest Americans. Fiscal conservatism is yesterday’s idea; most Republicans are confident of retaining hold of both houses of Congress in 2020.

Trump does enough to keep on side his two most important constituencies, angry White, working-class men, and Republican Congressmen, who are equally White, but less angry

That also coaxes them into ignoring another troubling aspect of Trump’s administration. The Trump family firm’s promise not to do deals abroad while Trump is in the White House appears to have been redefined. In the Middle East, its hugely successful hotel franchise has branched into shopping malls and theme parks. America’s journalists have not been supine; The New York Times and Washington Post have published brilliant exposes of the extent to which Trump appears to be pushing his children’ business from the Oval Office. With aggressive support from the right-wing media, the president accuses them of running a “liberal vendetta” and “betraying America”. A journalist is shot dead outside a Trump rally in Melbourne, Florida, apparently by a riled-up Trump supporter. The president offers his condolences and blames terrorists.

MANAGED MESS: The central planks of Trump’s populist agenda—immigration reform and new trade terms—hit the skids early and irreparably. The former is struck down by the courts, the latter by a combination of international opposition and mutiny within the government. Trump gets through four national security advisers, three secretaries of state and two chief economic advisers in his first 18 months in office. Before making some recent cabinet appointments, he endured the indignity of being turned down by at least three prospective candidates. With Trump’s approval ratings in the mid 30s, it has long been clear he cannot win re-election. The Democrats’ historic success in the 2018 mid-term elections, in which they won back control of both congressional chambers, reaffirmed that. Spurned by America’s top talent, deeply unpopular and unable to implement his governing programme, Trump seems almost to have given up trying. To satisfy his craving for acclamation he resorts to holding occasional rallies in the poor Appalachian places where he can still muster an enthusiastic crowd. Otherwise, he stays silent for days at a time, even on social media. His presidency has become an embarrassment. The Republicans, struggling to avoid a descent into bitter infighting, launch a witch-hunt against the president’s few remaining supporters on Capitol Hill. At 73, Hillary Clinton is set to become America’s oldest new president.

MELTDOWN: With the Democrats’ victories at the 2018 midterms, the president’s impeachment became inevitable. In truth, it had looked on the cards even if the Republicans had clawed onto Congress. The day before the mid-terms, Paul Ryan, the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, hinted that he might initiate impeachment proceedings: it had just been revealed that Trump’s aides met frequently with Russian spies during the election campaign. To avoid that ignominy, an ashen-faced and visibly angry Trump gave a statement from the Oval Office the day after his party’s historic blowout, in which he announced that he had resigned in favour of Pence. He blamed his decision on his poor health, and added that he had his doubts over whether Pence was man enough to do the job. “Being president is much tougher than people think,” he said.

PERHAPS ONE OF these five imagined scenarios will prove to have at least some bearing on the reality of Trump Raj. None of them will be spot-on; they are by no means exhaustive, or even, for the most part, mutually exclusive. Trump might load the economy with debt, while imposing import tariffs and yet win international acclaim for his brilliant Mid-East diplomacy. Moreover, any number of events—a natural disaster, economic crash or war—could end up defining his presidency in ways that are impossible to second-guess. But this exercise should at least suggest how unprecedentedly great is the uncertainty, in the hallways of Congress and even the West Wing, which I have been pacing in search of answers ever since Trump’s inauguration, about what he is about to visit upon America and the world. It is a time of bafflement and wonder in Washington, and no small fear.