Paul Connew on the tragedy which is tarnishing the White House.
When they come to write the epitaph on the Trump presidency, whether that’s sooner or later, the name Otto Warmbier is destined to figure prominently.
The US president’s grotesque effort – after his meeting with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam last week – to acquit the North Korean dictator of responsibility for the imprisonment, torture and subsequent death of the American student has succeeded in uniting in mutual disgust America’s liberal left and its conservative right.
The original footage of the 22-year-old University of Virginia student, looking terrified and being manhandled in a North Korean courtroom in 2016, had long imprinted itself on America’s psyche. So had the image of his return home to die 17 months later, a shattered shell of a man who had clearly been tortured and in what doctors described as a ‘state of unresponsive wakefulness as the result of severe neurological injury’.
These images came back to haunt Trump as the US networks repeatedly replayed them in the wake of the president’s humiliating acceptance of Kim’s claim he ‘didn’t know about’ Warmbier’s treatment, in what was the most significant moment of their failed Hanoi summit.
‘I will take him at his word. I don’t think the top leadership knew about it,’ cooed the president, proving himself just about the only man outside the Pyongyang regime willing to swallow Kim’s denial. It compounded his earlier description of the mass murdering North Korean leader as a ‘beautiful young man’ who ‘loves his country’ and who Trump himself bizarrely insists he’s come to ‘love’. It was yet another Trumpian expression of trust in autocratic leaders with blood on their hands, after his previous warm words towards Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman.
The mutual disgust barometer across America’s political divide went up further with the dignified response of Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, a couple who previously had a relatively cordial relationship with the president. All the more effective by failing to mention Trump personally, the Warmbiers’ statement said: ‘We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.’
They were joined by several senior Capitol Hill Republicans, equally horrified by their president’s defence of Kim. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy contradicted Trump, saying ‘North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier and Kim knew what happened, I have no doubt’. The reaction was similar on far-right websites and phone-in shows usually sympathetic to the president, leading to a tweeted retreat by Trump – always a sign of concern he has antagonised his base support – saying: ‘Of course I hold North Korea responsible… for Otto’s mistreatment and death. Most important, Otto Warmbier will not have died in vain.’
Just how rattled the president was by the scale of the bipartisan backlash came with the rambling, already infamous, two-hour off-the-cuff speech he delivered last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson memorably described the unhinged performance as the president ‘raving like a lunatic and telling crazy, self-serving lies from start to finish. If you had an uncle or a grandpa who sounded so divorced from reality, you’d be very urgently concerned’.
At one point Trump, laughably trying to depict the Hanoi summit as a success story, rambled: ‘We got our people back. That includes our beautiful, beautiful Otto. Otto Warmbier, whose parents I’ve gotten to know, who’s incredible… And I’m in such a horrible position, because in one way I have to negotiate, and the other way I love Mr and Mrs Warmbier. And I love Otto. And it’s a very, very delicate balance. He was a special young man and to see what happened was so bad.’ Even then, in front of his own crowd, Trump couldn’t bring himself to do what the Warmbiers and most of the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill desperately wanted him to do: blame Kim directly.
But there is something else pressing the Trump panic button and rattling the GOP hierarchy as the president’s poll ratings continue to slide and signs grow that disillusion is setting in among his core support base.
The past week has shown the oversight season in Washington really heating up on the president with at least three major congressional investigations being announced by various committees in the now Democrat controlled House. In another development, it has emerged that Trump breached all the normal protocols to grant son-in-law Jared Kushner top-level security clearance, defying the strict advice of his intelligence chiefs alarmed by Kushner’s foreign business connections, especially involving Russians and Saudis. It triggered fierce rows with the former defence secretary, General Jim Mattis, and the former White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, and was apparently a factor in their decisions to quit.
Ironically, Kushner and wife Ivanka timed a trip to meet Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who everyone in Washington bar the Trumps holds responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to coincide with the world’s media attention focusing on the Hanoi summit and Michael Cohen’s testimony in Washington.
All of the new flurry of investigations, in their different ways, could lead toward future impeachment and they once again throw up echoes of Watergate and renewed examination of The Donald and his family’s business history, including allegations of past links to the mafia and of more recent connections to Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin… All of this with special counsel Robert Mueller’s eagerly anticipated report due to be delivered to the Justice Department in days rather than weeks.
In anticipation that Trump’s new appointee as attorney general, William Barr, will decline to release Mueller’s report immediately, or in full, and potentially opt only to make a heavily-redacted, sanitised version public, the Democrats have made it clear they will demand full publication and will mount a legal challenge right up to the Supreme Court if necessary.
In another tactical move they have announced they could subpoena Mueller to testify under oath before various congressional committees if they are not satisfied with the justice department’s public disclosure policy.
On Monday this week the powerful Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee announced a massive, wide-ranging inquiry that goes much further than the special counsel’s remit. It covers ‘alleged obstruction of justice, public corruption and other abuses of power by president Trump, his associates and members of his administration’.
In a spectacular opening gambit the committee chairman, Congressman Jerry Nadler, has named 81 individuals and entities associated with Trump from whom they require both documents and potential under oath appearances at inquiry hearings.
The cast list includes the president’s sons, Donald Jnr and Eric, his daughter Ivanka and husband Kushner, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, campaign bigwigs Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone and a wide assortment of people who have worked with the Trump family and its business operations over the decades.
Also included on the list is the president’s close friend David Pecker, the owner of the National Enquirer supermarket scandal sheet who was involved with Trump’s former lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen in the pay-off scandal involving a porn star and a Playboy model that increasingly looks a clear cut breach of US election campaign law.
Students of congressional history – and in particular presidential scandals – know that the House Judiciary Committee is where impeachment proceedings are conceived and, in the case of Watergate, delivered with fatal consequences for the man in the White House.
Already, even among Trump-sceptic Republicans on Capitol Hill, there are black humour jokes, and a few private bets being laid, on who among the 81 could turn out be the ‘John Dean figure’ – the equivalent of the senior Nixon aide who turned on the president before the House Judiciary Committee in 1973 and effectively sealed his fate.
Even away from Washington, in his home town of New York, there is little respite for Trump. Here, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) – who have a reputation for their aggressive, independent investigations – are conducting a wide-ranging inquiry that some observers have suggested could be the most damaging of all for the president.
The SDNY handled the Michael Cohen case and legal sources claim its investigators have already uncovered evidence independent of that the convicted fixer has provided that is damning for the president and those close to him and could well eclipse even the Mueller report with its final impact.
What’s now certain is that the rest of 2019 – with the next presidential election looming in 2020 – is set be a rolling TV news pageant of subpoenas, congressional hearings and court challenges. And for once it’s shaping up to be one that Donald Trump, the past master of scripted reality TV, can do little to dictate.