PAUL CONNEW takes a look at the latest turmoil in the West Wing
Turmoil. Tumult. Chaos. Confusion. Panic. Pandemonium. Mayhem. Madness.
All words which have figured fairly frequently in headlines around Donald Trump’s presidency since the day he took office, but rarely on the intensity scale of the last few days.
You could toss in surreal for good measure, as he defied his own economic advisers and most of the GOP establishment (while propelling Theresa May into a blue Brexit funk) by declaring ‘trade wars are good’; bewildered Capitol Hill Republicans and Democrats by facing both ways at once on gun control; launched a new and perilous attack on Attorney General Jeff Sessions; ‘joked’ (or maybe not?) that America might like to ‘give a shot’ to China’s ‘president for life’ road to dictatorship… and even tried his tiny hand at stand-up comedy.
But the headline that arguably captured the chaos (and the state of Trump’s mind) best came from the Politico website: ‘The Loneliest Man in Washington Just Got Lonelier’.
‘Every president gets lonely,’ columnist Edward-Isaac Dovere opined. ‘It’s a lonely job. But the president who spent his life desperately seeking attention and getting all of it anyone could ever want might be the loneliest one ever and he’s about to get lonelier.’
Indeed, the image of the Great Isolationist increasingly isolated inside his own White House asylum is far from fanciful. Administration insiders say Trump is ‘depressed, even devastated’ by the loss of his closest confidant and longest-serving, pre-presidential aide, director of communications Hope Hicks, who is also particularly close to the president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner.
The 29-year-old Hicks resigned the day after a testy nine-hour session in front of the House Intelligence Committee in which she admitted telling ‘white lies’ on behalf of Trump but doggedly refused to answer any questions about events following his inauguration.
But, according to well-placed sources, Hicks has already been questioned for several hours by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and faces further questioning, this time under oath, by Mueller himself.
Much of that questioning will focus on her role in helping the president draft the infamous false statement aboard Air Force One about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton during the election campaign; a meeting brokered by Donald Trump Jnr and attended by the president’s son-in-law Kushner and then campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is facing a string of serious criminal charges brought by the Special Counsel.
Privately Trump’s small army of personal lawyers fear that – even if she hasn’t done so already – Hicks will abandon the same defiance in the face of Mueller’s greater powers. They also figure he will test her with the offer of a plea bargain deal, in return for full co-operation, similar to those given to disgraced former national security adviser General Mike Flynn, campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and, most recently, Manafort’s business partner and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates.
Under oath, Mark Corallo, former legal spokesman in the Trump White House, has now given the special counsel evidence of the fake statement collaboration between the president and Hicks that offers prima facie ‘proof’ of obstruction of justice. While Steve Bannon, Trump’s estranged campaign mastermind, has apparently confirmed to Mueller on oath that Corallo alerted him to it at the time. Another unnamed former senior White House figure is understood to have done the same.
Although Mueller is still pressing for a forensic face-to-face interrogation of Trump himself, the president’s legal team remain simultaneously reluctant to expose their impulsive client to it and wary that the special counsel isn’t pushing for it quite as urgently as they anticipated. But that, they suspect, is because former FBI boss Mueller is steadily and tactically fitting more and more pieces into his expanding jigsaw puzzle before acting.
Privately, several of the president’s legal team are horrified by his continued attacks on Attorney General Sessions for ‘recusing’ himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation – a decision Sessions couldn’t, in reality, duck, given his own improperly undeclared links with Russia’s ambassador to Washington.
An increasingly erratic Trump has taken to referring to Sessions as ‘Mr Magoo’ in front of staff, likening him to the bumbling cartoon character. In another outburst, the president lamented
‘Where’s my Roy Cohn?’; a reference to the lawyer of choice for the New York mafia who was Trump’s mentor as he developed his Manhattan property empire.
Now, Mueller is understood to have added the president’s efforts to force the attorney general’s resignation, to his firing of FBI Director James Comey, as further evidence of Trump’s ‘obstruction of justice’ bid and, it is rumoured, Sessions is himself assisting with that line of inquiry.
In addition, the president’s legal team are now alert to the fact Mueller is demanding access to a wide range of documents involving at least nine of Trump’s closest campaign advisers and close associates, dating back to November 2015, four months after he first declaring his bid for the Republican candidacy. The list includes Kushner, Trump Jnr, Bannon, Manafort and Hicks, among others, and covers emails, text messages, work papers and telephone logs and records. The attorneys are also acutely aware the probe is delving deeper back into Trump’s business and tax history.
The key significance is that Trump appears to be the primary target and the special counsel’s objective is establishing whether the president himself was privy to Russian cyber-hacking of Democratic party emails and complicit in their use against Hillary Clinton during the election campaign itself. If so, it would add the far more serious criminal charge of colluding with Russia to the ‘obstruction of justice’ case against POTUS.
Expectation is also mounting among the president’s legal team that Trump Jnr and Kushner, in particular, will be indicted before Mueller demands Trump sits down to be questioned in person, or seeks a subpoena if he resists.
That may well explain why the president performed a U-turn and bowed to his chief of staff General John Kelly’s demand that Kushner be stripped of his top-level security clearance, effectively rendering his role as a senior White House adviser impotent. Trump is even said to have confided to friends that ‘it might be better’ if Kushner and his wife quit their unpaid White House roles and return to New York. Significantly, too, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, previously sympathetic to the couple’s positions, produced a powerful article suggesting they step down.
The only thing likely to hold the president back is that, with Hicks resigning, the departure of Kushner and Ivanka would up the ‘loneliness’ factor; a big blow to a president who, for all the narcissism and bombast, is also insecure and relishes the comfort blanket of family loyalists close at hand.
Meanwhile Trump’s White House economic adviser Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, are both believed to be contemplating joining the growing exodus from the administration unless the president shelves his trade war, tariff-imposition plan with its potential to trigger a global economic catastrophe. Both have warned him that it’s a protectionist folly that will sabotage the economy and cost many American workers their jobs. Life could get lonelier still.