How Donald Trump will get away with the crime of the century
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Trump's crimes are far worse than Nixon's, but unlike his political hero he is going to get away with it, says JAMES BALL.
If headlines are any indication of the era we're living in, 2020 is off to something of a slow start: a wealthy couple are going to move house and change their jobs, while a washed-up actor wants to share some reactionary opinions to sell his third-rate albums. Clearly, there can't be much going on in the world.
Except despite stories like these dominating the news agenda, the president of the United States of America - the most powerful man in the world - is on trial for "high crimes and misdemeanours". And yet the story is having to compete for attention with other, less momentous matters.
This isn't the result of some vast media conspiracy to hide this fact, but rather because we've all adjusted far too rapidly to the idea of widespread corruption at the very top of US politics. This is not normal, and it's certainly not healthy, so maybe it's worth a recap to remind ourselves of the allegations at hand.
Donald Trump has been linked to many immoral things through his career, to the point that his impeachment can seem a complex story to follow. But the reality is that most of his controversies that have been associated with him haven't even been brought into the scope of the case built against him: His dubious certificate-mill of a university, the conviction of multiple of his campaign staff for offences during the election, even his public call for Russia to hack his electoral opponent... none of that is especially on the table.
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Instead, Trump stands accused of a simpler instance of wrongdoing. At the core of the allegations - supported by evidence released by Trump's own White House - is the claim that the president used the power of his office to try to initiate criminal investigations into the family of his potential 2020 electoral opponent, for the purposes of keeping power for himself.
Trump's alleged wrongdoing here is far more blatant than the scandal which brought down one of his political icons, Richard Nixon, whose presidency was eventually ended over a break-in by his campaign operatives at the Watergate Hotel, intent on stealing documents from the Democratic Party for his political advantage.
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What Trump is on trial for is several orders of magnitude worse. At the very minimum, he is accused of repeatedly pressuring the leader of Ukraine, a nation in a live war with Russia, to assist him in launching a politically-motivated criminal investigation into the son of Joe Biden, at the time seen as his likeliest 2020 opponent.
This pressure was applied by Trump himself, as well as repeatedly by those working for him. Its goal was enabling the apparatus of the US state itself - Trump's Department of Justice - to be deployed against his political rival. US diplomats who tried to stall or oppose the corrupt scheme were intimidated, redeployed, or fired.
And beyond all of this, there is strong evidence to suggest Trump held back hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid, which had been approved by Congress and so was required to be sent without obstruction. The allegation is that this aid was withheld until the Ukrainian government complied with Trump's corrupt instructions.
This is made all the more extraordinary by the fact that Ukraine is still trying to repel an irregular invasion by Russia, a longstanding US rival which multiple inquiries concluded meddled in the 2016 US election in order to secure Trump's victory.
The president, it is suggested, undermined active war efforts of a US ally for his own personal interests.
This is not some small technical issue of procedure or propriety. This is wrongdoing on an almost unimaginable scale - and yet somehow we are ignoring it, and thus making its continuation all the more possible.
Just in the last month, allegations emerged that Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, put a US envoy under surveillance while trying to secure the president's corruption investigation.
There have also been claims that Parnas tried to trade information on the president's rivals with Dmytro Firtash - a Ukrainian gas tycoon who has been allied with pro-Russia interests and is currently fighting extradition to the United States to face bribery charges - in exchange for dropping the cases against him. During that period, Parnas received $1 million from Firtash, a New York court heard. It is hardly a dull story, it's just one we're not watching.
If we don't learn to pay attention soon, there will be plenty more time for such grift and degradation. Each day Trump remains in the White House is another day eroding the norms and standards that make democracy possible.
Trump's political idol Nixon should provide a good warning of this. Trump didn't only inherit the paranoid politics of Nixon and his one-time mentor Senator Joseph McCarthy, he even inherited some of his early career personnel from them - his former attorney, the famously corrupt New York City lawyer Roy Cohn, who worked for all three men.
Hard as it seems to believe from a 2020 vantage point, Nixon secured re-election in 1972. This is an achievement Trump could very easily match: his job approval numbers are slightly improving year-on-year, his base is solid, and so-called 'mainstream' Republican opinion is showing little sign of diverging from him.
Incumbent presidents always have an inbuilt advantage during re-election campaigns. The Democratic field is currently divided and could descend into bitter infighting as "progressives" and "moderates" clash. The Republican vote, meanwhile, is better distributed. Despite his impeachment, Donald Trump is on course for another four years in the White House.
Nixon, of course, didn't get a second four years. When the truth of the Watergate break-in emerged, and after months and months of the story refusing to go away, Republicans eventually turned away from him, and left him set to face almost certain impeachment. In the face of this, Nixon resigned.
This seems unlikely to be the fate of Donald Trump in 2020. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented to the House of Representatives - who vote on whether to launch an impeachment trial in the Senate - not a single Republican broke ranks to vote for continuing the impeachment process.
The bar in the Senate is much higher: two-thirds of senators have to vote to convict, meaning at least 14 of 53 Republicans would have to turn on their president and do the right thing, rather than the thing that helps their political party. There is virtually zero chance of that happening.
Despite the strength of the case against him, Trump will survive impeachment and he will likely get re-elected.
These, on the face of it, illogical predictions reflect the deep divisions in the US - partly sowed by Trump himself - that mean that many politicians and voters are prepared to give him their support despite the knowledge of his misdeeds. They are also an acknowledgement of the process of 'normalisation' of those misdeeds that began even before he was elected in
Trump's bad behaviour and flawed character was widely known and understood long before he entered the White House. His outrageous actions while in office have only added to the noise and diluted the reaction against them.
This cumulative effect means the mounting evidence against him is doing little to shift opinion and leaves us with an impeachment trial from which he will likely emerge unscathed, possibly even strengthened by the partisan theatre of it all.
But that doesn't mean we should just tune out and despair. While the case might struggle to get the attention it deserves on this side of the Atlantic, it will be box office in the US, where every headline on impeachment is a headline distracting from the messages Trump would wish to put out, is another quote or another line that can be used in adverts about him, is another piece of information to try to change the minds of undecided voters, or to galvanise demoralised Democratic voters into turning out.
Trump has, it seems, managed the crime of the decade, the century, and quite possibly the millennium: he's stolen the leadership of the richest nation on earth. He's all set to get away with it.
In the US, the story has descended into politics-as-usual, framed as Democrats and Republicans arguing about procedure. Over here, we're barely talking about impeachment at all. Our collective indifference helps him get away with it, and signals to our own leaders they could probably get away with it too - and that makes us all complicit.
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