Trump makes Nixon look like the good guy
- Credit: Archant
The US is stumbling towards an autocracy, as it emerges Donald Trump is exploring ways to pardon himself even before any accusations have been made.
Pardon me for sounding apocalyptic, but the world's greatest democracy this week staggered further along the road to a constitutional catastrophe that would make Brexit look like a vicarage tea party.
If Theresa May is evoking Henry VIII to diminish Parliament's power over Brexit, Donald Trump is a president displaying the hallmarks of a medieval monarch in his increasingly autocratic efforts to close down the Russian Connection issue casting an ever-deepening Watergate shadow over the White House.
It was triggered initially by a Washington Post report claiming that Trump is looking into whether he can pardon himself, his family and, perhaps, all the president's men as a means to fending off the legal consequences of whatever the various Capitol Hill inquiries and special counsel Robert Mueller's criminal investigation uncovers.
And, as a dramatic week played out, the president unleashed a Twitterstorm of attacks indicating he's poised to fire his Attorney General Jeff Sessions and deputy AG Rod Rosenstein in what Democrats and many Republicans are united in agreeing would be a prelude to attempting to get rid of Mueller himself even at the peril of a constitutional crisis that could eclipse Watergate.
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The president's legal advisers were at first quick to dismiss the Post report and essentially argued no such pardoning thoughts had even entered POTUS's mind. But then enter a contradictory tweet (what else?) from the president himself: 'While all agree the US President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us. FAKE NEWS'.
In truth, legal and constitutional experts are divided over the presidential power to pardon in a scenario such as the Russian Connection case, but the notion that a president should even be contemplating the pardoning pathway before any criminal offence is even levelled against him or his associates sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill and across America.
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In a week that would have tested the imagination of any House of Cards or West Wing scriptwriter to distraction, Trump's apparent flirtation with the pardoning card even managed to make the president's political hero, Richard Nixon, look the good guy. After all, Nixon did finally drop the idea of trying to pardon himself and his top aides during Watergate.
Denials by the president's personal legal team were further undermined when deputy White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told TV interviewers 'the president maintains pardon powers like any president would', before adding 'there is no announcement about pardons right now'.
A self-pardon would be unprecedented and untested in US history or, come to that, any Western democracy – but there are those on Capitol Hill who fear that a maverick president like none before might be tempted to try. It's a point on which the US Constitution is unclear, with the constitution reading: 'The president shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in case of impeachment.'
But what is clear in law is that the president is the only person invested with the power to pardon others facing federal crime prosecutions or imprisonment, but with a big question mark over his power to pardon himself.
Even among senior Capitol Hill Republican figures, there is grim-faced acceptance that any pre-emptive strike by The Donald to pardon himself, his family or associates would not only trigger that massive constitutional crisis but, in all probability, decide the fate of next year's mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential election contest. Some Republican senators privately acknowledge that 'any person exempting himself or those close to him from criminal liability would represent a fundamental affront to America's basic rule-of-law values'.
In which case, some would even favour 'disowning' a Trump campaign and running a rival candidate if Trump decided to run for the White House in 2020, forcing him to stand as a de facto independent.
But the potential appeal of the pardoning route is that a sitting president can't be prosecuted for a crime unless impeached and removed from office first. With special prosecutor Mueller's complex investigation potentially lasting years, it could serve as a 'Trump-umbrella' covering him against the political storm clouds for some considerable time and effectively throwing down the gauntlet to Congress to impeach him.
Senator Mark Warner, a senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, reflected the mood music across Capitol Hill when he said (ahead of the president's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner's second lengthy behind-closed-doors Russian Connection grilling of the week): 'The possibility the president is even considering pardoning at this early stage is extremely disturbing. Pardoning any individual who may have been involved would cross a fundamental line.' The same theme echoed across Capitol Hill over the dangers of POTUS ousting the Attorney General Sessions and moving to sack Special Counsel Mueller.
Little wonder, perhaps, that among the fusillade of Trump tweets was one complaining: 'It's very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their president.' While, among the presidential twitter trolling of Sessions, there were those accusing the Attorney General of 'weakness' for not reviving a criminal investigation against Hillary Clinton. It was an equally beleaguered POTUS reverting back to his discredited, abandoned 'lock her up' campaign mode.
Meanwhile, how did Jared Kushner do at his initial meetings with Capitol Hill investigators, held behind closed doors and not under oath? (Public hearings under oath and questioning under oath to the Mueller criminal investigation will come later).
'I did not collude' was his effective plea behind closed doors, just as it was in a statement issued to the media beforehand and repeated when he delivered a statement (refusing media questions) to the cameras outside the White House itself; a PR move orchestrated by Donald Trump's new crisis-management appointee as Director of Communications, flamboyant, charismatic ex-Wall Street hedge fund baron, Anthony 'The Mooch' Scaramucci (described by one insider as 'Central Casting's idea of a smooth operator').
It was a repeat of the strategy of portraying himself as a political and foreign policy neophyte who held four meetings with Russians during a hectic, unconventional election campaign in which he didn't appreciate the potential fallout, while insisting it was not linked to any Russian plot to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
It was doubtless on The Mooch's orders that Kushner threw in the on-camera script that The Donald won the election because he 'had a better message and ran a smarter campaign than Hillary Clinton' and suggesting otherwise 'ridicules those who voted for him'.
But it was a performance, that, by all whispered accounts, hardly over-impressed his inquisitors and begged more questions than it answered. Not least why he failed to report any of his meetings with Russians during his security clearance process as legally required; omissions which he sought to put down to 'administrative errors' by an assistant.
Similarly, Kushner's claim that he didn't fully read the email chain setting up the Trump Tower meeting he attended, ostensibly set-up to hear Russian government supplied 'dirt' on presidential campaign rival Clinton.
Eyebrows were also raised high by his explanation that he also arrived at the meeting late and left early, emailing his assistant to message him with an excuse to leave. There was also scepticism over Kushner's insistence that the conversation while he was in the room only focused on the 'Russian adoption' issue; 'adoption' is a widely known codeword for Russia's attempts to thwart the Obama sanctions imposed over Putin's annexation of Crimea, say US intelligence chiefs.
Particularly tricky for Kushner is his belated admission to meeting, just days after the Trump Tower gathering, Sergey Gorkov, billionaire head of Vnesheconombank, a close confidant of Vladimir Putin and a man whose bank was subject to official US sanctions at the time. It will step up Democrat calls for Kushner to be stripped of his all-important security status, a move that some Washington Republicans might now be inclined to back.
The 36-year-old husband of Ivanka Trump – both are also the focus of nepotism question marks – also faced tricky questions over his alleged attempt to establish a secret back channel to Putin and the Kremlin. While his depiction of a small, inexperienced, close-knit election campaign team will be seized on by those highly sceptical about the claim the president himself was oblivious to any of these Russian encounters.
Above all, however, Kushner's closed door testimony appeared, in the words of several US media headlines, to 'throw Donald Trump Junior and ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort under the bus'.
Coincidence or not, the Capitol Hill questioning sessions for Trump Junior and Manafort before the Senate Judicial Committee were postponed while their lawyers engage in further negotiations over the terms of their appearance and documentation to be provided. Trump Junior was, of course, the primary recipient of the Russian 'offer' to compromise Clinton. First exposed by the New York Times. Manafort resigned as campaign manager after media revelations that he received millions of dollars from pro-Russian business associates in Ukraine.
But in yet another dramatic twist, Manafort then appeared secretly before the Senate Intelligence Committee, handing over documents and apparently a detailed statement of Russian meetings, including his account of the Trump Tower gathering he attended with Donald Junior and Kushner. The same day the Judicial Committee issued a subpoena ordering Manafort to face them as well.
Significantly, the president's former National Security Adviser General Mike Flynn, who resigned after the media exposed his own undeclared links to Russian Ambassador Kisylak, has already refused to testify to the Senate inquiry, pleading the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination after being refused an amnesty from prosecution deal.
Ironically, Trump's escalating campaign to force out his Attorney General had started with a strange, rambling interview with one of his usual 'Fake News' bête noirs, The New York Times.
Trump told the paper he wouldn't have appointed Sessions if he'd known he would step aside from the Russian Connection inquiries, described Sessions as 'beleaguered' several times and in one later tweet demanded: 'So why aren't the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered Attorney General, looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes&Russia relations?' (sic).
Early speculation on Capitol Hill suggested POTUS was hoping to 'persuade' Sessions into resignation rather than risk the kind of backlash that followed his sacking of FBI director James Comey. But when that failed to work with the Attorney General (himself an ex-judge and senator) publicly stating he'd be staying put, the president duly ramped up his incendiary, obsessive Twitter offensive.
White House aides had even briefed the media that high-profile former New York Mayor and Trump ally Rudy Giuliani was in line to replace Sessions. But that plan went awry when Giuliani said he wouldn't want the job and also backed the Sessions recusal decision that has so enraged the president.
More seriously still, Trump's anti-Robert Mueller fury heated up when it emerged that the hugely-respected Special Counsel (himself a former FBI supremo) is extending his Russian Connection criminal investigation beyond Kremlin efforts to subvert the US election campaign into the business history and interests of the Trump family and its associates. This could include seizing the president's elusive tax records.
The efforts to damage Mueller have included POTUS telling his favourite MSM platform, Fox News, that the Special Counsel has a 'very bothersome relationship' with ousted FBI chief Comey, who was Mueller's predecessor at the FBI and claiming the two men are 'very close friends' — a claim both former FBI men strongly refute.
Meanwhile the Washington Post weighed in with a new story claiming the president and his team have embarked on an 'attack strategy' targeting the past political loyalties of Mueller and his expanding team of veteran Justice Department attorneys and white collar crime experts. Senior Trump strategist Kellyanne Conway even took to the Fox News airwaves to essentially confirm the Post story and defend the move as seeking 'relevant information'.
Some senior Republican figures admitted to 'wincing' at Trump tweets that virtually amounted to threats against Mueller (a registered GOP member by the way) over extending his investigation into the family's business history. One particularly vitriolic Tweetburst read: 'Drain the swamp should be changed to drain the sewer ... actually worse than anyone thought. FAKE NEWS!'
To presidential outrage, the special counsel is set to look at, among other things, past media boasts by both Donald Trump junior and his younger brother Eric about the 'Russian money' backing they'd received – which flies in the face of their father's repeated public denials of any business ties to Russia. When the time comes, the president, his family and all his key associates, past and present, will face questioning under oath by the Mueller inquiry. Unless, of course, POTUS can engineer Mueller's demise first and succeed in shutting down the whole Russian Connection probe.
Back on Capitol Hill, there are strong rumours that alarmed Republican party grandees have stressed to the White House that firing the special counsel or, to a lesser extent, the attorney general would be a 'political disaster' with Watergate-level implications. But it appeared to be having little impact on a presidentgly hellbent on operating like an amalgam of a medieval monarch, his own ruthless New York property tycoon self and his TV Apprentice 'You're Fired!' persona.
But another setback could be looming for The Donald with strong rumours his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will quit by year's end. The former Exxon chief is reputedly disillusioned with the president's 'erratic' foreign policy.
Meanwhile, as POTUS raged and ranted uncontrollably, congressional leaders on both sides of the House defied the president and voted 419-3 to retain tough sanctions against Russia. It certainly took the gloss off a strictly limited boost for Trump earlier on Tuesday when a casting vote by vice-president Mike Pence sent his ailing Obamacare repeal bill for further debate on the Senate floor, but where it still faces huge and possibly insurmountable hurdles.
Congress's Russia vote, which is virtually certain to be ratified by the Senate, effectively handcuffs the president's power to scrap or suspend Obama's sanctions — something Trump pledged to do during his Putin-praising election campaign, If the president decides to oppose Congress on it, he'll spark renewed accusations of being 'Moscow's puppet'. But if POTUS doesn't, then he certainly won't endear himself to a certain very angry, disappointed and powerful man in the Kremlin.
Quite a dilemma to end one helluva a Washington week.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor. He met and interviewed Donald Trump several times when he was the Mirror Group's US Bureau Chief.
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