ALBERT SCARDINO: Trump is losing control of events and his own destiny
PUBLISHED: 12:00 23 December 2018 | UPDATED: 17:05 23 December 2018
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The polls may show his ratings are holding steady, but Trump is losing control of events and his own destiny, says ALBERT SCARDINO.
Donald Trump is drowning in the Washington swamp he vowed to drain. As this year opened, US news organisations were having trouble keeping up with the number of his falsehoods. As it closes, they are struggling to keep track of the criminal, civil and journalistic investigations he faces.
Next month, a new set of investigations will begin when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, using their new majority and committee subpoena power to examine anything in the Trump administration that attracts their attention. Trump’s quagmire already spreads far wider than Nixon’s did during Watergate, even if his political support has not yet collapsed.
The Mueller investigations grind on, looking into Russia’s efforts to influence American elections. Trump calls this a “witch hunt”. Nixon called the Watergate a “third-rate burglary”.
According to the news outlet Vox, the rogues’ list in the Mueller case so far includes five former Trump advisers, 26 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, one California man and one London-based lawyer. Seven of these people (including now all five former Trump aides) have pleaded guilty.
The ‘witch hunt’ has also triggered an accelerating set of alibis, excuses, false claims and misrepresentations of the law from Trump and his latest personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, his third – or fourth, depending on your definition.
Then there are the collateral cases brought by federal prosecutors in the southern district of New York, known as SDNY in law enforcement and journalistic circles but as Manhattan to everyone else. That investigation initially focused on Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time personal lawyer and a vice president in his company, the Trump Organization.
After raiding Cohen’s law office and residence, investigators discovered that Cohen had taped his client instructing him to funnel hush money to women with whom Trump had had sexual encounters. The stories were about to break during the last months of the presidential campaign. The payments were intended to save the campaign. Cohen’s files proved a rich source of damning material.
The Trump Organization’s finance director, Allen Weisselberg, and the head of the celebrity scandal sheet National Enquirer, David Pecker, have received immunity from prosecution in exchange for their evidence in the payoff case. These cases are proceeding independently of Mueller and could not be stopped even if the special counsel were dismissed by Trump.
Also in New York, state authorities are investigating the Trump charitable foundation for violations of state tax, charity and campaign laws. That investigation is also targeting Trump’s adult children, Ivanka and Don Jr, who took over as trustees of the charity when their father’s presidential campaign accelerated.
Finally, for the moment at least, there is the state investigation of the Trump Organization on suspicions of tax fraud. A New York Times analysis of Trump family documents in early October was headlined “Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father”.
The newspaper examined a web of trusts, corporate structures, loans and other transactions that yielded the equivalent of more than $400 million for Trump, the self-proclaimed self-made man, before he became president.
That story could be based only on records in state files. Three successive state attorneys general in New York have acknowledged that they are investigating the Trump family’s filings.
New journalistic investigations pop up frequently, in all likelihood spurred on by other carefully planted leaks from law enforcement sources. The Wall Street Journal last week broke a new ‘follow-the-money’ story involving the finances of the Trump inaugural committee. That charity raised $107 million from private sources to pay for the celebrations in Washington on the day the new president was sworn in. Much or all of that money may have come from foreign sources, including from individuals and companies seeking favour with the new administration for themselves or for governments. That would be a violation of federal law.
Where the money went may also be an issue. The inaugural committee spent much of the money at the new Trump International Hotel, across the street from the White House. The bills included such items as renting the hotel’s ballroom for $187,500 a day. At least $40 million has so far been unaccounted for in inauguration committee filings. If any of that money made its way back to Trump – for instance to repay the tens of millions of loans he reported to have made to his campaign when few others supported him – that would amount to further campaign finance law violations and possibly tax fraud.
At the hub of the money flow was Ivanka Trump, the daughter, serving as the liaison between the Trump presidential campaign and the Trump inaugural committee. At the time, she was also one of the two trustees of a trust created to hold all of her father’s business interests (the other was her brother Don). Her father is the sole beneficiary of the trust and retains the ability to influence the management of the assets.
This kind of nest of money and management – interbreeding partnerships, trusts, corporations and private charities – has been characteristic of the Trump family for three generations, as described by the Times and other American news outlets this year. Such structures are not unusual in large, private, family property businesses in the US, though seldom have they grown with such abandon. Never before has such an enterprise invaded public bodies with such speed and breadth.
The failure to insulate private interests from public responsibilities defines the ethical issues at the centre of Trump’s public life. The same failure permeates many of the offices inhabited by his appointees and fellow-travellers.
Tom Price, a surgeon-turned-politician, became Trump’s first health secretary after serving in congress. He resigned after being accused of investing in shares of pharmaceutical companies that could benefit from legislation he sponsored. Price opposed mandatory vaccination programmes and hoped to eliminate health insurance plans for the elderly. Those policy positions endeared him to the president.
Trump attributed his resignation to unnecessary use of charter aircraft, but the president had threatened publicly to fire him if he failed to muster sufficient votes in congress to eliminate Obamacare. He failed and was fired. Trump had no issue with his politics.
Scott Pruitt, appointed to run the Environmental Protection Agency, left after being accused of accepting financial favours from lobbyists and mixing personal and public expenses. Before he went, he stripped away regulations protecting clean water and clean air. Trump praised his work before letting him dangle on the end of his own rope.
Ryan Zinke, secretary of the interior, has resigned and will leave office the day before Democrats take control of the House of Representatives. After winning the mid-term elections, the Democrats had vowed to investigate Zinke on a range of alleged ethical violations.
Zinke’s own department has investigated his actions numerous times since he took office last year. Most of the complaints have been dismissed either for lack of evidence or because of a refusal of Zinke’s department to provide requested information. Zinke has blocked studies of coal mining on public land and has banned the use of the term “climate change” in department communications.
Trump let him offer the excuse that his secretary didn’t want to spend thousands paying lawyers to defend himself in numerous investigations. Trump never mentioned the land deal in Zinke’s home state of Montana involving his wife and the chairman of the energy giant Halliburton. The company is involved in numerous contracts under consideration by Zinke’s department for energy development on public lands.
In this miasma of allegations of corruption, it is easy to lose track of the flea bag of hangers on who went from being described by Trump as imminent figures to being ‘coffee boy’ characters, like the ‘energy policy expert’ George Papadopoulos, just released from prison. He served a brief sentence for lying to federal investigators early in the Mueller investigation.
Oddly, the only administration figure forced out for taking an ethical stance has been Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. Sessions recused himself from any Justice Department decision-making that involved the Russian investigation, infuriating Trump. Sessions believed his own impartiality had been brought into question because he himself was accused of misleading congress about his own contact with Russian officials between Trump’s election and the inauguration.
After more than a year of bombarding Sessions with humiliating public tweets, Trump accepted his resignation without comment as soon as the Democrats won the mid-term elections last month.
True to form Trump found no fault with Sessions’s authoritarian policies on immigration, voting rights, hate crimes, mass incarceration, civil rights enforcement and reform of local policing practices. He drove him from office because Sessions failed to protect him from investigations.
The year ahead may turn out much like 1973 did for Nixon. That was the year congressional committees began to consider the Watergate break-in and the cover-up Nixon masterminded. As the hearings ground on, the abuses of power came tumbling out: the break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist seeking records to discredit the man who had released the secret Pentagon study of the Vietnam War; the Enemies List of journalists and political opponents whose tax records were to be scrutinised by the authorities; the hush money from campaign funds to be paid to the burglars.
When the House of Representatives finally drew up its articles of impeachment against Nixon the following year, they listed three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of congress. Nixon could no longer use the war in Vietnam or an opening to China to divert attention. His political support in the senate had eroded.
In their book, The Final Days, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward described Nixon’s last weeks in office. During the summer of 1974, Nixon sat isolated in the White House as the senate prepared to convict him, the first American president to be forcibly removed from office. He ordered the air conditioning to be turned down to the minimum temperature, lit a fire to comfort himself and poured himself glass after glass of scotch.
Trump doesn’t drink whiskey, only diet sodas. His generals may be reluctant to start a war as a diversion. They resisted even sending 5,000 troops to the Texas border with Mexico to protect against an “invading horde” of 900 refugees from “Honduras or South America or somewhere even further south”, as Trump described it.
When the hearings begin in the house of representatives next month, he will have plenty of opportunity to show his contempt for congress. Mueller is considering his possible obstruction of justice for firing the FBI director, James Comey. Trump’s numerous executive orders on immigration, the dismissal of federal employees for their privately expressed political views, his belittling of judges, legislators, political opponents – all of these may come to be considered abuses of power. It depends on the political climate.
Trump’s approval rating remains stuck at around 40%, about where it started two years ago. Nixon remained above that level until the senate began to hear testimony about his crimes during his fifth year in office, in July of 1973. As one witness after another revealed the extent of his involvement in deceit, suppression of evidence, misuse of executive authority, his support in the senate collapsed.
The public never entirely abandoned him, particularly in the south, where voters remained loyal. Right up until his resignation, he retained the support of almost 25% of the public nationally, but by as much as 40% in the south.
Over the last 45 years, the southern US has switched from being almost solidly Democratic at every level of government to being almost entirely Republican in all but the urban areas and the occasional rural county where black people make up the majority. The same region that stood by Nixon remains Trump’s stronghold. As Republicans gained strength there, hundreds of officials elected as Democrats changed their party affiliation.
Last week, the chief judge of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, cancelled her registration as a Republican, an affiliation she listed when she first registered to vote 41 years ago. She didn’t become a Democrat, but she said that the party she had joined no longer represented the values she shared. She cited the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court as the immediate reason.
In the new year, the 2020 presidential campaign will get underway. Will Trump seek re-election, or even remain in office? Who among the Democrats will be able to raise money, attract volunteers, gain name recognition? Will news organisations continue to freeze their attention on the former reality television star or will congress and the courts capture air time?
The first polls came out last week for the first state to vote in the presidential race, Iowa. Former vice president Joe Biden was the voter’s first choice for the Democratic nomination. Senator Bernie Sanders came second. Beto O’Rourke, the Texas senate candidate who lost last month’s election to the incumbent, Ted Cruz, came third. At least 27 others have indicated an interest in running. The voting begins in just over a year.