Has the Trump 2020 train derailed?
PUBLISHED: 00:01 15 February 2019
2019 Getty Images
New investigations, fresh scandals emerging, Republicans considering alternative candidates, has it all gone wrong for Trump?
“Bezos Exposes Pecker” was the New York Post’s funniest and punniest front page headline since its 1983 classic “Headless Body in Topless Bar”. It also provided another clue that the paper’s owner Rupert Murdoch may be cooling on the third player in the tawdry tale of naked selfies, blackmail claims and allegations of political corruption, Donald Trump himself.
He’s not the only one. Amid senior Republicans on Capitol Hill there is mounting concern that the president may be too damaged to win a second term in next year’s election, with the escalating battle between Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, Washington Post owner and the world’s richest man to boot, and David Pecker, owner of America’s most notorious scandal sheet the National Enquirer, just the latest – and unforeseen – strand in the tangled web that has enveloped the White House since Trump stepped through its front door.
With its mix of unimaginable wealth, sex, alleged corruption and an apparent culture clash between two Americas – the broadsheet-reading Washington Post elite and the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer masses – the story is, in many ways, the perfect Trump scandal. Even if the president has – thus far – only had a bit part in the drama, with the allegation being that Bezos was targeted by the magazine because he is a Trump critic and the president is a friend of the title’s owner.
As with all this presidency’s various scandals, though, the suspicion is that it could unravel further. Meanwhile, none of the others have gone away, with the Mueller inquiry intensifying and a new investigation into Trump’s political and business history announced by the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Such is the Republican concern about the president’s prospects for a second term, that a small team of senior GOP senators and congressman, big bucks backers and election strategists are holding secret talks about what to do about it. These talks even extend to sounding out reputable Republicans prepared to run against Trump for the 2020 nomination, regardless of whether he decides to stand or not.
Party confidence in the president is draining away. A senior GOP strategist familiar with the talks told me: “Senator Elizabeth Warren launched her candidacy for the Democratic ticket saying: ‘By the time we get to 2020, Donald Trump may not be president. In fact, he may not even be a free person.’ A few weeks ago we would have laughed that off, now we must factor in the possibility. OK, the odds are still against the president being indicted by then, but he could be unelectable.”
Other looming factors reinforce the concerns of the Trump-sceptics among GOP powerbrokers. Sources indicate that the White House and Trump’s private legal team are braced for special counsel Robert Mueller shortly indicting Donald Trump Jnr and, not long after that, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Then there’s the little matter of Trump’s sliding poll ratings (down to 41% approval in several surveys). Confusingly for GOP strategists, while a clear majority of Americans blame the president for the recent government shutdown, the polls also suggest that the president’s core right-wing base still back him on his Mexican Wall election pledge and would view his failure to build it making them less inclined to vote for him.
Republican officials also believe Trump’s poll slippage is also down to emerging evidence that last year’s flagship tax cuts have failed to deliver as big a boost as anticipated, while traditional blue collar Democrats in depressed Rust Belt states who defected to Trump in 2016 are waking up to the reality of his promised jobs revival proving more of a mirage.
Despite the president’s incessant efforts on Twitter – and in his delayed State of the Union address – to depict the Mueller inquiry as a “witch hunt” and Mueller (a registered Republican) as a “Democrat lackey”, the polls also show majority support for the investigation continuing without presidential interference. That only adds to the GOP leadership’s mounting sense of foreboding.
Rumours that Roger Stone – the theatrical long-time Trump confidant charged with seven counts in the Mueller probe – may now be negotiating a deal with the special counsel, despite his vow never to “betray” the president, are also causing concerns. Following Stone’s arrest last month, Mueller’s team are reported to be in the early stages of wading through a Pandora’s Box of multiple hard drives, cell phones, iCloud account and a complex string of complex bank accounts.
On Capitol Hill, senior GOP figures are acutely aware of Stone’s remarks to a television interviewer calling the Mueller investigation “a speeding bullet headed straight for the president’s head”.
To date Stone, whose Republican ‘fixer’ reputation stretches back to his time working on Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election bid, has been charged with lying to Congress and witness tampering. If Stone is indeed poised to co-operate – and with Trump’s former private attorney and convicted numero uno fixer Michael Cohen continuing to sing like the proverbial canary – the GOP hierarchy’s rising sense of private panic makes eminent sense.
Threats are coming from other directions too. The House Intelligence Committee, now under Democrat control, is flexing its muscles ominously and threatening to launch an investigation where, it suspects, even Mueller has feared to tread.
Its tough-talking chairman, congressman Adam Schiff is a staunch Trump foe who has rattled the president sufficiently to be branded a “political hack” in an early morning presidential tweet.
Schiff is even critical of Mueller, suggesting that he has backed away from fully probing Trump’s business history after the president’s 2017 threat to fire the special counsel if he crossed the ‘red line’ of investigating his family’s personal finances.
“I’m concerned that Trump’s red line has been enforced by someone in the justice department,” Schiff says. “But that leaves the country exposed and the US public in the dark.”
His committee plans to focus, in particular, on the relationship between Trump’s troubled business empire and Deutsche Bank during the mid and late 1990s when major US banks refused to deal with the tycoon.
Deutsche Bank became a critical lender to Trump. More recently it has forked out hundreds of millions of dollars in US penalties over its role in a $10 billion money laundering scheme that allowed Russian clients to move vast sums overseas. Schiff’s committee intends to investigate whether there are any links between these two facts.
“If the special counsel hasn’t subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, he can’t be doing much of a money-laundering investigation,” says Schiff, indicating that he certainly will be.
His committee’s attempts to follow the money represents a serious new front in the campaign against Trump, albeit one lacking the glamour and salacious detail of the other scandal getting senior GOP figures in a sweat: that involving Bezos and Pecker.
With a personal fortune of $136 billion and the Washington Post under his private ownership, the Amazon founder has a reputation for never giving up. His accusation that the National Enquirer attempted to “blackmail” him over details of his extramarital affair and that its 11-page expose of his marital break-up was “politically motivated or influenced by political forces” has put the spotlight on owner Pecker’s close personal friendship with Trump.
Bezos has also unleashed his own team of private investigators to look into his unproven suspicion that Saudi Arabia – which bailed out Pecker’s AMI publishing operation from bankruptcy – could be implicated too, via the hostility between the Riyadh regime and the Washington Post after the murder of its journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The National Enquirer strongly denies any Trump or Saudi connection and insists it was traditional tabloid journalism, implying that a key source of its original tip-off was a male relative of Bezos’s mistress, former television anchor Lauren Sanchez – a man who coincidentally just happens to be an admirer of Donald Trump.
But the magazine is on a bit of a sticky wicket in the court of public, political and potentially legal opinion. Not least because of Pecker’s role in the ‘catch and kill’ business – buying up, then killing stories that could damage Trump’s presidential campaign.
Now federal prosecutors are probing whether the ‘Bezos Affair’ breaches the non-prosecution deal given to Pecker over his admitted involvement in the $150,000 payoff and cover-up over a former Playboy model claiming a long extra-marital relationship with Trump. At least one senior National Enquirer staffer with the inside track on the Pecker/Trump relationship, and who told who what about Bezos’s tangled love life, is rumoured to be defecting to the camp of the world’s richest man.
You don’t have to be an admirer of Bezos’s ruthless, cheap labour, human factory Amazon operation to see him as the comparative good guy of a charmless trio on this particular occasion. Watergate legend Carl Bernstein was on the money when he declared: “In this instance Jeff Bezos has acted heroically in establishing that neither he nor the Washington Post will be intimidated.”
Most telling of all, perhaps? After initially triumphantly tweeting mockingly about “Jeff Bozo” being “taken down by a competitor whose reporting... is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post”, Trump himself has gone deafeningly silent on the subject. A sure sign he fears this one will run and run.