Two tribes go to war - the fight for the President's ear and America's soul
PUBLISHED: 07:00 29 December 2017
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As Trump scraps tax reform and Alabama shocks the world PAUL CONNEW looks at the two sides of a nation divided.
Maxim is frequently preceded by another word. Old. Can I suggest a new maxim to Donald Trump? Back a bigot who thinks the wrong side lost the American Civil War and you’re likely to trigger another one.
That’s what the president has succeeded in doing in terms of a bitterly divided Republican party at war with itself in the wake of the electoral earthquake caused by disgraced judge Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama.
The shock waves are set to reverberate far longer than the temporary relief of The Donald celebrating his tax reform bill scraping through on Capitol Hill and marking the only piece of major legislation the Trump presidency has achieved in its first year in office.
The internecine GOP in-fighting over how they lost the reddest of red states is a narrative set to play all the way through to November’s mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential campaign, irrespective of whether The Donald will be in a position to stand.
There was a bizarre, beyond satire moment when the president tweeted that he’d always known Moore would lose, despite declaring his support for him: “I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!”
Stacked against him? In the most Republican of Republican states? So, why declare for him despite the bigotry, misogyny, the racist track record and allegations of sexual abuse against teenage girls?
The answer to those questions comes in two words and goes to the very heart of the GOP civil war and its ultimate capacity to define the Trump presidency as much, perhaps, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian Connection criminal investigation. Those two words: Steve Bannon.
It was he who persuaded the president to finally throw his weight behind Moore and ignore the advice of the GOP establishment, his chief of staff General John Kelly, daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner that Moore was too tainted to warrant a presidential endorsement.
Indeed the whole Alabama campaign can now clearly be seen as a de facto proxy war between the personification of the GOP establishment, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Bannon, Trump’s election mastermind and former White House strategy chief. Their in-party mutual animosity level makes the Brexit hostilities between Dominic Grieve and Jacob Rees-Mogg look more like a minor tiff over the seating arrangements at a vicarage tea party.
Supporters of McConnell are pinning their hopes on his role in getting the tax reform bill through as an opportunity to reassert his influence over Trump, who had been seduced anew in recent weeks by Bannon, the figure behind the president’s anti-establishment ‘Washington swamp’ and ‘America First’ election campaign strategy.
It was a battle they thought they’d won back in August 19 when – supported by Kelly, Ivanka and Kushner – Bannon was forced out of his West Wing role as strategy chief.
As revealed by this column some weeks ago, Trump never lost his ‘addiction’ to Bannon and began secretly phoning him for advice and even tweeted that Bannon was right and he was wrong when Moore won the GOP nomination in Alabama, beating rival Luther Strange, the mainstream candidate The Donald backed on the advice of McConnell, Kelly and his own family. (Now there’s one tweet even this most narcissist, unapologetic POTUS’S probably does regret ever sending!)
But the blame game being played by both sides in the GOP’s Alabama fallout shows no sign of abating. In fact, the civil war looks set to escalate sharply after the festive season.
Bannon is unbowed, blaming McConnell and the Republican ‘establishment’ for his man Moore’s defeat and accusing them of seeking to undermine the Trump presidency and the platform on which he won the White House.
‘Team Mitch did everything in their power to endanger our majority in the Senate and threaten the passage of the Trump agenda…McConnell and his crew are still gloating about the fact the Republican nominee in Alabama was defeated’, snarled Bannon’s spokesman Andy Surabian.
On the other side, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a frequent Trump critic, revealed he’d donated to the campaign fund of Moore’s Democrat rival Doug Jones and described the GOP candidate’s defeat as ‘Decency Wins’.
While Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Mitch McConnell and a senior GOP policy adviser, branded the Alabama ‘fiasco’ as ‘unmasking Steve Bannon’s incompetence. What has been exposed here is that Steve Bannon has been the most harmful person to the Trump presidency in all of politics—Republican or Democrat’.
And Karl Rove, President George W Bush’s chief policy adviser, told Trump’s beloved Fox News that, far from being the ‘political genius’ the far right hail him as, Bannon ‘did little more in Alabama than rant and rave about the so-called establishment in Washington. Not a winning message’.
That said, there was no room for complacency this week for either the president or the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill, even as their tax bill scraped through on strictly party lines and with The Donald hyperbolically hailing it as ‘one of the great Christmas gifts for the middle class’. Yes, it was a major achievement set against a litany of failed legislation efforts, most notably Obamacare repeal. But Democrat strategists are convinced it will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory taking a wrecking ball to Trump’s populist street cred.
Significantly, two opinion polls showed only 29% of American s supporting the bill, reflecting the charge by Democrats and many economists that it offers only a short-term boost for the middle class and poorer Americans and does far more long-term for corporate America and super-rich individuals, including the Trump family.
At the same time, other polls revealed that the president’s personal approval ratings have now slumped to the mid thirties—in one case down to 32%---the lowest ever recorded for a POTUS in his first year in office.
Meanwhile an undeterred Steve Bannon, backed by his wealthy Far Right sponsors, has declared his determination to champion ultra-conservative, anti- Mitch McConnell ‘stooges’ running against official GOP establishment favoured candidates in next year’s upcoming elections.
For many GOP strategists the nightmare looms that the party’s civil war could spark further electoral earthquakes with fissures running so deep that both Congress and the Senate could fall to the Democrats.
Against this backdrop, the big questions being asked across Capitol Hill is whether The Donald will still be floating in those phones to Steve Bannon seeking his advice. Or whether a combination of Mitch McConnell, General Kelly and Ivanka Trump, might even prevail on POTUS to refuse to take Bannon’s incoming calls.
Whatever the fate of Special Counsel Mueller’s Russian Connection probe, the outcome of the civil war to win The Donald’s ear is destined to be the other dominant US political story of 2018. And it’s guaranteed to produce bloodshed on an epic scale.
The President and the Mogul
Donald Trump put in at least two calls to Rupert Murdoch during the closing stages of the media landscape reshaping $60billion deal that saw much of 21st Century Fox flogged off to Disney. The Donald wanted to make sure The Rupert wouldn’t be unloading the Fox News channel he so adores. He needn’t have worried.
But the president’s special interest—and a congratulatory message he sent Murdoch—could come back to haunt him both legally and politically. It’s a fair bet that neither Murdoch nor Disney CEO Bob Iger were overly delighted by the Trump intervention.
The trouble is that POTUS’s apparent endorsement of the Disney Fox deal contrasts sharply with his thinly-disguised hostility to another even bigger proposed media merger, AT&T’s $85billion takeover of Time-Warner. That deal is being opposed by US Department of Justice on antitrust and concentration of media ownership grounds and the president has previously tweeted his support for the blocking move.
Behind the scenes, however, there are suspicions that the Justice Department move was partly-inspired by Trump himself because of his animosity to CNN, part of Time-Warner and allegations the president wanted the news channel that has become his ‘fake news’ bête noir excluded from the deal; something that might well have led to its demise. But AT&T and Time Warner have refused to countenance excluding CNN and are mounting a legal counter-challenge to the Department of Justice.
Part of their legal case will centre on the president’s hundreds of anti-CNN Twitter rants and whether he has sought to influence the Justice Department. Lawyers for AT&T and Time Warner are also poised to highlight Trump’s contrasting enthusiasm for the Disney/Fox deal and any inconsistency in the justice department’s handling of the two proposed mega deals as Disney/Fox will also require regulatory clearance.
In Britain, meanwhile, there is cautious optimism among Sky News journalists that the probability of James Murdoch taking a top role at Disney could help guarantee the channel’s future under Mickey Mouse’s ownership. For the moment, however, question marks surround whether Disney would share the Murdochs’ commitment to the highly-regarded but heavily loss-making news channel. It would certainly prove ironic if British broadcast news plurality was reduced by the deal and provide food for thought for those politicians’ who have strenuously opposed the Murdoch bid for full Sky ownership.
Nevertheless Murdoch junior’s flair and vision in the revolutionary age of broadcast media delivery and consumption is widely respected by hardnosed Sky professionals. There is also the sense within Fox in the US that James Murdoch’s break from working for his formidable father is not entirely unconnected to their very different views of Donald Trump and his presidency, and by implication Fox News’ partisan coverage of the president.
Finger on the nuclear option
Rumours have swept Washington this week that President Trump is planning to use the Christmas/New Year season to press the nuclear option button and fire Russian Connection Special Counsel Robert Mueller. White House officials and Trump himself deny the persistent whispers.
It would certainly trigger an immediate political firestorm and plunge the US into a constitutional crisis and, for that reason, I can’t see it happening this year. But don’t discount an attempt to do it before 2018 is very old.
Certainly far right groups and the influential ultra-conservative GOP Freedom Caucus bloc on Capitol Hill have been pushing the idea with the White House.
And, despite the denials, the rumours were strong enough for leading Democrats and several moderate Republican lawmakers to rush onto flagship US political TV programmes to pledge their confidence in Mueller’s integrity and oppose any move to sack him or close down his investigation.
Intriguingly, however, this week witnessed a revival of the Trump/Putin bromance. First came a gushing Trump ‘thank you’ after the Russian leader lavished praise on him over America’s ‘economic performance’. Then came word of Putin’s phone call to Trump thanking him effusively after the CIA onpassed information that led to Russian security services foiling an apparent ISIS plan to launch a terrorist attack on St Petersburg’s Kazan cathedral.
Trump’s response was to bask in Putin’s gratitude and laud CIA director Mike Pompeo ‘and his talented team’. It made a marked contrast with his continuing attacks on the FBI; hostility critics put down to the fact that the president’s sacking of former FBI director James Comey and the role of another ex FBI supremo Robert Mueller as Special Counsel are central to the ongoing Russian Connection investigations.
There are also growing hints that CIA chief Pompeo is being lined up to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (never really forgiven for reputedly describing Trump as a ‘fucking moron’) in the first quarter of 2018.
But, although Pompeo hasn’t personally clashed with the president like several other US intelligence chiefs, sources close to the CIA director stress that he doesn’t dispute the view of all 16 US law enforcement and intelligence agencies that the Kremlin did interfere in last year’s presidential election with the aim of boosting Trump and damaging Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Paradoxically Trump’s big National Security Speech this week revived his trade war campaign rhetoric against Russia and China, but—even more significantly—it omitted a single reference to the overarching issue of Russian cyber-hacking and electoral interference.
Analysts stress that while collaboration between US and Russian intelligence services against the threat posed by Islamist terrorism isn’t particularly unusual, such gushing public acknowledgement of it and expressions of gratitude are decidedly less common.
As one senior Capitol Hill Democrat put it: ‘Now if the president were planning to sack Mueller before the end of this year or early next then this bromantic mood music duet between The Donald and Vladimir might just be the prelude playing’.