12 April 2018
Trump battles on.
By J R Thomas
So often, it is the little things that sink you. In sailing, not looking up the local weather forecast, or forgetting to take the bailing bucket. But this is not a column about sailing; it is, most weeks, about politics. And in American politics there is one terrible example that every American President should have, in the back, front, and both sides of his mind; that of Richard Milhous Nixon.
Mr Nixon was far from the least successful of American Presidents. However “success” is measured, President Nixon probably ought to be in the top quartile, if only for his achievements on the international stage. But alas, poor Richard. It is not for that he is currently and maybe for all time henceforth remembered, it is for his downfall. Watergate was the deluge that swept him away and drowned him. Yet, it need never have been so. Nixon almost certainly knew nothing of the intended wiretap of Democrat telephone lines or the “burglary”. His mistake was that, when he was told, he did not seize the political initiative and clean the GOP’s particular variety of Augean stables. Instead, he covered up what had happened in the Watergate building, and he allowed, encouraged, the electronic snooping and eavesdropping of opponents to continue. He might have made himself a (slightly tarnished) political hero; instead he became the epitome of dirty tricks and political sleaze.
Which brings us to the 45th President of the United States. No modern candidate for the highest office in the land gets away without imputations on the sanctity of his character and campaign. (OK, maybe we will allow one. Bernie Saunders, take a bow.) Mrs Clinton was much attacked for the conduct of her 2016 campaign, Mr Trump even more so. Allegations of Russian money, moles inside both party headquarters feeding information across the political street, manipulation of the voters register, all these suggestions were flung in all directions. Both candidates have so far faced them down so we must wait for Robert Mueller to complete his enquiries. But there is one set of stormy waters that does seem to have the potential to overturn Mr Trump. Not so much stormy waters as Stormy Daniels.
The Shaw Sheet does not much go in for vulgar gossip, and it is not going to start now. But. But. There is a potential scandal brewing here, and in the current battleground that is intersexual relationships and historic alleged poor behaviour of powerful men, it is one, that if the Donald cannot deal with it, could turn out to be a real threat to his Presidency.
Stormy Daniels, known to her family as Stephanie Clifford, is a thirty nine year old actress from Louisiana. Powerful men are not un-noted for getting tangled up with pretty, blond, shapely actresses, and Ms Daniels qualifies on all counts. Her acting speciality though is more controversial than some – she has starred in various pornographic films and it has to be said that she has no secrets from the camera. She claims that she had a very brief affair with Mr Trump in 2006, just after the birth of Mr Trump’s youngest son. Mr Trump, or mostly his lawyer, Michael Cohen, says he (Trump) didn’t. Ms Daniels tried to sell her story to some of the more salacious of the national media, but instead signed a non-disclosure agreement with Mr Cohen (or she says, Mr Trump) in return for $130,000. After a wave of minor stories in early 2016 all went quiet.
More recently though things start to get bizarre. Ms Daniels says Mr Trump never signed the agreement and therefore it is not binding; Mr Cohen says Mr Trump did not know of the agreement but that it is. Cohen confirms making the payment of $130,000 but says the money did not in any way come from the Trump campaign or Trump business, but from Mr Cohen’s own resources. Ms Daniels first denied and then admitted signing a statement that her claims were not true. She says she was considering running as a candidate for US Senator for Louisiana and hoped Trump might donate to her campaign (she later dropped the idea as she found, in her words, that her campaign “was not been taken seriously”). Mr Cohen is considering suing Ms Daniels for up to $20m for revealing the non-disclosure agreement (a breach of its terms). Various parties are suggesting that Mr Cohen’s payment of the $130,000 may constitute an undeclared campaign contribution; these parties include Robert Mueller who has seized (illegally says Mr Cohen) some of Mr Cohen’s papers relating to campaign contributions. Various acting colleagues of Ms Daniels have come forward with various stories to rebut or support hers.
Does it matter? Does anybody care, other than maybe Mrs Trump? On the face of it no, and they shouldn’t, but the problem, Mr Nixon might have said, is that it is not the act that does the damage, it is the cover up afterwards. Not that we are suggesting there is anything to cover up; just giving a spot of advice, you know. Especially as Mr Trump’s core supporters, those small town white people who are rather old fashioned in many ways and often religiously faithful may never have thought of Mr T as a saint, but might be taken aback by Ms Daniels. With the November elections coming up and all…
Meanwhile, out in the real world, foreign policy matters continue to engage the White House. Mr Trump has proved a doughty player in this arena, and even the Democrats might privately agree that he has had some success. Though no doubt with the qualification that it is very early to truly determine what the long term effects of all this tough talk might be. But in the short term it seems to work. North Korea is no longer disturbed by the distant sound of nuclear weapons being tested, and instead Mr Kim and Mr Trump continue to work towards a summit meeting. In China the tariff war seems to be calming, with President Xi Jinping making soothing noises about trade arrangements with the US and cutting tariffs on car imports into China.
Which leaves the big one. What is Mr Putin up to in Syria? Here, cool heads would be especially welcome, given the amount of hot weaponry pointed at that sad country. Last week there was another horrific chemical attack on civilians in which around 40 people died, and many more were injured. Mr Trump berated President Assad for this; Mr Assad denied that it was an action of his government, supported in this by Moscow. It is difficult to see who else would have the motivation or resources to launch such an attack other than the Syrian government. Nevertheless, unlike the attack one year ago which was followed by a USA bombing raid on a Syrian airforce base within three days, so far there has been no military response from the West. Mrs May indeed has called for further proof before action is taken which may suggest some doubt (or just caution post Skirpal, recognising the Kremlin’s new mastery of PR).
The Russian head of military support in Syria has warned that if missiles are fired at Syrian bases this time there will be counter-attacks on the originating centres.
By the time you read this things may have moved on, though as to whether Mr Trump will be taking the iron fist option, or that of “jaw-jaw” (better than “war-war” as Churchill said) we can offer no further insights. It may yet be a Stormy time in Washington, indeed.