30 August 2018
Will Trump survive?
by J R Thomas
One more week, almost, to Labour Day, and then normal life can resume in the political salons and smoke free backrooms of Washington. Our attempt to whip up a Stormy Daniels connection by our modestly false news headline above is fated not to come off – Ms Daniels was slated to appear on UK Celebrity Big Brother this fall and the nation was gripped by what salacious suggestions she might let dangle regarding the President. Alas, or not, the lady withdrew saying that life was not “just about money”. Indeed it is not, ma’am, but tell us more.
But when one door closes a back window may open. And one has. The back window of Mr Trump’s personal lawyer no less. Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, who famously said he “would take a bullet” for Mr Trump, seems to have ducked when the projectile arrived. Instead he is “cooperating” with the Federal Prosecutor in pleading guilty to a number of crimes, including, at the alleged behest of Mr Trump, making payments to Ms Daniels and another lady (a Playboy Bunny also said to have had an intimate relationship with the President). To Brits there must be some head scratching going on. Surely, a chap’s relationship with his lawyer is akin to that with his religious confessor? If the conversations of the panelled office and confessional are not privileged and protected from disclosure, how can anybody ever seek salvation, or in this case, legal advice?
Mr Trump has made that point, though lightly, appreciating that protesting too strongly might suggest he has indeed matters he does not want in the public domain. Mr Cohen’s affairs, now under media scrutiny, turn out to be remarkably tangled for a simple lawyer. In particular he and his family own a taxi business which had avoided many millions of tax by a loan scheme. Mr Cohen made a plea bargain which limits the number of years he will spend in jail – but to stick to the terms of that he must set out all of the crimes in which he was implicated. These include payments to the two ladies – payments which have always been admitted, but what is new is Mr Cohen’s statement that they were made “at the request of the candidate”, and were intended to affect the result of the election. (By the somewhat convoluted argument that as the ladies were paid to shut up to influence the election in Mr Trump’s direction, they should have been declared as campaign expenses.) For those confused or of a forgetful disposition he later confirmed outside the court room that by “the candidate” he meant Mr Trump, and in the federal election.
Mr Trump has so far shrugged this off, as he has and does with all allegations. And he may shrug with some confidence. A serving President cannot be charged with crimes whilst in office (though there are a few Supreme Court justices keen to test that convention). There can be attempts to impeach him, as Bill Clinton was in his woman problem and Richard Nixon was in his burglary problem, and if the Democrats win at least the House of Representatives this approaching November that might become more likely than not. But the statements of a man who has done a plea bargain on this scale have to be regarded with some suspicion unless good further corroboration can be provided. The conspiracy theory inclined might even see some complex game afoot by which Mr Trump will be freed of all these allegations by some further change of stance by Mr Cohen – who in return gets a complete Presidential pardon for all his tax felonies. The next question is whether Robert Mueller’s investigators of matters appertaining to the election might want to have a chat with Mr Cohen, and whether Mr Cohen might welcome that opportunity.
Incidentally, given that Mrs Clinton garnered nearly three million more votes than Mr Trump, yet The Donald ended up 77 votes ahead in the Electoral College, you might think that all this investigative frenzy might be better spent looking at the workings of the electoral system. But we could not possibly comment.
Also found guilty the same day of tax misdemeanours was Paul Manafort, chairman for a while of the Trump Presidential campaign. Alas for Mr Mueller, who may or may not have encouraged investigation of Mr Manafort’s tax affairs in the hope he too might be keen to chat or bargain (he seems not to have done either), Mr Manafort’s misdoings related to a period before his efforts for the Trump campaign. No cigar for Mr Mueller there. Mr Trump was musing the other day about a possible Presidential pardon for Mr Manafort. Did the accused know that in advance? He looked surprisingly cheerful in court.
But back to Mr Trump and the gathering thunderclouds. The BBC seem to think that Donald is as good as locked up already, but on the west side of the pond even the Democrats are not that confident. Indeed there is a lot of musing going on. The general view is that to try anything before the midterm elections in November might cause a voter backlash where the President could say “this is the establishment ganging up again on me, a democratically elected President, and on the American people”. In the current mood of the country that might bring a Republican recovery which kept the GOP with control of both houses.
So, how about impeachment after the elections? In one way that is a much stronger option and might be supported by enough disaffected Republicans to make it work. But, therein lies a trap. Impeach the President successfully and you end up with the vice-President. Can you still remember his name? Quite a lot of Americans have probably forgotten it – it is Mike Pence. Mr Pence has been keeping his head down recently, but if the constituencies that swung the election to Trump wanted an alternative candidate, but one much less burdened by his character and history, they would choose somebody just like Mr Pence. He is a born again Protestant with a huge following in the American evangelical heartlands, and he is from a modest background and is a devoted family man. He was Governor of Indiana where he cut state taxes and was a popular and well regarded incumbent. In short, an ideal Presidential candidate. The very type the Democrats will not want to face in 2020. And the very type the Republicans might like to have heading their slate if the present incumbent were not available.
Mr Trump may have that confident ebullient manner on display at all times – and his new trade deal with Mexico is a surprise triumph this week to bolster his confidence; but he is becoming a more adept politician. Not least of his new skills is an ability to look over his shoulder at what is going on behind; and he has become aware that if your opponents are in front of you, your enemies are behind. Hence perhaps his warning that any attempt to impeach him could cause a major economic crash, because of a lack of confidence in the direction of government. (Mr Pence and his supporters may feel that they have the complete answer to that one.) In the meantime, his enemies can just watch events unfold. And, let us not forget, in the background Robert Mueller and his special enquiry, quietly ticking like the crocodile in that other fantasy land of Peter Pan, pad around.