2018 in Review World

As the Mask Crumbles

This is Part 7 of our series, 2018 in Review, and focuses on the United States of America. Specifically, how the year ahead will see more chaos.

In 1842, Edgar Allan Poe published “The Masque of the Red Death“. In this short story, a despotic prince throws a grand masquerade ball even as his country is ravaged by a terrible plague — the Red Death, a fatal disease whose victims are instantly identifiable because they bleed heavily once afflicted, inevitably dying soon after. Though the Prince and many of the attendees are in the most garish and outlandish of costumes, they are enraged when someone comes dressed as the Red Death itself. In the very last paragraph of the story, when they finally confront the man, his robe and mask crumble to nothing: he was the plague itself, and all who were at the party perish around him.

When I first read the story, I tried to imagine myself as one of the party-goers in the instant that the truth is revealed: the facade was reality, the man behind it a spectre — if not a monster — and disaster certain to ensue. The eve of President Donald Trump’s third year in office brings with it the same sense of horrified anticipation. For those of us looking in from the outside, it seems evident that Trump is a plague: his fundamental and pervasive disrespect for institutions, norms, or the rule of law make him the living antithesis of the idea of “public service”.

In an institutional democracy, the primary duty of any elected official is to place the public interest above their own. Trump is visibly unwilling to uphold this virtue, and perhaps viscerally unable to comprehend why it is a virtue at all; as a result, his every interaction is tainted with blatant self-interest. Neither institutions nor leaders have been able to escape being tarred by association.

If the first few days of 2019 are any indication, the remainder of Trump’s term is likely to bring more destabilisation, further corrosion of institutions, and even greater deviations from the established norms. Handing over the most powerful office in the world to a man temperamentally incapable of understanding the virtues of consistency, compassion, or cooperation was always going to be a dangerous experiment; two years in, the most likely outcome appears to be a prolonged period of intense chaos and confusion. (Speculation that he might be impeached is a fixture in US media and political circles today, but so is betting on his prospects for re-election — and there is nothing in the public record to guide us to even an intelligent guess as to the probability of either outcome.)

Two dynamics lend to the impending-train-wreck quality of the present moment. The first is the sheer lack of qualified personnel in the executive branch. Adviser after adviser has recognised the futility of attempting to constrain the President, and fallen pray to frustration. If the frustration is their own, they resign. If it is Trump’s, they are fired, often in peremptory and unceremonious fashion. The second is the gathering pace of investigations into Trump’s campaign, his companies, his charitable foundation, and many current or former members of his administration; as these inquiries begin to yield ever-more damaging insights into the dysfunction of the President’s inner circle, the incentives for him to attempt to overthrow the Constitutional order entirely grow ever stronger.

The Adults Have Left The Room

With the resignations of his Chief of Staff, John Kelly, and his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis– preceded by, among others, National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson — Trump has been finally driven out of his staff, almost anyone with serious policy, legislative, or bureaucratic experience. His economic adviser, Gary Cohn, was also shown the door early in 2018. Cohn had taken it upon himself to attempt to talk Trump out of his trade war with China; eventually, Trump’s belligerent mercantilism won out, and Cohn was forced to step down. The remaining senior officials are either largely autonomous actors (like the Directors of the FBI and CIA), who seem to be trying to interact as minimally with the White House as possible, or an inner core of campaign loyalists, yea-sayers, and close family.

The most experienced bureaucrat remaining in the White House is the current National Security Adviser, John Bolton, who shares many of Trump’s most extreme impulses on foreign policy, immigration, and international cooperation. The one other “normal” senior bureaucrat in sight is Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, and her position can only be described as precarious. Her office handles immigration issues, and immigration is perhaps the most emotional issue in Washington DC today. Trump seems unhappy with the Department of Homeland Security for allowing anyone from Central America, Latin America, or Africa (or, to use his phrase, from “s***hole countries“) into the US at all. The Democratic party, on the other hand, is appalled that the government is separating asylum-seeking minors from their parents, and holding them in private detention facilities — a policy that has already been linked to at least two deaths and multiple cases of abuse. Nielsen cannot count on either her boss or the opposition party for support, making her departure only a matter of time.

The quartet of Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, and Tillerson were dubbed by some in the American press “the adults in the room“. Their presence was meant to be reassuring, a sign that Trump was still being effectively advised, cajoled, and constrained from following his impulses — which more than one of his staff have described as if they were speaking about an unruly toddler. The last of the “adults”, James Mattis, was unceremoniously ousted right before the Christmas holiday: he had submitted a letter of resignation, effective February, whose language was interpreted as a sharp rebuke of the President.

It soon became clear that Trump never read the letter, and only realised what it said when cable news shows discussed the subject. Here was a man he had always praised highly now criticising him in public, and that too in the most insider-esque fashion possible — a snarkily-worded resignation that was left to the pundits to interpret, while DC neophytes like the President completely missed the signal. Irate, Trump let Mattis know his resignation would be effective as of December itself. The last of the adults has left the building, with the President slamming the door shut on his heels.

Nobody Else Wants In

John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Senior Adviser Stephen Miller are now the only voices that remain to advise Trump on domestic or foreign policy — besides, of course, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump’s remaining economic adviser, Peter Navarro, is literally the only economist in the world who thinks tariffs are good, or disputes that trade drives economic growth.

Vice-President Mike Pence is a cipher, careful to stay silent in any forum where Trump is speaking, and to appear deferential to the point of inanity when making his own public appearances. The frequency with which Trump undercuts Pence‘s public statements leaves one to doubt if the Vice President’s office is coordinating with the White House on either policy proposals or communications strategy. Indeed, it is tempting to think of this as a conscious choice, making it easier for Pence to distance himself from Trump’s positions in the event that the latter is impeached or removed from office.

The fact that Mulvaney is acting Chief of Staff is revealing on multiple levels. This is an extraordinary moment: to be Chief of Staff to the President of the United States of America is to be the world’s most powerful gatekeeper. But if the price is being associated with Trump, not even the most ambitious of political operatives wants the job. Every candidate reportedly considered for the post swiftly took themselves out of the running. These include two of Trump’s erstwhile competitors for the Republican nomination in 2016, former Senator Rick Santorum and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; their political fortunes have floundered over the past couple of years, but both were quick to make clear they didn’t want in to the White House even so.

Trump reportedly wanted to bring over Pence’s Chief of Staff — a young but increasingly prominent Republican party operative named Nick Ayers — but Ayers was so determined to scuttle this possibility that he left DC altogether, preferring to move back to his native Georgia. An old saying in Washington has it that a Chief of Staff can manage either the chief or the staff, not both. John Kelly’s attempts to manage up – to structure and constrain the President – are precisely what led to his ouster. By contrast, Mulvaney has no interest in trying to manage Trump, not least because Trump has made clear his own disinterest in being managed.

In speaking to the media, White House staffers have let slip that the de facto Chief of Staff is — predictably — Jared Kushner. Making that arrangement formal, however, would be such blatant nepotism that even Trump realises the dangers of doing so. To have Mulvaney acting like he is fulfilling the role, while making no serious attempt to do so, is an ideal compromise that leaves Kushner and Trump free to do as they please. Mulvaney has plenty on his plate in any case, since he simultaneously serves as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — a full-time job in any administration — and was until recently the Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which he has been accused of turning into a paper tiger.

Even The Swamp Creatures Are Slipping Away

Some of Trump’s staunchest political allies are fading as well. There is still no shortage of pro-Trump Congresspersons — Representatives Mark Meadows and Devin Nunes, or Senators Angus King and Tom Cotton, to name a few, enthusiastically endorse many elements of the President’s agenda. The results of the 2018 mid-term elections, however, have shaken their hold on power. Republicans do still control the Senate, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – a man historian Christopher Browning recently described as “the gravedigger of American democracy” — still backs Trump’s agenda on a range of topics, such as healthcare, taxation, and judicial appointments.

On the other hand, outgoing Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan has retired from electoral politics; his departure, and the appointment of veteran Democrat Nancy Pelosi to succeed him as Speaker, have drastically altered power relations between the President and the Congress. (Pelosi has wasted little time before asserting her newly-vested authority: citing an inability to ensure security because the relevant offices have no funding, she has suggested the President postpone his State of the Union addressto Congress until after the ongoing partial shutdown of Federal government is resolved. This is both an unprecedented insult and a sharp attack on the thing Trump values most — free airtime with a captive audience.)

The exodus isn’t limited to legislators. Many members of Trump’s campaign — or his close orbit — who followed him into the White House have already become a thing of the past. The most prominent names are likely Steve Bannon — formerly his chief strategist, and the man widely credited with having made Trump popular among far-right voters in the US through his Breitbart media empire — and Michael Flynn. Bannon was one of three vocal nationalists to serve in the White House, together with Steven Miller and Sebastian Gorka; Gorka, too, made an unceremonious exit in late 2017, after failing to be approved for a security clearance.

Flynn, of course, was Trump’s first National Security Adviser; he was forced to resign after being caught lying about meetings with Russian officials. Flynn also lied to the FBI about these contacts — a criminal offense, for which he is currently being prosecuted — sparking a series of events that included an emergency briefing by then Acting Attorney-General Sally Yates, Trump attempting to pressure then FBI Director James Comey into “letting [Flynn] go”, Comey’s subsequent removal from office, the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to take over the investigation into Russian attempts to influence US elections, and the resignation of Attorney-General Jefferson Sessions in November 2018.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Sessions’ departure. As a Senator, Sessions was the first US lawmaker to openly endorse Trump’s candidature for President, and to appear at his campaign rallies. His “resignation” had little to do with policy disagreements; indeed, Sessions visibly shares many of Trump’s instincts on restricting immigration, cracking down on refugees and asylum seekers, curtailing ease of voting, and reducing protections for abortion or LGBTQ rights. Instead, it was driven entirely by Trump’s frustration over Sessions recusing himself from all matters connected to the Special Counsel investigation. For months, Trump publicly complained that he expected the Attorney-General to shield him, and that he would not have appointed Sessions at all if he’d known Sessions would recuse.

Who Will Rid Trump Of This Troublesome Probe?

It would be moot to point out that the Attorney-General is the head of the Department of Justice and not the President’s attorney, because that is not a distinction Trump cares for in the first place: he wants the investigation stopped, and the idea that the President cannot simply direct the probe be closed, everyone involved fired, and all records destroyed is incomprehensible to him.

How can it be that the President orders something done, and a part of the Executive branch — every member of which serves at his pleasure — can defy that order? The only explanations that this President is willing to accept for such an occurrence are incompetence or conspiracy: either his subordinates have made unforgivably stupid mistakes, or “the establishment” is rallying against an outsider like him.

Never one to tolerate even an imagined slight, Trump eventually devised a response. If the Attorney-General could shut down the Special Counsel’s investigation, but Sessions could not or would not do as directed, then it could be done after replacing Sessions with someone more obedient. The problem is that any such replacement would have to be confirmed by the Senate, and the Senate would likely balk at confirming anyone who did not pledge to protect the Special Counsel until the investigation is complete.

Fortunately, there is a loophole: if the Attorney-General resigns, becomes too ill to perform his duties, or dies in office, the President has the power to appoint an Acting Attorney-General, who does not need confirmation. The intent of this provision is to ensure continuity, because Senate confirmation can be a long-drawn process, and key offices ought not to lie vacant in the interim; the Acting official is thus able to exercise almost every authority of the position, just as their (Senate-confirmed) predecessor could.

Trump even found a seemingly perfect replacement: Sessions’ own chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker is trained as a lawyer, and had served for a period as US Attorney (i.e. a Department of Justice official) in the state of Iowa. However, his track record is patchy at best, with few successful cases as either prosecutor or defense counsel, and includes a period serving on the board of an invention promotion firm that has since been closed down for fraud. He also wrote an opinion column for CNN in late 2017 where he described the Special Counsel investigation as a “lynch mob”, an early indication of why Trump might want to appoint him to the post. The only constraint was Sessions himself: the vacancy appointment power could only be exercised if Sessions resigned, and not if he were fired.

Sessions’ Parting Shot

Unfortunately for Trump and Whitaker, Sessions chose to sneak in a parting shot: his resignation letter opens with the phrase “As you have requested”, making the intent to bypass the Senate crystal clear. A justifiably upset Congress promptly demanded that Whitaker appear before them and explain what he planned to do about the Mueller investigation, whether he too would preserve its autonomy, and whether — given the circumstances of his taking office — he ought not to recuse from matters related to that investigation as well.

In the event, Trump has eventually decided to name another former Republican official, William (Bill) Barr, to the post of AG, and to let Barr go through Senate confirmation proceedings. Barr has served as AG before and is almost certain to be confirmed; he is, however, a significantly more independent-minded man than Whitaker appeared to be, and a close personal friend of Robert Mueller to boot.

Another attempt to rein in the Special Counsel investigation appears to have been foiled, partly by the existing rules and norms that constrain the President’s freedom of action, and partly by the sheer lack of credentials of the people he picks to be his hatchet men. The latter is not a coincidence, since the primary characteristic Trump cares about is loyalty to him, as manifested in the willingness to carry out his directions without question. As Benjamin Wittes (of the Brookings Institution’s Lawfare blog) remarked back in 2016, “The malevolence of the Trump administration is tempered by its own incompetence.”

Despite the reprieve, Mueller may well wish to press forward with urgency, because it is entirely conceivable that Trump will snap and directly order the termination of the investigation in the near future. The past few months, and even weeks, have seen a barrage of revelations regarding the Trump campaign and administration’s violations of ethics rules, campaign finance laws, and potentially of American national security.

Consider the range of senior Trump campaign and cabinet officials who are currently indicted by and/or cooperating with the FBI: former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, a man known to have long-standing ties to Russian and Ukrainian businessmen (who, in turn, are known to enjoy a close relationship with Vladimir Putin); former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is one of only a handful of people who know the content of conversations between Trump’s inner circle and Russian officials; and Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time “fixer”, who knows the inner workings of the Trump Organisation, the Trump Foundation, and the Trump election campaign.

Worrying Revelations

While previous indictments of lesser-known players like George Papadopoulos or Alexander van der Zwaan could be dismissed as not reflecting the intentions of Trump himself, the trio of Manafort, Flynn, and Cohen are not so easily ignored. Collectively, they can provide the answers to three critical questions: what was the nature of contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian government or its agents? Did Trump personally have knowledge of these contacts, or provide directions related to them? Did Trump personally direct any person to give false information regarding these contacts?

The first question can potentially give substance to – or debunk entirely – the repeated allegation of “collusion” between the President and the Russian government; the second to Trump’s personal culpability for any such interactions, if they were shown to be illegal. The third is qualitatively different — to direct or induce another person to knowingly make false statements to the FBI, the US Congress, or other investigative agencies is a crime in itself: no less a person than Bill Barr, Trump’s current Attorney-General nominee, wrote last year that this would amount to “suborning perjury” and render a President liable to impeachment.

The Special Counsel’s office has already declared in court that it is satisfied with Flynn’s cooperation with the investigation. This is language the FBI only uses when a person under investigation has provided substantial and novel information, which could not be acquired through other sources, and which enabled the investigation to make significant progress. It is easy to speculate what this information is in Flynn’s case: only he knows whether the President directed him to lie about his contacts with Russian officials.

Manafort, on the other hand, has reportedly violated the conditions of his plea agreement; there is a case to be made that he did so because Trump held out the possibility of granting him clemency — a power the President can exercise at will, with no oversight whatsoever. If this does indeed happen, it is almost certain to prompt a Congressional investigation, because it would amount to witness-tampering.

Cohen is perhaps the most damaging of witnesses against Trump. He has already testified, under oath, that he was directed by Trump to pay “hush money” to a woman Trump had an affair with, to prevent her from going public with this story in 2016. That testimony has since been bolstered by a second, similar case against a magazine — The National Enquirer — whose owner, David Pecker, has similarly confessed to paying a woman to buy exclusive rights to her story about an affair with Trump. The magazine proceeded to not publish that story, so that it would be silenced and not affect Trump’s prospects in the election.

This is a violation of campaign finance laws, and Cohen’s testimony places Trump in the position of an “unindicted co-conspirator“: if he were not a sitting President, he would have been prosecuted for these actions already. Cohen’s alleged confessions were also quoted in a recent story from Buzzfeed News – not linked here, because the Special Counsel’s office has disputed its accuracy – which claimed that he had testified that he had multiple meetings with Russian officials about the proposed Trump Tower in Moscow, and that he lied about these matters to Congress on the instructions of the President. (If true, that would amount to the offense that Bill Barr described as “suborning perjury”.)

The Writing on the Wall

At this point – unlike, say, in January 2017 – it is no longer implausible to suggest that Trump has been compromised by Russia in some way. This may initially have been because of his commercial interests there, or have some altogether more lurid explanation, or be a result of Russia actively aiding him in the 2016 election campaign (by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails, and making them public via WikiLeaks).

Alternately, it may be that none of those events took place, and the only thing that happened was some conversations between Trump and Russian agents – but the minute that Trump or his representatives lied about them in public, it gave the Russians leverage, because they could reveal the truth at any time. (No one should be so naive as to believe that the Russians do not have tapes of those conversations.)

This is, perhaps, the only explanation for some of the most bizarre conduct that Trump has displayed in the past year. As the Washington Post reported, Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his own government has no information about his conversations with Vladimir Putin. Not only did he take the unprecedented step of meeting the Russian President alone, with none of his aides or staff present, but he went so far as to confiscate his interpreter’s notes from the meeting and forbid the interpreter from speaking to anyone else about the content of the conversation.

Trump’s attempts to conceal the content of his meetings with Putin have become the latest flashpoint in Congressional efforts to exercise oversight over the national security, intelligence, and foreign policy actions of the Trump administration, with the new Democratic Chairperson of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — Adam Schiff — considering summoning the interpreter to testify before Congress. (Schiff has also been a target of Trump’s norm-breaking, foul-mouthed attacks on Twitter.)

Recall that other members of Trump’s inner circle have also taken steps to connect with Russian officials in ways that prevent US intelligence from monitoring the conversations. The core event that led to Flynn’s resignation was precisely his lying about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak; for a while, AG Sessions was also in trouble for claiming that he had no contact with Russians, while there were records of his having conversed with Kislyak at a DC reception as well.

Even more concerning were the conversations that Jared Kushner had with Kislyak, seeking to establish a “secure back channel” for communications using Russian embassy facilities and equipment; “secure” here again signifying that it would be obscured from US intelligence agencies. That particular suggestion was shot down by Kislyak himself, presumably because he knew that the President’s son-in-law making multiple visits to Russian facilities would backfire.

What Will The Legislature Do?

Even if there is no collusion between the President/his family/his campaign and Russia, these multiple and sustained efforts to obscure information related to that subject may well constitute the offence of obstruction of justice. If any one of the star witnesses — Manafort, Flynn, or Cohen — testifies that they lied to the FBI on the instructions of the President, then this is no longer a matter of speculation: Trump will have committed an impeachable offense. At that point, it will be up to the Congress whether to initiate impeachment and removal proceedings — the most important decision of their lives, and one where Senate majority leader McConnell will play a pivotal role.

Even without that clear a revelation, a more immediate flashpoint is possible. Mueller’s next few indictments could include Trump’s family — most likely Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner. This is probably Trump’s true “red line” — he will demand the investigation be shut down at that instant, brooking no resistance, and ignoring all advice on procedure, propriety, or optics.

When President Nixon wanted to end the Watergate investigation, multiple Department of Justice officials resigned rather than issue that order. Trump may not give any of them the opportunity: willing as he is to throw process and propriety to the winds, he may proclaim the termination of the probe under his own authority, perhaps even issuing an executive order to that effect. This would be grossly-corrupt conduct, but arguably within his powers, since every member of the executive branch does indeed serve at the will of the President. (This is especially true of the Special Counsel, who was appointed by the Department of Justice, not the Senate, unless Congress passes a law to protect that investigation.)

This is where the moral character of legislators, and especially Republican Senators, will be tested. By now, they must have an inkling of the truth: their party has hitched its wagon to the most deeply corrupt and unsuitable man to ever occupy the Oval Office, and — at least until 2020 — only they have the power to remove him.

If there were any doubt about what direction he will lead the country, the ongoing shutdown of federal government, already the longest in US history — over the absurd demand to fund a literal wall on the US-Mexico border — should serve as a clear indication that he will place his own political and xenophobic impulses above any notion of compromise, process, or inclusion. The choices Republican lawmakers make in the near future will determine whether they will be remembered as guardians of American democracy, howsoever flawed, or whether they will truly merit Browning’s criticism of being its gravediggers.

The mask is already crumbling, and we are living in a prolonged moment of horror, as it becomes clear that Trump is both as malevolent and as incompetent as his critics alleged. If Congress remains inactive, the denouement can only be as disastrous as in Poe’s masterpiece.

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About the author

Ameya Ashok Naik

Ameya Naik is an Associate Fellow for Geostrategy at the Takshashila Institution, focusing on Indian foreign policy and international law, and a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The views expressed here are personal.