observations and opinion
The target of Donald Trump’s first war won’t be North Korea. It will be the US Constitution. And Trump stands a good chance of winning.
With the first indictments in the Russia election scandal landing today, on former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, let’s stop for a moment and think about where things are at and where they’re likely to go.
What are the reasonable facts we can assume?
* Members of the Trump campaign and other Republican operatives, cooperated with (or tried to work with) agents of a foreign government – Russia – to undermine the Democratic Party campaign in 2016.
* The purpose of that collusion was to help elect Donald Trump as President of the United States. This may have triggered the Wikileaks revelations which were embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and possibly the Russian hack of the State Department computer systems which dug out more of the “Hillary emails” in 2016.
* The FBI began investigating this effort in early 2016, but does not appear to have interceded to stop it.
* The direct meeting of Trump family and campaign leaders with Russian agents, at the Trump Tower, was almost certainly known to Donald Trump. It is implausible that Trump’s campaign was working with Russians, without Trump knowing.
* (There is also an allegation that members of the Clinton campaign were aware of, or in possession of “the Steele Dossier” allegedly obtained from foreign agents, containing information about Donald Trump. Ironically, this embarrassing dossier is believed by some to be the leverage that the Russians have over Mr. Trump. In short, its existence is what makes Mr. Trump a more valuable commodity, for Russia, in the White House.)
* The FBI investigation into the Republican-Russian collusion continued after the election. Mr. Trump was overtly hostile to the exercise – a course of behavior which can only have intimidated law enforcement figures. He tried to persuade FBI Director Comey to let it go and when Comey did not, President Trump fired Comey.
Mr. Trump may or may not have committed a crime when his campaign engaged with a foreign government to affect the results of an American election. Whether that collusion was unlawful or not, attempting to obstruct the investigation or prosecution of the matter was almost certainly against the law.
Many Trump haters believe, or hope, that the Mueller investigation into this case – and the first round of indictments – will auger the quick prosecution and removal from office, of President Trump. That seems optimistic and a poor read of the situation in Washington.
First, Mr. Trump is the President of the United States, “clothed in immense power” to quote Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
Second, Mr. Trump has demonstrated a pathological aversion to US constitutional and political norms. That’s how he got into office and into the sights of a special prosecutor, after all. He is not likely to change his personal nature or style when threatened with impeachment or jail.
Third, to the extent that other Republicans are implicated in or benefited from the Russia collusion, those political figures have all the reason in the world to see the investigation fail.
Fourth, the Republican Congress has been a notably passive and subservient group of self-seeking cowards, even before Trump and more-so since.
So no, this won’t be an easy or painless transition to President Pence.
The political targets of the Mueller investigation are a wealthy, awesomely powerful assembly of people with everything to lose. And when you have everything to lose, you have nothing to lose fighting to keep it.
The closer Mr. Mueller gets to the White House or Congress, the more pressure those offices will feel to resist prosecution. The more potential witnesses indicted by Mueller, the more endangered Mr. Trump and company will be.
The special prosecutor’s ability to deal with a case is limited to the evidence collected. Prosecutors use indictments to leverage suspects into “rolling” – providing more evidence against fatter targets, of bigger crimes. Robert Mueller’s case against Paul Manafort, whatever it might be, is really a first domino in the wider case against the rest of the Trump cabal.
Who on earth, witness so far to Donald Trump’s conduct before and since being inaugurated, believes he will restrain himself in the use of his office to retain power and advantage, and to avoid prison? He has no shame, so he is not afraid of shame – he is afraid of jail and poverty.
For those reasons and in those conditions, what we can expect from Mr. Trump is that he will protect himself and his family members as quickly and effectively as possible. He may fire Mueller and try to shut down the prosecution. And be assured, Trump will do that if he has to, because he doesn’t much fear reprisal from the Republican House or Senate.
Further, what Trump can also do – probably will do – is use his pardon power, to protect the potential witnesses from prosecution. Mueller’s only leverage is the ability to charge people with crimes and get them convicted and sentenced. That leverage is gone if the potential accused have Presidential pardons in their pockets.
Some months ago, many Americans were truly outraged by Trump’s bizarre pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an Arizona law man convicted of contempt of court arising from his operation of an anti-Hispanic pogrom.
Trump’s pardoning of Sheriff Arpaio, however, had little to do with the right wing brute from Arizona. What it had to do with, was Trump sending a clear signal to his co-conspirators in the Russia case: “I’ve got your back, if you’ve got mine.”
There are many people who will react with disbelief, to the idea that Trump might sack Mueller or pardon the witnesses – including his family and himself. After everything we have seen, the only thing worthy of disbelief is any doubt about what Trump is capable of.
This piece earlier quoted from Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” but a more appropriate line is one from another film – “Chinatown” – made by another filmmaker, Roman Polanski. Polanski may have been talking about himself when he said this, but it is a deep, if ugly truth:
“You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they’re capable of anything.”
Who doubts that is true, of the present President of the United States?