As Trump Self-Sabotages, His Craven Party Does Nothing. This is Now as Much About Them as Him
“When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
It became the defining quotation from the famous Frost/Nixon interviews, conducted after the 37th president left office. Although defenders have argued that cotext is key and that Nixon was merely interpreting the wide range of powers given to the president in terms of national security, it summed up for many the political corruption at the heart of his presidency.
Yet, however much power the framers gave the vast executive, they did not give the president complete power.
And herein lies the current problem.
Never has a president sabotaged himself so readily or so frequently. What’s more his errors come unforced. Having stretched the constitution and definitions of truthfulness Trump is now exceeding expectations of how bad he would be as president.
The man who bragged on the campaign trail and derided his opponents as failures is finding government more difficult than he expected. His failure is made worse by the fact that he - not anyone else - is its author.
“Lock Him Up”
Last week, Washington was rocked by the news that Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey who had been leading an investigation into his campaign’s links with Russian authorities. Comey, who had angered Democrats by announcing he was reopening the case into Hillary Clinton’s private email server two weeks before the election, had then enraged the White House by making public that he was, in turn, investigating Trump’s campaign.
In and of itself this was the action of a president with disregard for the propreity of government, potentially interfering with an independent agency’s investigation. The stated reason, and the briefing by Sean Spicer, put the termination down to advice of the Department of Justice, following Comey’s inaccurate testimony a few days before.
It was an implausible line but it was one that could - just - have held. That it didn’t was down to Trump.
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, he said, “When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”
The President went on national television, contradicted himself and his press spokespeople and openly admitted that he committed an impeachable offence.
Later reports by the New York Times showed that Comey’s notes recalled Trump trying to persuade the director to drop his investigation into Michael Flynn.
If this were not enough, Trump’s tweeted suggestion that there might be recordings of Oval Office conversations, was not only reminiscent of Nixon but an explicit threat to a potential witness. Of course, any tapes would become criminal evidence in an obstruction of justice investigation.
This self-destructive pattern revealed itself once again as the White House was forced on the defensive when it emerged that Trump had shared highly-classified intelligence on ISIS threats to the US with Russia’s foreign minister during Oval Office talks.
Although not illegal - the president himself operates as intelligence declassifier - it certainly demonstrated Trump’s unsuitability for diplomatic negotiation. The frantic White House briefing - initially denying the reports before confirming them - showed the event’s peculiarity: the president himself had endangered national security.
Allies will reevaluate their intelligence sharing with the US. He is breaking trust that will take years to rebuild. It is not just in the short-term that he is risking American safety.
It must have taken an iron will - or Chelsea - to have prevented Hillary Clinton from tweeting “Lock Him Up”.
Trump’s list of incompetent failures is only matched by his offences against the norms of democratic government.
only wilful myopia can deny the growing case against him and his unfitness to governNo president has absolute power. Nixon did not. Nor does Trump.
Whatever Nixon said, his downfall demonstrated that the president was not above the law. The process may have been messy, pushing the country towards constitutional stasis, if not crisis, but ultimately the system worked: Nixon resigned.
In the last two impeachment processes - against Nixon and Clinton - obstruction of justice charges were part of the articles. The allegations against Trump are much more serious and the President, in his ignorance, is widening the noose as each week continues.
His base remains enthusiastic. The core is getting smaller though and Trump does not have too many pillars to his presidency: his disregard for convention has offended too many. Yet his party remains largely silent. Big money and gerrymandered districts keep most of them in check. Their lack of action, even outrage, looks craven, and the longer it continues the greater will be the tar with which they brush themselves.
The Trump Presidency has shown that the system can work. Courts have twice struck down his Muslim ban; Congress has halted his healthcare agenda. Separation of powers can work. But institutions are not inherently strong, they rest upon the individuals who give them their strength of values. Therein lies their flaws.
Trump’s is an extraordinary, but predictable, collapse. It is also obvious: only willful myopia can deny the growing case against him and his unsuitability to govern. Trump is destroying himself. It is only self-interest that is protecting him.
This is no longer about Trump: it is about Republicans in Congress. Like him they have sworn oaths of office. Like him they are proving their lack of fitness for office.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Bent and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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