As Trump's aura of invincibility dims, he will seek to intensify racial and cultural divides
With legal pressure mounting upon him, the US president has to win another term in office or face the possibility of jail time
Donald Trump's political and legal predicaments are starting to look unsustainable. His presidential campaign, business, foundation, administration, and inaugural committee are now all, separately, under criminal investigation.
There are also criminal convictions or guilty pleas against his campaign manager, personal attorney, national security adviser, foreign policy adviser, and numerous other associates.
Most attention has understandably focused on Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential campaign. And, indeed, it has already produced many important convictions and indictments.
But it was never right to view Mr Trump's myriad problems through a mono-dimensional lens.
As legal experts Mikhaila Fogel and Benjamin Wittes argue, these manifold investigations are like “a multi-front siege on a walled city that is, in fact, relatively well fortified”. But if the defences are slowly degraded by constant attacks, eventually a political battering ram can bring the walls down.
The president’s new and massive legal crisis isn’t centred on Russian collusion, or money laundering, or even obstruction of justice. Instead it stems from the sentencing of his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for hush-money payments to two women who say they had extramarital affairs with Mr Trump.
Buying the silence of Playmates and porn stars for personal reasons isn’t illegal. But if the intent was to protect the campaign, and someone other than Mr Trump paid – as Mr Cohen did – it was an unlawful campaign contribution and a major felony.
Mr Trump wasn't merely deceiving his wife and friends. He was withholding crucial information from the voting public and, in effect, defrauding the election. It's an extremely serious charge legally, politically and morally.
And Mr Trump's story keeps changing wildly.
First, he said none of this ever happened. Then he said that if it did, he knew nothing about it. Then he admitted he did know about the payments, but only after the fact. And the payment's aren't a crime, he now claims, but if they were, that was Mr Cohen’s fault because he was the attorney. Moreover, Mr Trump insists that such payments are normal and private, and totally unconnected to the campaign.
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But the payments were obviously prompted chronologically by the campaign. Mr Cohen admits that. Far worse, American Media Inc and its chairman, David Pecker, a close friend of Mr Trump, in consideration for a non-prosecution agreement, have also sworn the payments were entirely about the campaign.
Moreover, they say that Mr Pecker and Mr Cohen were joined at the crucial meeting in which the payoff plot was hatched by "at least one other member of the campaign", widely, and unsurprisingly, reported to be Mr Trump himself.
The Justice Department has a rule against prosecuting sitting presidents. Otherwise, by now Mr Trump would surely have been indicted and facing prison time for this serious felony, which may have been decisive in helping him win the election.
The ironies are overwhelming.
The statute of limitations on such crimes is five years, meaning that in the 2020 election, Mr Trump will be fighting to either stay in the White House or probably go to prison on these charges alone. The implications of what that might prompt are terrifying.
Meanwhile, other massive investigations, especially Mr Mueller's, are ongoing. Additional bombshells are likely.
No surprise, then, that in the midst of this maelstrom, Mr Trump picked a massive fight with Democratic leaders over a possible government shutdown, with the president demanding $5 billion for his preposterous border wall.
Legal woes aside, it has been clear since the November midterm elections that Mr Trump and the Republicans are in real political trouble.
He is convinced that immigration issues – effectively racial anxieties and white identity politics – were the key to his election. And he is sure that they are central to his chances of being re-elected and thereby remaining at liberty.
He has fashioned himself as the white, Christian tribal leader of the American majority, and as the staunch defender of their collective power.
The more trouble he is in, the more he will try to stir up as much racial, ethnic and cultural discord as possible, while painting his adversaries as soft on immigration, crime, national security and, essentially, white Christian communal interests.
As the walls have started closing in around him, the signs are ominous. Mr Trump has said "the people would revolt" if he were impeached. Senator Orrin Hatch summed up the views of many of his fellow Republicans by bluntly saying "I don't care” about Mr Trump's apparent involvement in major campaign violations.
So, the United States enters the second half of the Trump administration with a president with one foot in the White House and the other in prison, a dominant party that shrugs at major lawbreaking to gain power, and threats of violent rebellion if constitutional remedies to illegal acts are sought.
Meanwhile, many of the most serious allegations are still being quietly investigated. Almost everyone realises that the worst is yet to come and the chaos is only just beginning.
But at least Americans now know what long-suffering citizens of the “banana republics” to their south, so long the butt of demeaning jokes and stereotypes, have endured. If nothing else, a particularly offensive version of traditional Yankee arrogance must now be surely, and mercifully, extinct.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: December 15, 2018 04:25 PM