Trump has shrugged off many cataclysms – but he may be nearing a turning point
The legal disasters and disclosures of the last few weeks could influence swing voters in the midterm elections
A fortnight ago, Donald Trump was battered by the criminal convictions of his former personal attorney Michael Cohen and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Last week his administration was rocked yet again, this time by Bob Woodward's new book Fear and an anonymous New York Times commentary by someone identified only as a "senior official in the Trump administration”.
The legal woes continue with another guilty plea, this time by his former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who admitted lying to the FBI about meeting Russian operatives during the presidential campaign. Mr Trump mocked his 14-day jail sentence but it’s another Russia-related scalp in investigator Robert Mueller’s bulging collection.
The Woodward book repeats many themes of Michael Wolff's bestselling Fire and Fury but is a more credible portrayal of the Trump administration as a dysfunctional madhouse. The biggest difference is that Woodward is among the most accomplished and credible American journalists.
The New York Times article, however, suggests many of Mr Trump's own staff consider him "amoral", "reckless", “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” and are conducting a co-ordinated "internal resistance" designed to sabotage and thwart his worst impulses, blunders and rampages.
Yet the article’s logic is internally inconsistent.
It argues that the author and others are right to work for the administration because some Trump policies are good and because they are serving as a surreptitious and unofficial check on an unfit president and are saving the world from his most unprincipled caprices and foolishness.
However, the article’s publication obviously greatly complicates the effectiveness of any such programme of internal disruption and secret supervision. Its main practical impact will be to make Mr Trump all the more paranoid, vengeful and vigilant against precisely such a subtle, extra-constitutional and troubling campaign of insubordination.
Publishing such an article therefore significantly undercuts and obstructs the purported intentions of the author.
Plainly, therefore, there's something else going on. And it's not hard to see what.
This disingenuous, self-serving and even mendacious commentary answers a question I have been publicly asking since Mr Trump's inauguration: how will the Republican Party in general, and Mr Trump's allies and subordinates in particular, explain their actions when the fever breaks and the nightmarish qualities of the Trump era become as widely recognised and disparaged as, for example, the McCarthyism of the early 1950s has long been?
How will they try to save their credibility and political viability when it won't be possible to argue convincingly that they didn't know what they were doing, or know how obviously inexcusable parts of the agenda are, or how unfit the president they serve is?
The op-ed suggested it will mostly be variants of “without us, it would’ve been much worse”. Republicans will argue that, despite being Trump associates, they weren't culpable but were actually heroic and patriotic. They did the gruesome but essential dirty work of rolling up their sleeves, climbing into the pen and saving us all from far worse. And they’ll blame the voters for forcing them to do it.
This approach also gives them, as the article demonstrates, flexibility to defend their role in whatever actions are deemed legitimate iterations of the Republican agenda and disavow responsibility for aspects of the Trump legacy that come to be widely regarded as indefensible.
But why now?
Mr Trump does not appear, at first glance, to be particularly weaker politically than in the past. Since the Republican primaries, he has relied on approximately 30 per cent of the voting public to support him no matter what. Opinion polls show his iron grip on their allegiance – in what can only be described as a cult of personality – is as strong as ever.
Moreover, what most of the public wants is a strong economy. What they don't want is an avoidable war.
Mr Trump inherited a very strong economy from Barack Obama and has delivered several short-term and possibly ill-advised adrenaline shots to it, such as the massive corporate tax cuts. And there is no ongoing major war.
Read more from Hussein Ibish:
He should be beloved. Yet he remains deeply unpopular by much of the voting public and the endless scandals and damaging revelations may be slowly but steadily eroding support among the swing voters he needs to assemble a winning coalition.
Mr Trump has shrugged off many cataclysms that would have destroyed most ordinary political careers. But the legal disasters and stunning disclosures of the past fortnight could well prove an irretrievable turning point for many swing voters.
In another potentially ominous development, last week Mr Obama returned to the political stage, with a blistering speech attacking his successor. He illustrated how Democrats could adopt populist rhetoric of their own but stressed hope and inclusion to contrast with Mr Trump's "American carnage" and scapegoating rhetoric.
Mr Obama also cited the anonymous article, saying that "people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders" are “not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 per cent of the crazy stuff that’s coming out of this White House and then saying: ‘Don’t worry, we’re preventing the other 10 per cent.'”
The author of the commentary in question is obviously positioning him or herself for the post-Trump era, making the case that, even if and when most Americans come to view Mr Trump as an unfit and even dangerous president, they should regard service in his administration as not merely excusable but laudable.
It hasn't gone well. Trump supporters denounced the author as a "gutless traitor". Most Trump critics condemned the writer as a craven enabler. Most, on all sides, agreed this “coward” should own up and resign.
Maybe the moment was premature or the anonymity fatally undermined the argument.
But in the foreseeable future, the president's current allies and subordinates are going to have to either concoct a better rationalisation for their actions or they're going to have to hope this kind of gambit plays far better with a name attached.
Even though the anonymous article was so widely panned, it was still very damaging for Mr Trump. Republicans are clearly realising that, soon enough, they’ll have to try to defend their part in this unprecedented national fiasco.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: September 16, 2018 12:23 AM