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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Trump administration may have no choice but to pick its poison

The US president will almost certainly have a tough call to take: succumbing to legal accountability or risking a political implosion

Within only six months, the Trump administration has had several shake-ups. From left: US president Donald Trump, fired chief of staff Reince Priebus, vice president Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, communications director Sean Spicer, who recently announced his resignation, and ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Within only six months, the Trump administration has had several shake-ups. From left: US president Donald Trump, fired chief of staff Reince Priebus, vice president Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, communications director Sean Spicer, who recently announced his resignation, and ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

After only six months in office, US president Donald Trump seems to be confronting the almost impossible choice of enduring either serious legal jeopardy or initiating a major political crisis. Either could derail his fledgling administration.

American allies, including in the Gulf, should have no illusions about the implications of the unenviable catch-22 conundrum Mr Trump faces. These spreading and interlocking quagmires could easily paralyse the White House, including on foreign policy. They are already contributing to unstable presidential conduct and bitter infighting among officials.

The legal threat is posed by special counsel Robert Mueller, the universally respected former FBI director now tasked with investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.

But the potential threat is hardly confined to Russian meddling in the election. Recent history demonstrates that investigations into one matter – for example, Bill Clinton’s questionable land deals in Arkansas – easily lead to the discovery of unrelated misconduct, in that case his illicit affair with a White House intern.

Even if Mr Trump and his team did nothing wrong during the election, what about all their business dealings in recent years, including major international loans and land deals? There is a good reason he hasn’t released his tax returns and is reportedly infuriated that the investigation will surely examine these financial matters, especially involving Russian banks.

Mr Trump is increasingly acting like someone with a great deal to hide. Given time, Mr Mueller and his highly accomplished team will almost certainly discover what that might be.

The potential serious jeopardy for Mr Trump, or others in his inner circle, seems obvious and confirmed by his own apparent panic. Therefore, if the investigation continues, they are probably facing an eventual legal calamity, quite possibly involving criminal charges.

The solution to this massive threat is obvious, but could produce even more dire political upheaval. The American presidency confers a great deal of power, but there are limitations. The president cannot directly fire a duly appointed special counsel, who can only be dismissed by the Justice Department, and for good cause, as explained in writing.

Hence Mr Trump is, for now, completely checkmated. His attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, had no choice but to recuse himself from all matters regarding the last election in which he was a surrogate for the Trump campaign. Therefore, not only is Mr Trump unable to fire Mr Mueller, so is Mr Sessions.

That would have to be done by the deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein. However, it is a virtually unthinkable scenario. After all, Mr Rosenstein appointed Mr Mueller following Mr Trump’s initial effort to quash Russia-related inquiries by improperly firing former FBI director James Comey, and his unseemly attempts to unfairly blame Mr Rosenstein for that fiasco.

Mr Trump has therefore been lashing out at Mr Sessions, trying to berate and humiliate him into resigning so that his replacement can kill the Mueller investigation.

But the attorney-general is refusing to quit and key Republican leaders have said they will not tolerate any summary effort to dump Mr Sessions or Mr Mueller. Democrats and Republicans have pledged to use procedural means to block any “recess appointment” designed to avoid the Senate confirmation process for a new attorney-general and also promised to demand assurances of protection for Mr Mueller from any potential replacement for Mr Sessions

Therefore, if Mr Trump tries to resolve or forestall this apparent looming legal jeopardy by first replacing the Attorney General and then quashing the Mueller investigation, it would initiate a massive political crisis with both parties in Congress reminiscent of the last days of Richard Nixon.

Along with Mr Sessions, many other senior administration officials seem to be living on borrowed time, either because they can’t function effectively in the chaotic Trump environment or because their enemies are plotting to have them dismissed.

The most recent, though surely not last, sacrificial victim is former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. He was sacked after a stunningly foulmouthed tirade against him and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon by Mr Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. It provided an unsurprising but disturbing glimpse into the administration’s metastasizing ugliness and dysfunctionality.

This singularly ineffective White House coexists with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. But Republicans seem unable to pass even their most cherished goals, including repealing the Obamacare health insurance laws. Last week, three separate Senate Republican efforts to undo Obamacare all failed.

Yet this same Republican Congress is effectively moving to tie the president’s hands on Russia sanctions and is considering legislation requiring a judge to review any effort to interfere with special counsel investigations.

Slowly but surely, Mr Trump is losing the confidence of leading Republicans, particularly in the Senate, who are criticising, defying and confronting him more openly by the day.

At the centre of this maelstrom - and confronting a daunting double-bind - uneasily sits the new president.

Mr Trump is trapped. He faces probable serious legal jeopardy to himself or those very close to him. But he can only stop it by initiating a political crisis that would probably implode, and certainly permanently cripple, his presidency in only its first year.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

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