Last September I observed that the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a choice between Snafu — situation normal, all effed up — and Fubar — effed up beyond all recognition. My argument was that enough voters were sufficiently fed up with the status quo, as personified by Clinton, to gamble on the political outsider Trump. They did this in the full knowledge that the ultimate result might be not to make America great again but to eff it up beyond all recognition.
Last week President Trump took several steps down the road to being Fubar himself. However, I don’t think it’s going to be Watergate II. And I certainly don’t buy the argument made by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder (and many other Ivy League liberals) that Trump is a tyrant bent on overthrowing American democracy.
Trump isn’t Nixon. He most certainly isn’t Hitler, the comparison implied by Snyder’s bestselling booklet On Tyranny. He’s Trump. What we have to contend with is not tyranny but trumpery.
Look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which offers two definitions: “1. Deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery. 2. ‘Something of less value than it seems’; hence, ‘something of no value; trifles’ (Johnson); worthless stuff, trash, rubbish.”
After the president’s summary dismissal of FBI director James Comey last Tuesday evening, Democrats and their media allies predictably seized the opportunity once again to compare Trump to Nixon, invoking the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 20, 1973, in which the attorney-general and deputy attorney-general resigned rather than follow Nixon’s order to sack the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
But this really isn’t 1973. First, by the time of the Saturday Night Massacre the Watergate investigation was more than a year old. Televised Senate hearings were well under way and White House counsel John Dean had already begun to co-operate with investigators.
Second, Nixon’s decision to dismiss Cox was intended to block a very specific set of subpoenas rather than to signal his frustration with or stymie an investigation more broadly. The US Attorney’s Office in Northern Virginia issued its first round of grand jury subpoenas recently for associates of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey’s dismissal will do nothing to impede that process.
Third, all the available evidence suggests that the activities under investigation in the Watergate and “Russiagate” cases have little in common. Watergate related to a specific crime (a burglary authorised by the president) and to a cover-up (also authorised by the president) that was clearly intended to block the course of justice. Today, though several members of Trump’s inner circle have been tied to Russia through payments and meetings with foreign agents, no evidence as yet appears to implicate Trump.
I’m sorry to disappoint the would-be heirs of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, but Trump didn’t sack Comey in a desperate bid to keep the net from closing around him. The real story here is not a plot by “all the president’s men”, but rather a complete failure on the part of the president’s men to restrain their boss.
Numerous reports indicate that Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, argued for delaying the decision. We now know that the memo justifying Comey’s sacking was cobbled together by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general, as a post hoc rationale for Trump’s decision.
The one place where the Nixon analogy has some value relates to the knock-on effects of Comey’s firing. Just as the Saturday Night Massacre hurt Nixon much more than it helped him, so Trump’s rash action will only intensify the scrutiny of his associates’ ties to Russia.
The president’s frenzied tweeting last week suggested that he was genuinely surprised by the force of the backlash. Perhaps he expected a more muted reaction because of Comey’s previous unpopularity with the Democrats for his handling of the Clinton email investigation. If so, he underestimated their ability to turn on a dime to land a punch on him.
Will the Democrats’ strategy ultimately work? In the Senate they are now pushing for a select committee (as opposed to a special prosecutor, an option that ceased to be available to Congress in 1999) to take over the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation. Trump’s sworn enemy John McCain and Lindsey Graham are already on board and several other Republican senators seem to be considering the idea.
However, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell remains opposed and has the power to keep things as they are. And even if the Democrats can overcome McConnell, I struggle to see their efforts culminating in Trump’s resignation. Nixon’s downfall came after clear evidence had come to light of personal wrongdoing and in response to overwhelming public opprobrium at a time when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
This, then, is the crux of the matter. Suppose Trump really does have something to hide. As things stand, the multi-step procedure for moving an impeachment motion forward in the House of Representatives requires support from the Republican leadership at each stage. In today’s highly polarised, deeply partisan House of Cards that will not be forthcoming.
As long as Trump retains the support of 80% or more of his original voters — which he does — congressional Republicans cannot afford to turn on him. To do so would be to court disaster in next year’s mid-term elections.
Trump, in other words, is safe for now. At this point the prophets of tyranny loudly bewail the depravity of the Republican Party. How can they give the tyrant Donald this cover when the constitution cries out for his impeachment? Give me a break. There have been plenty of presidential scandals in the 227 years since the US constitution was finally ratified by all 13 states. Rarely has a party abandoned its man in the White House. That’s not tyranny. It’s democracy.
It will be a different story if Trump’s approval numbers slump and the Republicans get destroyed 18 months from now. In that case the House intelligence committee will be chaired by the Californian Democrat Adam Schiff, who will accelerate all investigations into Russiagate with a view to undermining Trump, if not unseating him, before the 2020 presidential election. Again, that’s democracy.
The 1974 mid-term elections after Watergate — although an imperfect analogy, as Nixon had already resigned by the time they happened — give some indication of the risk that Republicans face. In that election they lost 48 seats in the House, giving the Democrats a two-thirds majority, and four seats in the Senate, giving the Dems a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority.
The next shoe to drop will be Trump’s pick to take Comey’s place. Nominating a respected career bureaucrat looks like the only way to lower the temperature in Washington. Putting forward a lackey will only fan the flames. Trump must now act quickly to repair the damage he has inflicted on himself or face a growing danger that the Democrats will retake the House in 2018 — and take the Russia investigation into their own hands.
That will be the moment when I publish On Trumpery — and collect on my bets that this republic is resilient enough to survive even President Fubar.