US President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House on Friday May 25. Photo: AFP/ Mandel Ngan
US President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House on Friday May 25. Photo: AFP/ Mandel Ngan

This isn’t a good time to be Donald J Trump. Granted, it has been a while since it was, but this is the grimmest period of his presidency thus far. And Trump is showing it. Aides have been struggling to muzzle him – not physically, but everything short of that.

And, as could have been predicted, they have not been fully effective. Responsible journalists report that Trump White House aides (who are notoriously sieve-like) say the US president feels alone and cornered.

Feeling lonely should not be surprising, as Trump is not one for close friendships. He has proved time and again that for him, loyalty is a one-way street. Virtually no one who works for him can feel secure. Probably no one but his daughter Ivanka is safe from the terminal wrath that eventually pushes so many associates out the door.

Trump’s normal self-pity has intensified lately. He continues to moan about Attorney General Jeff Sessions having recused himself from the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Trump has worse problems.

His former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has not only been convicted on eight counts of fraud and tax evasion, but, fulfilling Trump’s worst fear, he has also decided to cooperate with Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia probe and investigating Trump’s effort to block the inquiry into whether his campaign (and even administration) conspired with the Kremlin. It’s clear that the relentless Mueller pressured Manafort into cooperating to avoid a second costly trial.

Trump had dropped hints that he would pardon Manafort, but he was advised – and for once, he listened – that to do so before November’s midterm congressional elections would be catastrophic for the Republicans and therefore him. Manafort apparently calculated that he could neither bet on a pardon later – what if Trump himself was in serious legal danger by then? – nor afford another trial. His plea deal with Mueller strips him of most of his properties and tens of millions of dollars, but he was willing to accept huge financial losses to avoid the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Aside from having his potential prison sentence reduced (to an unknown amount), Manafort also wanted an arrangement that would keep his family safe. After all, he would be giving Mueller’s prosecutors the goods on some Russian oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin – folks who are not particularly gentle toward people who betray them.

Making matters worse, Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, has also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Cohen knows a great deal about Trump’s previous business practices and has revealed that he arranged to pay women with whom Trump had sex (though he hasn’t admitted it) for their silence before the presidential election. This, too, has put Trump in legal jeopardy.

And now the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s selection to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, is hanging by the slimmest of threads and could be withdrawn at any moment. Kavanaugh was a risky choice all along. Drawn from a list of other highly conservative possible nominees provided to the president by the right-wing Federalist Society, Kavanaugh stood apart for his extraordinary views about presidential power. Kavanaugh has written that he believed that a president cannot be investigated or prosecuted while he is in office.

This view that a president is above the law is unique (so far as is known) among serious legal scholars. Its appeal to Trump is obvious. Moreover, Kavanaugh’s views are far to the right on other issues as well, and in his confirmation hearings he expressed them with no doubt. On other matters, including abortion rights, he was slippery in his responses, and there is credible evidence that he lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee on other matters.

But almost all of the Republicans on the committee were prepared to push his nomination through quickly: Though he was an unpopular choice, he had the support of the Republican base, including much of the Christian right. This core support remained firm even after Christine Blasey Ford, a professor in California, came forward and alleged that a drunken Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

Republican leaders were desperate to get Kavanaugh confirmed before the midterms, lest their voters stay home out of disappointment and even anger if he wasn’t confirmed – in which case their worst nightmare, a Democratic takeover of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, could come true. That was the situation when reports emerged about another woman alleging sexual misbehavior on Kavanaugh’s part, though her story was less well grounded, at least at first.

Adding to the turmoil was the publication of Bob Woodward’s latest book, Fear, which (like previous books on Trump, but to a greater extent and with more depth) offers a devastating portrait of a dysfunctional White House. In particular, the book – together with an anonymous New York Times op-ed by a senior administration official – showed how far aides would go to keep an incurious, ignorant, and paranoid president from impulsively doing something disastrous.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll issued last Sunday found Democrats leading Republicans for election to the House by 12 percentage points, an extraordinary differential. And it was looking increasingly possible that the Democrats could also retake control of the Senate. Trump had hoped not to be an issue in these races, but that outcome was inescapable. The Republicans had little else to run on.

Even if the Democrats take only the House, life for Trump will become far more complicated, owing to the raft of investigations that the new majority would be certain to launch, and possible impeachment proceedings. Were the Democrats also to take the Senate, Trump could be in terminal trouble. But then he may be anyway.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

Elizabeth Drew

Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.

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