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Putting out a fire with more smoke

Donald Trump may not face imminent impeachment, but he may find it difficult to get past Russiagate

In December 1987, Pat Nixon, the former First Lady, told her husband Richard, the disgraced former President of the United States, about the “great” performance of Donald Trump on the popular Phil Donahue TV show. Mr. Trump was then thinking of entering politics. Richard Nixon then sent a typewritten note to Mr. Trump, saying: “I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great. As you can imagine, she is an expert on politics and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office, you will be a winner!” Nobody knows if Mrs. Nixon was serious in her prediction. But in less than 30 years, she was proved right when Mr. Trump was elected the 45th President of the U.S. And history is so roguish that when it happened, it has with inescapable parallels with the second Nixon administration.

Four months into the chaotic Trump presidency, influential voices in Washington have already begun discussing the possibility of impeaching the President, whose associates are being probed for their alleged ties with Moscow.

A Nixonian move

If the Watergate scandal that doomed the Nixon presidency began with a break-in, in 1972, at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, the Russia scandal that’s engulfing the Trump presidency began with a cyberattack of DNC computer systems, in 2016, allegedly by Russian hackers. If Nixon’s decision to sack Archibald Cox, the special counsel who was investigating the Watergate allegations, in 1973, was a breaking point of his administration, Mr. Trump’s decision to sack Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief James Comey on May 9, at a time when the agency was conducting the investigation into the alleged Russian intervention in the presidential election, could be a breaking point of his administration. If the major charge against Nixon was attempting to obstruct justice in the Watergate probe, Mr. Trump is now facing the same allegations after a leaked Comey memo suggested that he had asked the FBI chief to shut the probe into the Russia connections of his aide Michael Flynn, who he had originally picked as his National Security Adviser.

Nixon was seen as a shrewd, intelligent politician with a massive support base among the conservatives. But he was so desperate to shut the investigation that he may have thought that firing Cox would allow him to take control of the developments surrounding the scandal. What happened was just the opposite. Both the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General refused to carry out the President’s order and quit the government. What was till then seen to be a scandal involving the President’s aides snowballed into a crisis threatening the presidency itself, turning both the American public and the lawmakers against Nixon, and leading to his eventual resignation a year later. Mr. Trump, as his actions and tweets repeatedly suggest, has neither Nixon’s shrewdness nor his political intelligence. But now he has to deal with a crisis of equal proportions. And unsurprisingly, with his impulsive rage and apparent lack of a coherent strategy, he is making matters a lot worse for himself.

A growing fire

Take the recent controversies. When Mr. Comey was fired, the White House initially said the decision was the Deputy Attorney General’s over the FBI chief’s poor handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State, and that the President accepted it. Within hours, Mr. Trump contradicted this, saying he had decided to fire Mr. Comey irrespective of the Justice Department’s recommendation and also suggesting that the reason was the Russia probe. Similarly contradictory messages came out of the White House when a Washington Post report said Mr. Trump had shared classified information on the Islamic State with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at an Oval Office meeting. H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s National Security Adviser, first met the media saying the report was false. The next morning, Mr. Trump tweeted, re-emphasising his right to share intelligence with Russia, and indirectly authenticating the Post story. His U-turns are not new, but in a tenure-threatening crisis, his inability to present a coherent White House narrative to counter the allegations only exposes his incompetency. Then came the Comey memo leak which has dragged him deeper into Russiagate.

It doesn’t mean that Mr. Trump is facing imminent impeachment. The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress. But the crisis he is facing is huge and the way he’s handling it is extremely poor. It’s no longer about whether he knew about the “Russia links” of his aides but whether he tried to influence the investigation. America’s intelligence community, which the President compared to the Nazis in January, is fighting a shadow battle against him. He can’t control the leaks from his administration. He can’t even offer a holding counter-narrative. His, authority, both among the American public and within the U.S. political system, is clearly eroding. As Republican Senator Bob Corker put it, the Trump administration is “obviously in a downward spiral”.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2020 7:52:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/putting-out-a-fire-with-more-smoke/article18510778.ece

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