Russian revelations reveal a president out of his depth
Donald Trump’s political fate rests ultimately with the Republican Party
A file photograph made available by the Russian foreign ministry shows US president Donald Trump speaking with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and Russian ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak during their meeting in the White House in Washington. Photograph: EPA/Russian foreign ministry
The timing could not be more inauspicious, coming in the midst of an explosive period for the US president.
As Trump seeks to cast himself in the role of world statesman, he leaves behind a Washington still reeling from the latest developments in an increasingly chaotic presidency.
Trump’s decision to sack FBI director James Comey is not unprecedented – Bill Clinton fired FBI chief William Sessions in 1993 over his use of agency funds – but Trump’s brutal ousting of the head of the FBI was the latest indication of a president that rules by impulse with little thought for the consequences.
That the move came months after Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to support his controversial travel ban, simply underscores fears that this president is prepared to dislodge anyone who challenges him.
While the move to fire Comey immediately led to claims that the US president was seeking to muzzle the man investigating him, arguably it was Trump’s behaviour in the subsequent days that may have damaged him irrevocably.
Comparisons with WatergateTrump’s suggestion on Twitter that he may have taped his meetings with Comey immediately invited comparisons with Watergate – Richard Nixon’s refusal to submit recordings ordered by the court precipitated his downfall.
His confirmation in an NBC interview two days after the sacking that he had wanted to fire Comey for some time directly contradicted the initial message from the White House and vice president Mike Pence that the decision to oust Comey was based on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
Similarly, Trump’s accusation that Comey was undertaking a “witch-hunt” into “this Russian thing” suggests a direct link between the sacking and the FBI investigation into links between the Trump campaign team and Russia – an admission that could prove highly damaging if Trump is accused of obstruction of justice, an impeachable offence.
The subsequent reports on Monday evening that Trump shared classified information with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reveal a president that may be as much out of his depth as a force for malevolence.
With serious repercussions for relations between Washington and its allies, it could not have come at a more inauspicious time, days before Trump departs on his first foreign trip.
Again, Trump’s early morning tweets on Tuesday where he sought to defend his move may have made matters worse for the president as he appeared to defend his right to share that intelligence, again shifting the original defence that emanated from the White House on Monday evening.
Background of chaosAll of this is playing out against a background of chaos within the West Wing, with Trump reportedly lashing out at his chief of staff Reince Priebus and his ally Sean Spicer over the handling of the communications around the Comey sacking.
In an unusual move, national security adviser HR McMaster was dispatched to brief the media in the White House grounds on Monday evening after the Russian story emerged and is again due to address the press on Tuesday. Trump’s threat last week to cancel the daily White House press briefings has also cemented the narrative of a paranoid president, obsessed with his image and with controlling the narrative of his presidency, in echoes of Nixon.
How far can Trump go?
If there is any common thread running through the first four months of this incoherent, unprecedented presidency, it is Trump’s disdain for the institutions of US politics and society.
His attacks on the media, the judiciary and the intelligence community has revealed a man that has railed against the pillars of American life at every turn.
So far, the famed checks and balances of the US system have succeeded in keeping the president in check to some extent.
The media have persisted in their function of holding those in authority to account, while several federal courts have succeeded in blocking Trump’s two controversial executive orders on immigration (though it has not yet reached the supreme court).
The FBI’s interim director has vowed to continue the agency’s ongoing investigation into links between Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin, despite the sacking of the agency’s director.
What has not yet been tested, however, is the power and independence of the legislative branch of government. Ultimately, Trump’s survival as president depends on Congress.
The elected representatives in the House of Representative and the Senate have the ultimate say on two crucial issues affecting the president – the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the Russian claims and impeachment proceedings.
On the former, while senior Republicans such as John McCain and Richard Burr criticised Trump in the hours following the Comey sacking, within 24 hours the Republican Party appeared to have rowed into line behind the president, with Senate majority leader Mitch Mc Connell ruling out the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Likewise, impeachment proceedings will remain a distant prospect while Republicans continue to back Trump, the man whom so many Republican politicians criticised during the presidential campaign. With Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress, the survival of Trump is tied to the Republican Party.
Classified informationIt remains to be seen if the reports that Trump leaked classified information to Russia change minds.
So far he looks safe, with only a handful of Republicans prepared to condemn the commander in chief. Next year’s mid-term elections could change things. Republicans’ loyalty will be tested if Democratic pressure on Trump begins to resonate with Republican supporters, for example, or if the promised improvements to the US healthcare system contained in the Republican’s new healthcare Bill fail to materialise.
The outcome of the FBI investigation or a possible intervention by Comey (he has indicated he may address the controversy publicly) could also undo Trump if evidence of a criminal cover-up is revealed.
The other means of ousting Trump is through article 25 of the constitution whereby a president can be removed if he is judged to be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” though this can only be achieved if the vice president or a majority of the president’s cabinet move against him.
With this scenario unlikely at the moment, the real power to dislodge Trump lies with the Republicans on Capitol Hill.
As America and the world grapples with one of the most volatile presidents in history never has the principle of the separation of powers enshrined in the constitution seemed so critical to US democracy. The next few months and years will prove if the Republican Party will live up to their responsibilities.