Impending crises

Concern rises over Trump firing investigator into Russian scandal

Impending crises
Even in this holiday season, the season to be jolly, we are hearing increasing talk of a coming crisis. But what kind of crisis? From what cause? Who will start it? Much of this talk comes from the opposition to President Trump, which clearly is trying to forestall him from taking actions they say would spark the crisis. But the President, or his acolytes, keep stirring the pot by hinting in public about possible actions, including firing the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into the Russian invasion of the US election system and the question of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The President and his advisors have also ruminated in public about using his wide-ranging power to pardon preemptively to simply stop the process.

Now there is no federal crime called “collusion,” although you would not know that from the way that Trump keeps trumpeting that the investigation has found no “collusion.” In fact, being good lawyers, the investigators are looking for evidence of a “conspiracy,” to break a specific law, which is a crime. In this case, it would be breaking the law against civilians with no official status conspiring with a foreign government. Conspiracy is very hard to prove, but some of Trump’s campaign staff, including his son and son-in-law, did some pretty dumb things during the campaign which could lead to charges being brought against them. And Michael Flynn has ended up under indictment for lying to the FBI.

But the dumbest act of all may have been Trump’s, after he took office, allegedly asking FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Flynn, who had become his National Security Advisor, and then firing Comey after he refused to do so. This has opened Trump to a crime called “obstruction of justice” which is what President Nixon was charged with and led to his resignation after the Watergate scandal broke wide open.
Talk of a crisis comes from the President hinting at firing Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into the Russian invasion of the US election system. There other impending crises: The question of war with North Korea and the bitter division of American conservatives

Just to add a bit of sinister evidence to the concern that Trump will try to fire Mueller (whether he could do so is still being debated by lawyers) is the fact that the right-wing media, and some of the more faithful Trumpians in Congress, have begun a campaign of vilification of Mueller, with the objective of painting him, and his investigation, as biased. This campaign is orchestrated from the White House according to the reliable media. Few, beyond Trump’s fervent base supporters, will believe that Mueller, a Republican to begin with, and a man of unbending principle and integrity by all accounts, is biased, but the objective is to make sure the base believes it.

All this is eliciting from the other side increasing warnings about an impending crisis, one that almost all assert will be a “constitutional crisis.” The most recent warning of an impending constitutional crisis came from Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who is Democratic Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. If we take this seriously, we should be really scared. As Eric Posner, a highly regarded legal scholar at the University of Chicago recently wrote, the only real constitutional crisis in our history was the Civil War. The disagreement between the Southern States and those of the North could not be settled in the framework of the constitution, and was resolved by force with 600,000 dead as the collateral damage. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that anything like a real constitutional crisis, which requires an extra-constitutional resolution, even a non-violent one, is likely even if Mueller turns up evidence that Donald Trump and/or his campaign conspired with the Russians to alter the 2016 elections results, or that he obstructed justice. The resolution is likely to be administered by American voters in 2018 and/or 2020.

The other so-called constitutional crises of our history have actually been resolved without violating the constitution. Three elections have led to political impasses that may have reached the level of minor political crises were solved by negotiation (1800-Thomas Jefferson, 1828-John Quincy Adams, and 1876-Rutherford B. Hayes), and a fourth by the Supreme Court (2000-George W. Bush). Two impeachments, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were handled as the constitution calls for. The almost-impeachment of Richard Nixon could have reached a constitutional crisis if Nixon had not obeyed the Supreme Court order to turn over the tapes which ultimately proved his guilt, and/or if he had defied the almost certain impeachment of both houses of Congress. But he didn’t; he went peacefully and without pardoning his subordinates who had been complicit.

There are two other impending crises that I should not fail to mention. The ever-present question of war with North Korea hangs over our heads. At least it has seemed ever-present since Trump took office. War is always a political crisis, I believe, and war with North Korea would be especially crisis-ridden because of the threat it would be nuclear. I don’t have any special insights into this, as I can’t find any realistically coherent strategy behind all the President’s posturing or what would seem to be inadvertent good cop-bad cop tactics of Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. And if Tillerson is fired, or just leaves out of disgust (which I suspect is likely once the leaks about his departure stop), would his replacement share his instinct to tone down the President’s rhetoric, or constrain his impulsive behavior? This is a crisis just looking for a time to happen.

And there is another crisis of sorts that is going on behind the scenes, and I am not sure whether to welcome it or worry about it. It is a crisis of the Conservative Movement in the US. Trump’s election appears to be breaking up the American conservatives into two bitterly divided sides. I have written that his election might break up the Republican Party. But the divide is deeper and more profound than I thought, and I am not sure that left-center Americans should welcome a wholesale splintering of conservatism in our country. Conservative public intellectuals are slanging each other, and their respective sides, in Conservative journals, blogs, op-eds, and the right-wing media quite openly, much more than most of us realize.

What Trump’s election has done is to have elevated a reactionary school of conservatism into a dominant position in the conservative movement, heretofore relatively unknown to the general public, although it has for 50 years represented a dissenting voice in American conservatism. The central brain of this school of thought is the Claremont Institute. The motto on its website is “recovering the American idea,” and its mission is ”to restore the principles of the American Founders to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” This has been further elaborated over the years into a narrative that calls for the American governments to return the country to its founding principles which were operative until Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912. In practice, this group is another which looks back to a golden age which is a figment of its imagination. They are rightly called reactionaries. Right now, however, this group in very influential with many of its adherents in government positions.

The traditional conservatives are the competition, and are frozen out of the Trump Administration. Many are neocons, former liberals who had a missionary view of foreign policy, and moderate views on domestic issues. They are united with the traditional conservatives whose views are less liberal but hardly reactionary, against Trump, and against the Claremont group. Many of them were in the “Never Trump” movement before the election, and continue to actively oppose him now. Back in the day (before Trump) this group could be counted on to keep a brake on the wilder tendencies of the left, of which the Bernie Sanders movement is a good example. We need them.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.