Donald Trump can’t help himself in overclaiming; he exaggerates even when it’s against his own interests. During the election campaign, he mocked Barack Obama for declaring that the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad would be “crossing a red line”. Months later, Assad used them on a rebel town, and — nothing happened. Obama’s defenders will say that he then moved to co-operate with Russia to have WMDs removed from Syria, and that that was for the win.
Assad would appear to have retained some stocks, for sentimental reasons, and this week he used them on civilians, including many children, in the province of Idlib. Trump’s response: “Well I’ve changed my mind about Assad. He has crossed many, many lines …”. Not one red line, measly liberal colour co-ordinated lame-ass line. But many many lines. We have the best lines. Our lines are so beautiful. We’ll draw a line and Syria will pay for it.
Trump made his pitch to get cozy with Assad on the basis that Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL) was the true horror story in the region. “Beheading people, that’s just the worst,” he said, as Assad rained barrel bombs on Aleppo neighbourhoods. Assad had already used chemical weapons by the time Trump made these remarks, but it’s more than possible that Trump didn’t know that. Trump reacts to the news the way many late middle-aged white Americans do: catch a bulletin once every eight days, and repeatedly react with fury when there is any evidence that the US lives in a multi-polar world, with limits on its actions.
The effect here, as elsewhere, is paradoxical of course. Most of the killing IS does is plain old-fashioned shooting and bombing; the beheadings are mainly for photo spreads in their global glossy magazine Inspire (it’s bizarre to consider that the conversations in their offices would be the same as in any media office around the world: “can we emphasise the veins hanging from his decapitated neck?” “Stop relying on Photoshop! Let the photograph speak!”).
Trump was happy to co-operate with IS’ retro-chic mediaevalism, while they build an online global apparatus through drug sales, extortion, etc. Now, he is co-operating with Assad’s symbolic use of gas to terrorise remnant resistance. Gas is not that much more efficient as a killer than bombing runs, but death is not simply death. The reality of gas, its invisibility, remorseless totality, the manner of death, the appearance of the corpses, is what gives such weapons their power.
But now with his off-the-cuff remarks about crossing “many, many lines”, Trump has added to his problems. He has previously praised the tough, no-nonsense approach of both Russia and Assad in Syria. What is he now proposing? What can he propose? The remark takes him into the one territory that is dangerous for him: looking and sounding exactly like every other politician, something that may be a factor in his slipping popularity.
Quite possibly, however, the whole thing will be buried under everything else that is crashing down. Breitbart alumnus and Trump consigliere Steve Bannon has been removed from the Security Council, a mere three months after being appointed to it; Mike Pence has failed to broker a deal in the Senate to back the “Trumpcare” bill to repeal and replace Obamacare; the Democrats are resisting the appointment to the Supreme Court of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick, which will force the Republicans to break the filibuster rule (demanding a 60-40 vote to make appointments), and take it to a simple majority vote, which they will win.
They are loath to do this, because every breach of the filibuster — a pretty recent invention, in its current form — weakens the power of the Senate itself, against other branches of government. But of course a Supreme Court appointment might well be worth it, especially as Trump may get the chance to replace one or two more “liberal” seats with choices from the right. That is, in a way, the ballgame. The Supreme Court is a de facto American monarchy, which simply happens to be located in the judicial branch. Its power to declare law unconstitutional is not explicitly mentioned in the constitution; the court itself derived that principle as a necessary consequence of the constitution’s wording, in an early case in 1803. That, combined with lifetime appointments, gives them a power that the framers and founders did not intend, a delicious irony, but only if you’re winning.
Now, on top of all that, there are two entirely separate Watergate-reminiscent scandals running: the long-term investigation of Team Trump’s connection to the Russian leadership — which has presumably prompted the removal of Bannon from the National Security Council — and a separate but entwined scandal, in which the Obama administration is being accused of wiretapping Trump Tower during the election campaign.
The Trump-Russia connections are obvious and in the open. The only question is how deep they go, behind the visible connections. Talking with overseas politicians and their thugs isn’t enough to hang anyone; a direct offer of quid pro quo has to be established or, more obscurely, the accusation of private citizens conducting foreign policy off their own bat. It’s worth remembering how much evidence you really need to hang someone with impeachment*, and trial and conviction in the Senate.
Watergate only went beyond a certain point because Nixon himself had decided to secretly record every conversation he had as president. Today, it’s getting harder to remember what an extraordinary and multiple event Watergate was, how many different things were going on. But it is significant for one thing above all; since Nixon’s disaster, presidents and others have gone in exactly the other direction as regards recorded actions. Hence the fashion for private email accounts for a mix of government and private business, which has itself become a scandal.
The Obama wiretap scandal appears to arise from a Justice Department and FBI attempt to wiretap Trump Tower, on the basis of accusations of illegal trading with Russian banks (the Trump organisation borrows all its money through Russian banks; US banks wouldn’t go near Trump for decades). Unusually — very unusually — one of these requests was rejected by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wiretap court. These are held in secret, and almost always grant the Justice Department’s request. This one was rejected, and a narrower one — targeting a single server — was permitted.
How much this is a scandal will become clear in coming months, but many Obama supporters are being a little too quick to reject the possibility that there is one. I very much doubt Obama himself would have ordered something, but the Obama crew, as political operators, gave no quarter over eight years (that was what made them so effective, in comparison to Team Clinton). It is not impossible that someone tried to piggyback on an ongoing FBI investigation. The FBI leadership appears to have been anti-Clinton — hence the announcement of an investigation into Clinton, during the campaign, with no parallel announcement of an investigation into Trump — but there are factions, and wheels within, etc.
What one can say is that the Trump presidency is now in the period when the simple message of “hope” — of “Make America Great Again” — is being tangled in the business of government, much of it pretty bad government. It is akin to being at page 10, or chapter three of that novel you’re writing. All the bold opening strokes have been delivered. Now you have to get Pinkerton off-stage long enough for Treplitsky to re-load the gun, and call the harbourmaster. But why would Pinkerton leave? What subplot is then required to explain that? You’d have to bring Princess Alexandra back early from the Levant. But why? Etc. So it goes in politics these days. It is less campaign in poetry, govern in prose, than campaign in fiction, govern in reality. The latter appears to be hitting Team Trump with a pretty mass destructive effect these days.
*”Impeachment” refers to a president (or SCOTUS judge, or other figures) being put to trial by a vote in the House of Representatives. It’s the equivalent of indictment. It doesn’t refer to removal from office, which occurs only after a trial and conviction in the Senate, on a 67-33 minimum majority vote. Both Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnston (in the 1860s) were impeached; neither were convicted. It seems pretty likely that the founders and framers intended impeachment to be used far more frequently as a mode of action between elections, than has become the case.