Tuesday 26 September 2017

The pomp and the bluster will prove his undoing

Sheer unpredictability will protect the US president for a while but dangerous enemies are gathering

US President Donald Trump Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber
US President Donald Trump Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Fergal Keane

I have my theory about Donald Trump and the Russians and it may disappoint those of you of a more conspiratorial mindset. I tend to believe he has landed in this current pile of borscht through stupidity rather than involvement in any conspiracy.

When I say stupid I don't mean that the president lacks intelligence.

But he appears increasingly politically impatient, a man who won't listen to cautious counsel much less absorb constructive criticism. And in the case of the firing of FBI director James Comey, political stupidity reached its nadir.

The most telling comments in the past week came from the successor to the fired Comey. "Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day," said Andrew McCabe.

He also insisted that the Russia investigation would continue. You bet it will. With vigour.

Trump believed he could make the FBI biddable. By firing Comey he has ensured exactly the opposite. To make it worse, and with the world already thinking of Nixon and Watergate, Trump threatened Comey with the possible existence of White House recordings of their conversations.

A man like Trump entering the shark-infested waters of Washington DC was always going to be vulnerable, a hubristic magnet for trouble with a cast of enemies that swells with each blundering step he takes. By and large they are enemies who are much cleverer than he is.

The president of the United States does not need to be an intellectual. But he does need to be clever enough to spot traps and to surround himself with people who will neutralise trouble without leaving a stain on the president.

Trump is an isolated figure, relying on political neophytes in his family, and right-wing ideologues such as Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions.

Bannon was touted as the thinker at the court of President Donald. I am afraid not.

He was a failed Hollywood mogul who ran a successful right-wing news site. And, in any case, he is an early loser in the battle for favour and influence around the president, cast out because he dared to shine a little too brightly in the media.

Trump might get through if he had the cunning of a Lyndon Johnson or the swervy lawyer's brain of Bill Clinton, still the cleverest man to drag the reputation of the presidency into the gutter.

While I am briefly on the subject of Clinton I think there is a good argument to be made that he laid the ground for Trump with the Lewinsky saga. The soap opera that delivered Donald began in the Clinton Oval Office. After watching their president assert that he did not have "sexual relations with that woman", Americans became unshockable.

One mess leads to another. After Clinton came the ideological takeover of the Bush White House by the Neocons promising the spread of democracy across the Middle East if only Saddam was sorted out.

That ended so well that the next president, Barack Obama, took one look at the mess and retreated from the region, apart from drone strikes and imposing illusory red lines. Obama was a study in highly articulate reasonableness that was all too easily perceived, not least in the Kremlin, as timorousness, and at home as just too clever by half.

Trump is like none of his predecessors. He is a New York city real-estate hustler and a reality TV star. And that's it. There is no hidden depth. There is just a man frighteningly out of his depth.

So let us go back to the Russia drama. The Kremlin has acted as any half-attentive observer of Putin would have expected. There was mischief to be made in the US election campaign and Moscow took full advantage. The Russians do nothing without an eye to the longer game. So the fall of Michael Flynn and the tangled web into which Trump has woven himself will delight Putin.

His interest is the revival of Russian prestige and power after years of humiliation at the hands of the West. The Russians endured the mockery of the West in the Yeltsin years. Now it is their turn to laugh.

I may be wrong, but I don't expect the Russia inquiry to reveal that Trump collaborated with Moscow to undermine American democracy. His ranting against the inquiry is driven by fear of the unknown - quite what his subordinates and allies may have been up to - rather than by any certain knowledge of his own misdeeds. In this he is very different to Nixon.

The Nixon White House was a study in malevolent control and individual deviousness. Nixon was very, very clever. Trump is not in the same category.

The president believes his base will not be bothered by any of this.

But his base is not broad, a point forgotten in the "what do Trump voters think about this?" media reaction, as if the affirmations of gun-loving, anti-globalist males in the rust belt will define what happens next.

It is not what Trump voters think that matters. It is how the system of checks and balances built into the US constitution responds, and how the majority of US voters will treat the Republicans when the mid-term elections take place.

After this week the odds on Trump being impeached have shortened. The pattern of intemperate public utterance is matched by chaos and petulance behind the scenes. For a while his sheer unpredictability will protect the president. But for how long? Dangerous enemies are gathering.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

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