Monday 21 May 2018

Trump faces rising tide of troubles

Between former FBI director James Comey's harsh critiques and a raid on the office of lawyer, Donald Trump has landed in a world of pain of his own making. Niall Stanage reports from Washington

So macho: Trump's rhetoric may have been mocked, but he overthrew decades of precedent by agreeing in principle, and in short order, to meet Kim Jong-un
So macho: Trump's rhetoric may have been mocked, but he overthrew decades of precedent by agreeing in principle, and in short order, to meet Kim Jong-un
James Comey during an interview with ABC News on Sunday

The sea of troubles battering Donald Trump is getting fiercer by the minute.

His presidency is unlikely to capsize just yet, but his chances of making significant forward progress are dimming.

Just this month, Trump has been shaken by a tale of two lawyers.

One is James Comey, the former FBI director whom the American president fired less than a year ago, with catastrophic consequences. The other is Trump's long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

James Comey during an interview with ABC News on Sunday
James Comey during an interview with ABC News on Sunday

Comey has hit the publicity trail with his new book, A Higher Loyalty. Despite the title, Comey has not always taken the high road.

His jabs at Trump have included the suggestion that he wears tanning goggles, as well as observations about his height, the authenticity of his hair and the size of his hands.

But the pettier side of Comey's book should not distract from the deadly serious critique that he offers.

The former FBI director stated plainly in his first major TV interview, with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News last Sunday, that he considers Trump "morally unfit" to sit in the Oval Office.

Comey argues that the President of the United States is a congenital liar who masks deep insecurity with bluster - and who transgresses, time and again, the norms and standards that bind American civic life together.

Michael Cohen is a whole different story.

Cohen, a brash New York attorney, has been associated with Trump and his business empire for more than a decade. His willingness to operate as a bareknuckle "fixer" for Trump seems to be at least equal in importance to any expertise in jurisprudence.

Cohen arranged the now-infamous payment of $130,000 (approximately €105,000) to the adult actress Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Daniels alleges she had an affair with Trump back in 2006. The payment appears to have been intended to keep her quiet.

Cohen asserts that he paid the $130,000 out of his own funds and without Trump's knowledge. There is no proof that either assertion is false - though both are met with considerable scepticism by some observers.

In any event, Cohen is now under an unforgiving spotlight.

About two weeks ago, law enforcement agents raided his home, his office and a hotel room he had been staying in while his home was being renovated. They reportedly seized a large number of documents as well as electronic devices.

Raiding a lawyer's office is no small matter.

In order to do so, prosecutors must establish they have a justification that supersedes the typical safeguards that protect communications between a lawyer and his or her client.

Crime-fraud exception

The most common exemption to that privilege is known as the "crime-fraud exception."

This in essence holds that lawyer-client communications can be seized if they contain evidence that the parties involved are acting in furtherance of a crime.

For example, if a client simply told his lawyer about his challenges in an existing case via email, the government could not seize the message. But if, for example, the client was telling the lawyer that they should kidnap a witness or commit some other new crime, their communications would be seizable.

Cohen denies all wrongdoing.

Some of the evidence that was sought reportedly includes communications between him and Trump - documents for which investigators would have needed to obtain a search warrant from a judge. That fact alone has set speculation ablaze across the US.

"That means that Donald Trump and Michael Cohen were talking about some topic that the FBI believes is evidence of a crime - and they have enough evidence to get a judge to sign it," said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, last week. "That has to be very concerning for the president."

Trump lamented on Twitter on Sunday that "Attorney Client privilege is now a thing of the past." He added: "I have many (too many!) lawyers and they are probably wondering when their offices, and even homes, are going to be raided with everything, including their phones and computers, taken. All lawyers are deflated and concerned!"

Last week, lawyers for the president argued that he should be able to review the seized documents before investigators could do so. Under this scenario, Trump would be the first person to assert a claim on which documents were, or were not, covered by attorney-client privilege. The judge has appeared to be leaning against that argument.

In the larger Trump orbit, supporters worry that the focus on Cohen is part of a new expansion of the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller, also a former FBI director, was given a remit of investigating the allegations of collusion with Russia that have long dogged Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

Crucially, however, the terms of Mueller's appointment also give him the right to probe further into "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation".

Mueller and his colleagues may be defining their powers quite expansively. Or they may have found evidence suggesting the Russia trail extends in unexpected directions.

Either option is bad news for Trump.

Trump has always insisted there is "no collusion" and that allegations to the contrary are "a hoax" - phrases he repeated once again during a news conference with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the president's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Wednesday.

Mueller's investigation, however, has already produced charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort (who pleads his innocence); and guilty pleas from a Manafort associate, Rick Gates; from Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser at the outset of his administration; and from a former campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, among others.

Suspicions that Trump could move to try to shut down the Mueller investigation have been growing.

Mueller and the Department of Justice official who oversees him - Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - face a daily drumbeat of criticism from Trump's political and media allies.

Trump himself has raged against the duo, complaining in an April 11 tweet that "much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation".

Mueller and Rosenstein he insisted on that occasion, were "conflicted."

Not everything is deepening gloom for Trump.

He has defied expectations for good as well as for bad.

His macho rhetoric toward North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whom the American president has derided as "Little Rocket Man," was widely mocked. But, at a minimum, it seems to have produced as good a result as years of careful diplomacy by previous administrations.

Trump overthrew decades of precedent by agreeing in principle, and in short order, to meet Kim. North Korea has indicated it is willing to discuss "denuclearisation" in the talks.

Whether those promises hold when push comes to shove is a very different question. Just this week, Trump suggested he would leave such talks if they were not "fruitful". But Trump can make a plausible case that his unorthodox approach has paid dividends.

Similarly, the recent US-led strike on Syria has met with little opposition domestically. It has drawn approval even from some people who are normally Trump critics.

Syrian air strikes

Whether the Syrian air strikes will be effective over the longer run is hotly disputed. And Trump has wandered down a very uncertain course on that conflict.

A short time before striking Syria for the second time in approximately a year, he announced - apparently to the surprise of many of his advisers - that the US should end its involvement in the nation "very soon".

Those who charge Trump with hitting Syria to distract from his political problems at home miss the mark, however.

Trump is more than capable of creating media distractions of his own volition, using nothing more deadly than his Twitter account. He doesn't need to launch military attacks in the Middle East in order to reorder the news agenda.

Trump's troubles are significant but they can also be overstated. In boxing terms, he is pinned against the ropes, not sprawled on the canvas.

His job approval rating, though still very low by historical standards, has ticked up modestly since the end of last year. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, he stood at 42.1pc approval and 54.2pc disapproval on Thursday.

He has been buoyed by a robust economy, despite a few recent jitters; by the tax cuts that were passed at his behest by his Republican colleagues in Congress last December; and by a general sense among his loyalists that he is delivering for working-class voters in the heartlands - by imposing tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium, for instance - while also thrusting a defiant middle finger in the face of the much-despised elites.

There are many serious hurdles ahead, however.

One of the most significant looms in November, when midterm elections take place. The Republicans are virtually certain to lose Congressional seats. The question is, how many?

If Democrats were to wrest control of the House of Representatives away from the Republicans, they could thwart much of Trump's agenda. Crucially, they would also gain subpoena power, enabling them to compel Trump associates to testify on all manner of potentially embarrassing matters.

For the moment, however, all eyes will be on the lawmen: Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein and James Comey.

They have become Trump's biggest tormentors - whether they intended to or not.

As with so many things in Trump's world, he has been the author of his own misfortune. Had he not fired Comey in the first place, Mueller would likely never have been appointed.

Even someone as disinclined to introspection as Donald Trump must sometimes rue that decision. He is in a world of pain - almost all of it of his own making.

The question is whether he can return to full political health - or whether his presidency is in terminal decline.

@NiallStanage

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