Saturday 20 January 2018

Trump scandal 'is less Watergate, more Iran-Contra'

Lt Col Oliver North was implicated over Iran-Contra but there was no definitive proof Reagan authorised the plans. Photo: The Authentic History Center
Lt Col Oliver North was implicated over Iran-Contra but there was no definitive proof Reagan authorised the plans. Photo: The Authentic History Center

Molly Kiniry

Those of you awaiting the end of Donald Trump's reign should not hold your breath.

The stories flying out of Washington at warp speed over the past week - the latest being that former FBI director James Comey has agreed to testify before Congress, and that the president bragged to Russian officials about firing him - have been titillating fodder for commentators who brand Trump an irresponsible man-baby. They will no doubt also cast a cloud over his first major foreign trip.

But they are not enough to inflict a fatal wound.

Appointing Robert Mueller to independently oversee the Justice Department's investigation into possible co-ordination between the Russian government and Trump's campaign is the first step to ending this Sisyphean election cycle, but it is only one step.

We should expect the investigation itself to be quite long; Mueller is not a man to be rushed into hasty ­decisions and investigations of this magnitude have typically been measured in years, rather than months.

But while this scandal might be the size of Watergate, I expect it to take the shape of Iran-Contra. The massive blast radius of Watergate often clouds the fact that it was a set of crimes carried out by breathtakingly stupid, arrogant and unlucky men.

The purported aims were the same (stealing an election), and the president may have engaged in obstruction of justice; for now, that is where the comparisons end.

Iran-Contra was a more nuanced affair - and probably a better guide to how this investigation will play out.

For those unfamiliar with the scandal, senior members of Ronald Reagan's administration facilitated the illegal sale of arms to Iran to ensure the release of hostages in Lebanon (contrary to government policy), with the secondary aim of using the funds from those sales to illegally prop up the anti-communist Contra militia in Nicaragua.

There was never definitive proof that the president authorised this diversion of funds - and while more than a dozen other members of the administration were indicted, only some were found guilty and none served jail time.

President Reagan was never impeached, and his approval ratings at the height of the scandal never dipped below 46pc.

To Reagan's base, the illegality of the arms deal and transfer of cash was outweighed by two worthy goals: the return of American hostages and the fight against communism.

But the whole affair was sufficiently convoluted as to give claims of ignorance a ring of authenticity, and to give voters a headache. Any scandal that can be explained only with diagrams is unlikely to capture the popular imagination.

In the absence of hard physical evidence such as recordings of conversations, this investigation will probably be painful and costly, distract from the president's agenda and produce embarrassing headlines - but it will not result in impeachment or conviction, or diminished support in the president's base.

The caveat is, of course, the president's mouth. The major known unknown of Trump's time in office is what will tumble out of it, or on to his Twitter account, every morning. Up to this point, he has demonstrated the impulse control of a slavering labrador, and in this environment that is dangerous.

Interfering with any of the investigations now under way, or attacking those leading them, could prove his undoing.

Impeachment is a political process, requiring a simple majority in the House to impeach, and a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict.

Republicans in both houses are understandably reluctant to prosecute a man who remains popular in their constituencies - but if his inability to keep his mouth shut convinces those voters that maybe he is trying to cover something up, that calculus could quickly change.

Those horrified by the elevation of this man to the highest elected office in the land must be comforted by the prospect of impeachment. It must be tempting to allow yourself to believe that, maybe, just this once, Trump has gone too far and is due for a mighty fall.

History would suggest that you place your faith elsewhere.

This investigation will deliver no quick answers and will almost certainly stretch beyond the mid-term elections in 2018. If it turns up nothing more than is already known, it will not finish Trump. And even if it digs up further evidence implicating his aides, there's a strong chance he himself would survive it.

His enemies must look instead to old-fashioned ­electoral politics. That, in the end, is the only sure way to curtail his power.


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