A ranking Republican statesman this week told an off-the-record gathering that a “coup” attempt was in progress against President Donald Trump, with collusion between the largely Democratic media and Trump’s numerous enemies in the Republican Party. The object of the coup, the Republican leader added, was not impeachment, but the recruitment of a critical mass of Republican senators and congressmen to the claim that Trump was “unfit” for office and to force his resignation.
It’s helpful to fan away the psychedelic fumes of allegation and innuendo and clarify just what Trump might have done wrong. Trump will not be impeached, and he will not be harried out of office. But he faces a formidable combination of media hostility—what the president today denounced as a “witch hunt”—and a divided White House staff prone to press leaks. The likely outcome will be a prolonged dirty war of words that will delay Trump’s domestic agenda and tie down his loyalists with the chores of fire-fighting.
One thinks of Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians. Trump was elected by campaigning against the Republican Establishment as well as Obama, ridiculing their policy blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan and questioning their credibility. In the flurry of personal attacks, the underlying policy issues have faded into the background, and that gives the initiative to Trump’s enemies.
Nothing that has been alleged, much less proven, about President Trump comes close to the threshold for impeachment, as Prof. Jonathan Turley of George Washington University’s law school explained in a May 17 comment in The Hill. Even if Trump asked then FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Gen. Michael Flynn, Prof. Turley notes, “Encouraging leniency or advocating for an associate is improper but not necessarily” illegal. The charge of obstruction of justice presumes that there is an issue before the bar of justice, but as Turley adds, “There is no indication of a grand jury proceeding at the time of the Valentine’s Day meeting between Trump and Comey. Obstruction cases generally are built around judicial proceedings — not Oval Office meetings.”
The appointment of respected former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to look into allegations of Russian interference in the November 2016 election strongly suggests that the Trump team feels it has nothing to fear from a thorough review. In this case Trump’s detractors appear to be bluffing. Press reports of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian diplomats and businessmen appear to reflect the sort of conversations that every presidential campaign conducts with important foreign governments. It is not clear that Russia was responsible for the delivery of embarrassing Democratic National Committee emails to Wikileaks, moreover. Pro-Trump media report that DNC staffer Seth Rich was Wikileaks’ source. Rich was murdered on a Washington street in July 2016, and a counter-conspiracy theory is circulating about his death.
Then there is the alleged leak of highly classified intelligence on the laptop bomb threat to airliners, of which Wall Street Journal editors intoned, “Loose Lips Sink Presidencies.” Exactly what the president told the Russians is under dispute, but the salient fact in the case is that presidents and cabinet members frequently leak classified information without prompting the condemnations that piled up on Trump. Obama’s then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta leaked the role of Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi in locating Osama bin Laden’s lair, and President Obama himself revealed that Seal Team 6 had killed Osama, making the unit a subsequent target for terrorists. Apart from inadvertent leaks, the Obama administration deliberately leaked British nuclear secrets to Russia, over bitter protests from London.
Why did Obama get a pass while Trump got the bum’s rush? Apart from the antipathy of the major media to a candidate who campaigned against them, there is the hostility of the intelligence agencies. That, the Wall Street Journal editors said, is Trump’s own fault: “Mr. Trump’s strife and insults with the intelligence community were also bound to invite blowback,” their May 17 editorial scolded. “In that case the public leaks about Mr. Trump’s actions, if true, will do more damage than whatever he said in private.”
The Journal editors imply that disaffection in the intelligence community is the result of Trump’s obstreperousness, but the source of the dispute is policy and accountability. Trump’s first national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, was fired by Obama as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for claiming that U.S. intelligence agencies bore some responsibility for the emergence of ISIS. The CIA funded Sunni rebels against the Assad regime including many from a branch of al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, in its campaign to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump has shifted America’s priority to stopping the bloodshed in Syria rather than forcing out al-Assad, and is willing to work with Russia to achieve this—provided that the result doesn’t give undue influence to Iran, a senior administration official explained.
A shift to peacemaking and the limited possibility of a regional deal with Russia away from the covert war operations of the CIA under the Obama administration represents a major policy change. It threatens the credibility of Sen. McCain, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the Republican Establishment, not to mention the CIA officials who made their careers on collaboration with Syria’s Sunni rebels.
During the campaign, candidate Trump delivered an effective message that he would abandon the costly and unpopular nation-building campaigns of his predecessors and focus instead on America’s own security. He attacked not only Obama but the George W. Bush administration and the Republican Establishment which had fostered a failing policy in the region.
Trump won by calling attention to the errors of his opponents and by dominating the news cycle. He played continuous offense. At the White House, by contrast, Trump has appeared cautious in stating his foreign policy goals, and defensive in responding to attacks on his performance and propriety. The policy issues that stood out clear during the campaign and helped Trump outflank the Republican Establishment have become fuzzy, especially after the firing of Gen. Flynn.
With the policy issues out of focus, Trump has lost control of the news cycle, and risks letting the news cycle control him. His opponents won’t succeed in dislodging him. But they have succeeded in distracting Trump from his policy agenda.