It has now been almost two years since Donald Trump emerged from the primordial ooze of reality television and birtherism to become a presidential candidate. During this time, Trump’s most reliable and effective political strategy has been that whenever his political fortunes look particularly bad, he points in a new direction and yells “Hey, look at that shiny object over there.” Most of the time the new object it is corroded, corrupt and not shiny at all, but Trump has nonetheless managed to change the subject. This tired strategy has worked yet again over the last 96 hours or so.
By the end of the last week, for what seems like the hundredth time, the punditry, legal scholars and progressive activists were almost ready to declare the end of Donald Trump. Those assertions were always more driven by hope than cold analysis, but they quickly gave way to coverage of Trump’s trip to the Middle East. Trump’s mediocre speeches, selling of weapons to the Saudis, strange relationship with Israel and, of course, ongoing family corruption, don’t exactly qualify as great press for Trump, but they have knocked the appointemnt of Robert Mueller, the leaking of secrets to Russia and the firing of James Comey out of the public eye for a few days. That counts as a big victory for the perpetually embattled Donald Trump.
The significance of this is that despite ample evidence of Russia playing an untoward role in the recent election, of Trump seeking to obstruct justice through how he fired former FBI director James Comey, and the appointment of a respected and competent independent counsel in Robert Mueller, the only way Trump will leave office before his term is over is if the Republican controlled congress is forced to take action. Thus far, the GOP congress has showed what might charitably be described as great reluctance to challenge President Trump. The only way that will change is through constant pressure from the media and civil society. This is why changing the subject, even to a different kind of bad news, is a valuable strategy for a President whose primary goals are to stay in office and to avoid criminal prosecution for his friends, family and potentially himself.
Although media coverage of Trump’s Middle East trip has been far from unequivocally positive, it has generally, deliberately or not, sought to normalize the Trump presidency. Trump’s trip looks, at least at first cut, like most presidential foreign trips. The President visited foreign cities, met with foreign leaders and made speeches. Reporters and analysts are accustomed to these types of events and easily fall into familiar styles and patterns of coverage. Even the egregious scandals related to this trip, including the Saudi contribution to Ivanka Trump’s philanthropic fund, are covered in the framework of presidential normalcy.
Anything that makes this presidency seem normal is a victory for the White House and a defeat for American democracy. There is nothing normal about a President whose campaign was in close contact with Russia during the election and who reveals secret information to Moscow in closed door meetings in the White House. There is similarly nothing normal about a President who uses the office to directly enrich himself and his family. Nor is there anything normal about a President who is seeks to limit media freedom. This all remains true even if Trump takes a trip somewhere and does some of the things that most American presidents do.
The administration’s peripatetic incompetence makes it difficult to concentrate on the bigger picture, but it is essential. We know from the last two years, that the President and those around him make verbal gaffes and are revealed to be involved in corrupt practices with appalling regularity. However, by turning all its attention to each mishap when it occurs, the media, and others, play into Trump’s hands. Over the last four days, Robert Mueller’s name has barely been in the media. In the next few days the next gaffe may keep the Russia investigation on the media’s back burner even longer. Without media coverage, Trump’s poll numbers will not drop, so Republicans in congress will feel little need to hold Trump accountable.
While the Trump presidency, desperately tries to present itself as normal, advocates of restoring democracy must recognize that this struggle is going to be difficult, and potentially take a long time. No special counsel, even one with Robert Mueller’s impressive credentials, is going to bring this presidency to a premature end absent political pressure from Republicans in Congress. Similarly, while the 25th amendment solution is attractive, simple and neat, it is very unlikely to happen until the political climate changes significantly. For these, or any other approaches, to reign in the excesses of the Trump presidency, and perhaps the presidency itself, extreme vigilance is essential even when there is a shiny object in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Photo: cc/The White House