The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Is Trump Going Down?

There’s a lot of excitement amongst the very broad spectrum of people who hate Trump. The indictment of Manafort and Gates is being heralded as the final nail in the coffin of the Trump presidency, and there is already wild speculation about the range and shape of charges which could be laid against members of Trump’s administration and family, with many rightly pointing out that the fact of these two words being interchangeable is appalling. While this isn’t exactly irrational, it is somewhat premature. I would suggest that it’s best viewed as a first nail, always assuming that key figures in the Trump administration are actually guilty of collusion, which I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to, regardless of how tempting or natural this would seem.

The indictment is probably best interpreted as an example of The Capone Gambit, where seemingly peripheral infractions are used against the investigation target. Add to this the heavy weight of precedent (and its absence), as well as presidential powers, and it becomes clear that it’s much more accurate to view this as the first step in a longer game. Given what is known about the character of Manafort, it’s possible this game could play out very quickly indeed, but the endgame is far from clear. Several possibilities need to be considered. Namely, that the Trump administration may have been competent enough to set up a deniable structure, the fact that collusion can be extremely difficult to prove, and the possibility of Trump and his senior staff actually being innocent, even if only technically.

A close reading of the indictment reveals that the charges laid against Manafort and Gates do not relate directly to the investigation target. These two men are being charged with lobbying for a foreign power without declaring the fact, receiving and controlling moneys in foreign accounts without ditto, and lying to federal investigators and entities. While the titles of the charges sound impressive and momentous, and are getting the usual very loud play in tabloid headlines, the fact is that they’re quite narrow in scope. Manafort’s association with the foreign power in question (Ukraine) has a distinct air of low hanging fruit. His association was already quite well known, to the extent of being reported in the media, and there is a grain of truth in conservative arguments that this kind of polite fiction (lobbying for a foreign govt while saying you’re not) is endemic and widespread. What’s more serious is the accusation of money laundering. To be fair, the scheme allegedly set up by Manafort and co looks much more like tax avoidance and fraud than anything in the washing of blood money spectrum, but the right of forfeiture is what’s important here. It appears that serious efforts have been made to locate and identify assets with a view to their seizure by the US govt. This is very clearly the stick. Manafort’s open greed and expensive tastes are obviously being used as a lever to coerce testimony. Will Manafort sing? Nobody really knows, but it’s hard to imagine that a man like him would stonewall and fall on his sword into penury.

All of this sounds very promising for those who wish to be rid of Trump, but certain important things need to be remembered. What’s being attacked here is not the administration, but the campaign. Without direct and compelling evidence of wrong doing, one would expect it to be easy for the administration to simply deny all knowledge. Admittedly, the Trump administration does not have the best record for basic political competence, but surely it’s safe to assume that the skills required for protection of the principal in this case are not confined to insiders on the hill. While it’s very obvious that this investigation could potentially end the Trump presidency, the Manafort/Gates indictment should be seen as an early stage attempt to turn the enemy’s flank, so to speak – a gambit designed to open new channels of inquiry.

Quite a bit of the analysis circulating at the moment seems also to have lost sight of the investigation’s frame of reference. This is not solely an investigation of Trump. What is being attempted to be established is the fact and extent of Russian interference in the election, which inquiry was brought about by widespread media reports and accusations. What is much more directly related to this are the charges made against Pappadopoulos, who has reportedly pleaded guilty. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that this is certainly not one of the big fish, but the potential ripples from his confessions are quite large. But once again it has to be remembered that this all refers to a specific act of collusion conducted within the Trump campaign – an act which any half-way competent organisation would have firewalled from its principal as a matter of course. It would be astonishing if it turned out that a direct line of complicity could be drawn even to senior leadership in the Trump campaign. Of course, there’s plenty of precedent for astonishing incompetence amongst Trump’s people, but there must surely be a limit.

It should also be remembered that Trump can pardon people. And while this may cause outrage, it’s still a fact. The recent pardoning of Arpaio is a case in point – none of the outcry or protest changes the fact that Arpaio’s numerous transgressions have been pardoned, with all that that implies. So criminal charges against individuals or entities linked to Trump are of potentially limited impact. What’s much more dangerous to the Trump administration is the risk of impeachment. If enough key people roll over and point fingers, there is a real possibility that key members of the administration, including the president himself, could be sufficiently implicated to trigger constitutional provisions for impeachment. Which obviously could end the Trump presidency. But would it? And what would happen if it did? The possible consequences are enormous, and possibly very dangerous for the US and its allies. Which is something which Mueller must have in his mind, making it reasonable to assume that whatever happens from here on in is going to happen, at least on Mueller’s part, slowly and carefully.

Having said all that, this is a scandal which dwarfs Watergate. There is a very real chance of this presidency, already beleaguered on multiple fronts, crumbling under the weight of its troubles. But as far as this specific event is concerned it is, to coin a phrase, just another brick in the wall.