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Trump’s ‘frontal assault’ on US institutions

The three beefy men sharing a laugh looked like old friends, not geopolitical adversaries. A smiling Donald Trump welcomed Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and its US ambassador Sergey Kislyak to the Oval Office on Wednesday, just a day after the president had fired the man investigating Moscow’s role in helping him enter the White House.

The extraordinary scene was just the latest sign that Mr Trump has little respect for Washington’s norms or, for that matter, the prerogatives of other government institutions. Americans caught their only glimpse of the friendly, albeit somewhat surreal, tableau from photographs supplied by Tass, Russia’s state-run news service.

A week that began with the president basking in a modest healthcare victory in the House of Representatives and anticipating progress on tax reform ended with him contradicting his aides’ explanation for the sudden dismissal of FBI director James Comey. Worse, Mr Trump acknowledged in a televised interview that he had in mind “this Russia thing” when he decided to oust the FBI chief.

For his critics, the president’s breezy flirtation with the obstruction of justice only intensified calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election. Those swelled on Friday as Mr Trump threatened the release of White House “tapes” — real or imagined — in a tweet warning Mr Comey not to speak against him. The series of bizarre episodes left Washington unnerved.

“We haven’t had a president in a long time, maybe ever, who’s presented this kind of frontal assault on so many institutions,” says Pete Wehner, who worked in three Republican administrations. “I always believed a Trump presidency would represent a stress test of our institutions . . . That’s happening now.”

The Republican-dominated Congress so far is trying hard to avoid the test. Mr Trump is unlikely to face a special prosecutor unless Republican voters desert him and embolden the party’s politicians to defect. Despite sagging overall support, the president retains the affection of 82 per cent of his own party, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with former FBI director James Comey at the White House in January © Getty

Still, Mr Trump this week again demonstrated his peculiar talent for upending his own agenda. On Capitol Hill, Republican congressional aides worry that the president’s conduct may further slow the legislative agenda, in part by poisoning the well of bipartisan co-operation, already nearly bone dry. The day after Mr Comey’s dismissal, a Senate committee abruptly postponed a mark-up of a routine bill to reauthorise user fees that fund the Food and Drug Administration. Still ahead lies the distraction of confirmation hearings for Mr Comey’s successor.

“Trump has a hold on the Republican party, but it’s a weak hold,” says Mr Wehner. “This is not a political colossus.”

The Republicans, who control the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time since 2006, were already facing an uphill battle in advancing their legislative agenda. While the House passed a healthcare overhaul this month, prompting a jubilant — if premature — Rose Garden celebration, the measure faces uncertain prospects in the Senate, which could take months to act.

“Even before Comey was fired, it looked like the Democrats were not going to make any effort to engage in any bipartisan work on the health bill; now they have even less incentive,” says Eric Edelman, who served under George W Bush. “Politically the timing of this was very ill-considered.”

The upshot of the chaotic efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act could be a further delay to tax reform, which many GOP lawmakers see as critical to their 2018 re-election hopes.

Spooked by Mr Trump’s impulsive dismissal of the FBI director, some Republicans are beginning to tiptoe away from the president. Moments after NBC News aired footage of Mr Trump disparaging Mr Comey as a “showboat” and “grandstander” who deserved to be axed, a senior Republican senator on Thursday bluntly contradicted the commander-in-chief.

Mr Comey was “one of the most ethical, upright, straightforward individuals I’ve had the opportunity to work with”, says Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who is leading one of the congressional investigations into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The controversy engulfing the administration is certain to erode Mr Trump’s already fragile position. Just 36 per cent of registered voters approve of his performance in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, while 58 per cent disapprove. Mr Trump’s white working-class base is beginning to defect. Less than a month ago, white voters who lacked a college degree backed the president by a 57 to 38 per cent margin. Today, they are almost evenly split.

Likewise, there are signs Mr Trump’s shaky performance may cost the Republicans control of the House in next year’s midterm elections and open the door to more aggressive congressional investigations. Voters favour a Democratic House by 54 per cent to 38 per cent — a 16-point gap that Quinnipiac says is the largest it has ever recorded on that question.

Those worrying whether US institutions are up to the Trump challenge will scrutinise his choice to replace Mr Comey at the FBI. Already, in just over 100 days in office, Mr Trump has disparaged “so-called” judges; mocked the free press as “fake news” and suggested rewriting the Senate’s parliamentary rules to make executive action easier.

Senator Richard Burr is leading one of the congressional probes into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia © Bloomberg

Some parts of the 18th-century political system that Americans claim is the best in the world are performing better than others. The judiciary, the executive’s coequal, has acted as an implacable opponent of Mr Trump’s occasionally lawless urges. Federal judges in several courts halted his ill-prepared travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations and forced a rewrite, which remains tied up in litigation.

The press has produced aggressive coverage of the administration. Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, was fired in February after the Washington Post disclosed that he had misled White House colleagues about private talks with a Russian diplomat over a potential easing of US sanctions.

Mr Kislyak, who Mr Flynn conversed with before Mr Trump took office, was the Russian diplomat the president welcomed on Wednesday. A White House press release of the meeting did not mention Mr Kislyak’s presence.

Earlier this year, US intelligence agencies said Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally orchestrated a campaign of cyber attacks designed to tilt the election towards Mr Trump.

The president’s treatment of Mr Comey, who learned of his firing from a TV news report while visiting an FBI office in Los Angeles, was seen as humiliating by the bureau’s rank-and-file. Mr Trump claimed that Mr Comey had told him on three occasions that he was not under investigation, a statement that the director’s allies say is untrue.

Likewise, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ claim that Mr Comey was fired after losing the confidence of his agents irked many at the FBI, including some who criticised his handling of the saga over Hillary Clinton’s emails. “The younger guys loved Comey,” says a retired agent. “Higher up into the ranks, you started to get a bit more of a divide. But the vast majority liked and respected Comey.”

Though privately Republicans are exasperated by the president’s antics, party stalwarts say his disruptive energy will prove healthy.

“The American system will stand up to the test fine,” says Trent Lott, the Republican former Senate majority leader. “Washington and the institutions here need to get shaken up a little.”

But Mr Trump’s take-no-prisoners style has embroiled him in sequential conflict with US intelligence agencies, members of his own party and the nation’s chief law enforcement agency.

US President Richard Nixon announces his resignation in 1974 following the Watergate scandal © AFP

For now, however, only a handful of Republicans are openly critical of the president, including senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake. Mr Lott, who spent 34 years in Congress before becoming a Washington lobbyist, says the antidote to Mr Trump’s wobbly poll numbers is legislative success. If the Republicans somehow muscle into law bills on healthcare, tax reform and infrastructure spending, the president’s woes may melt away. “But if they don’t get all of those, they’ll be in trouble,” he says.

To Americans of a certain age, Washington’s atmosphere recalls the Watergate crisis that made Richard Nixon the first man to resign the presidency. Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and a former counsellor to Mr Obama, says the first article of the impeachment against Mr Nixon accused him of obstructing justice.

Most Republicans in Washington have only loose ties to Mr Trump, a populist who executed a hostile takeover of the party. If his standing deteriorates, more Republicans could embrace the idea of a special counsel to investigate the Russia links.

“The ability of the system to dust itself off and move forward cannot be taken for granted,” says Mr Tribe. “It is a dangerous time.”

Via FT