Looking down the barrel?
Appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel turns the screw further into the Donald Trump presidency
In the past week, events in Washington have provided a fresh twist to allegations of anti-constitutional acts committed by the beleaguered US President Donald Trump. The appointment of the former FBI Director Robert Mueller as the special counsel to investigations into the Trump campaign's collusion with the Russians has upped the ante on the embattled president.
What makes the appointment of Mueller a significant threat to the Trump administration is that the President has found himself mired in allegations of obstructing justice. Mueller is known for his professional integrity and is receiving adequate support from White House officials, except the Trump coterie. The issue will be whether the President has obstructed justice first by asking the former FBI Director James Comey to let his former national security advisor Michael Flynn off the hook for his alleged ties with Moscow. After Comey had declined Trump's request, he was fired. Trump has complicated his position further by tweeting "Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations".
In the US, obstruction of justice by the sitting President is a serious offence. Reports suggest that President Trump was aware of Flynn's alleged indiscretions after receiving warning former President Barack Obama and then acting attorney general Sally Yates. They warned him that Flynn had served as a lobbyist for the Turkish government, apart from his Russia connections. Still, he appointed Flynn as national security adviser and backed him until it was impossible to do so any longer. All these developments during the week show that Trump scandals have reached a tipping point and the situation is fast reaching the stage of the Watergate scandal that occurred during Richard Nixon's tenure as US president.
Only hours after the bombshell announcement of Mueller's appointment, a New York Times report claimed Flynn had disclosed to the President that he was under investigation by the FBI for working as a paid foreign agent of Turkey's authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Trump had claimed he did not have that information when he appointed Flynn.
Trump lashed out on Twitter again Thursday morning claiming that there was a double standard because both "the Clinton campaign and Obama" had committed "illegal acts" for which no special prosecutor had been appointed. The president offered no evidence to back those claims. He also told a graduating class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, even before the announcement of the appointment of a special counsel, that "no politician in history has been treated more unfairly" than him.
The events of the last 24 hours appear to have brought into question whether the Trump administration will be able to survive the scandals, most of which it has brought on itself. Never before in U.S. history has a special prosecutor been appointed to investigate a sitting president merely less than 120 days into his administration. Meanwhile, talk of impeachment is heard on the floor and in the halls of the U.S. Capitol and throughout D.C.
It also surfaced that at a previously unknown meeting of GOP leaders last year, Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had said he thinks "Putin pays" Trump. Majority leader Paul Ryan scrambled on Wednesday to minimise the damage from the revelation, calling it a "joke."
Another factor is the nearly open revolt sweeping the ranks of the FBI and other intelligence agencies. The rank-and-file are none too happy about the Trump administration's pot shots against them and, of course, the FBI has an all-to-well-known history of not taking kindly to politicians and others who challenge them. Public opinion, of course, is a far-reaching factor as well, with 60 percent in recent polls indicating support for an investigation and nearly half saying that they thought impeachment should be on the table.
According to the US constitution, the president in office can be impeached for treason, bribery or other misdemeanours. Bill Clinton was charged with obstruction of justice and with perjury for allegedly lying under oath to a federal grand jury about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The current president can be charged for lying on many issues, including his campaign's ties to the Russians, especially President Vladimir Putin. So far, two presidents Bill Clinton (1998) and Andrew Johnson (1868) were impeached. Articles of impeachment were passed against Richard Nixon by a congressional committee but Nixon resigned before the House of Representatives could vote on the matter. That way, technically, Nixon was not impeached.
Interestingly, a recent opinion poll in the US has revealed that 46 percent of the people covered in the survey favoured impeachment of President Trump. His popularity is now lowest among the presidents at the end of first four months. The Republican Party is worried, and there are talks that things should not be allowed to go too far. In that context, the change of president by promoting Pence through 25th amendment of the US constitution is being discreetly discussed in the Republican circles. The GOP leadership is still hoping that Trump will mend his ways and he will start listening to them. After all, he is the nominee of the Republican Party. But people, who know Trump among the Republicans, are not nursing such hopes. They feel that he is too much narcissistic and it will be tough to change his ways. Only if signs become apparent that the Republican voters are abandoning the Party due to his manners and policies, the GOP has to think of taking some action.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)