Jul 29, 2017
Six months after Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th president of the United States, he found himself ensnared in an investigation that could lead to his impeachment and eventual removal from office.
On Inauguration Day, Trump seemed to many people to tower over Washington. His surprise victory gave him a kind of mythic status, which he was quick to exploit. His tendency for crass announcements and Twitter outbursts kept the spotlight focused on him, just as it had been all through the 2016 election year. And Republicans, who controlled both houses of Congress, expected to send one piece of legislation after another for Trump’s signature.
It hasn’t happened. Fifteen of the 40 pieces of “new” legislation were means to undo executive orders Barack Obama issued in the last 60 days of his presidency, the timing of which meant they were sure to be overturned. The rest, with the exception of a Supreme Court nominee, were almost all ceremonial actions. For example, Congress approved and Trump signed a bill naming an airport; similarly, the launch of a new navy cruiser was enshrined in a piece of “legislation.”
His administration – other than for the very top cabinet posts – remains practically vacant. While Obama had 126 nominees confirmed at this point, Trump has only 33 – essentially because he’s nominated very few people. At the 6-month mark, there were 120 top posts which Trump hadn’t even tried to fill. And he spectacularly fired FBI director James Comey.
Trump is drowning in leaks, which originally triggered the call for an independent counsel and today provide evidence to that prosecutor. It’s understandable that parts of the state apparatus, including the FBI and other intelligence services, might leak unfavorable information about Trump after he fired the FBI director. But Trump also has a host of “leakers” among his own advisers, his own legal team, maybe even his own family – in some cases, as part of ongoing feuds that seem to be fracturing his staff; in others, as a way to draw Trump’s attention; or to signal that a portion of his administration disagrees with him.
His circle of close advisers is devouring itself. He has shuffled them several times, dumping six of them – at latest count. At the end of July, he seemed intent on driving out his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the first appointment he made and the first senator to support him during the campaign. His new-found hatchet man, Anthony Scaramucci, went on a tear, publicly and virulently attacking almost everyone close to Trump, before Trump replaced his chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
Who imagined, when Trump took office, that his new administration would implode so rapidly, just six months in?
It’s completely extraordinary that a newly elected president of the United States could fall so quickly, so far.
Trump’s problems began as a congressional investigation into whether the Russian state apparatus, under Putin, interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and whether anyone in the Trump campaign was linked to Russia’s effort. At the beginning, the investigations did not appear to be directed at Trump himself, nor to call the results of the election in question. In any case, that is what Comey testified to Congress, even after he was fired, and what James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, confirmed.
Some of Trump’s close entourage might have faced a slap on the wrist for violating protocol in their dealings with Russian counterparts as a result of the investigations. And some might have been cited for not fully answering questions about their Russian contacts. But Trump’s administration is hardly the first to have faced problems like that.
What ramped up the investigation were actions and statements that Trump himself made. He seems to have let FBI director Comey know he wanted the investigation into one of his advisers dropped. He assumed his new attorney general would back him up. Then, he fired Comey. Doubling down, he linked the firing to the Russian investigation when he told NBC News, the day after the firing: “In fact, when I decided to do it, [fire Comey] I said to myself, I said, ‘You know this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” Maybe it was only a typical piece of Trump bluster, but it left him open to the criminal charge of obstruction of justice. And that quickly led to the appointment of an independent counsel, Robert Mueller.
Unfazed, Trump declared he could fire Mueller if the independent counsel dared to expand the investigation beyond the original framework of Russia and the election. That, also, would be interpreted as another attempt to obstruct justice.
In fact, an independent counsel, once appointed, has some latitude to pursue other criminal dealings that pop up in the course of an investigation. Mueller may not be able to go as far afield as did Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who proposed to impeach Bill Clinton. Starr began investigating “Whitewater” – an obscure Arkansas land deal in which Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved – but found a pretext for impeachment, years later, when Clinton lied under oath about his tawdry affair with a White House intern.
But Mueller has plenty of avenues to pursue, many of which lead directly to Trump’s financial dealings with Russia, and beyond that to other financial deals. Every attempt by Trump to declare that his financial affairs should be “off-limits” only points another big, red flashing arrow directly at them.
The news media began to dig out financial deals linking Donald Trump and his family to parts of the Russian state apparatus or to the Russian mafia in New York or to the Russian oligarchs who were laundering money in the same Deutsche Bank that provided the large bulk of the loans Trump companies took out in the last two decades.
Speculation abounds. Was he hiding income from the IRS? Did he profit from under-the-table dealings with Russians? How could Deutsche Bank loan him 3.5 billion dollars after the big New York banks all cut him off because of his bankruptcies? What role did laundered Russian money at Deutsche Bank have to do with that 3.5 billion? And what about the Russian oligarch who bought Trump’s Palm Beach mansion for 95 million dollars, almost double what it was worth, only to tear it down? What was that about? Who are the people who secretly bought up 30 luxury condos from Trump’s businesses just since election day, using “shell companies” to hide their identities? Etc. Etc. Etc.
There are analysts who think Trump is worth much less than what he has publicly claimed. Rather than being a sharp businessman who used every legal loophole to add to his fortune, maybe he is only a bankrupt, two-bit swindler buying his gold faucets on your last dime.
Trump, who had refused to release even his tax returns, much less to give an account of his wealth, suddenly discovered his business empire was being put under intense scrutiny.
Attempting to dig Trump out of the legal hole he had dug for himself, his advisers brought in a new, expanded legal team. The first thing he wanted to ask them was could he pardon himself, and he went on to tweet: “The U.S. president has complete power to pardon.” He couldn’t have made it clearer, given what was happening: he meant to pardon not only his sons, his daughter, and his son-in-law, but also himself.
Pardon, we might ask, for which crimes?
Trump began haranguing his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Verbal attack followed verbal attack, growing in viciousness – in the New York Times, on Twitter, in a Wall Street Journal interview, on TV. Trump legally could have fired Sessions, but apparently he was hoping that the tirades he loosed against Sessions would drive him to quit – which could open the door for a more tractable attorney general who would fire the independent counsel. As leaks from the Trump White House made clear, Trump’s intention was to eliminate the investigation.
But Sessions didn’t budge – at least up until now. This left Trump in the position that he would have to fire the attorney general if he wanted to get rid of him. Apparently, Trump was made to realize what a disaster that might be, coming so soon after his firing of Comey. A Washington Post regular column, “The Fix,” drew this conclusion: “The fact that Trump hasn’t yet fired Sessions, even though he clearly wants to, is about as clear an admission as we’ll get that Trump is concerned about his obstruction-of-justice probe.”
Any impeachment proceedings would first have to run through the House of Representatives, where the Republicans hold a 240 to 194 majority. The media, at least, seem to believe that House Republicans would find it difficult to oust their own president.
On the other hand, Trump’s latest attacks on Sessions brought a number of prominent Republicans, including leaders of both houses of Congress, to issue strong public warnings to Trump to back off, and above all, not to think about getting the independent counsel fired. As another warning, Republicans almost unanimously joined Democrats to vote for financial sanctions against Russia over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, with a provision attached that prevents Trump from unilaterally removing any sanction. Trump had publicly opposed the legislation. It was an open and public rebuke of Trump by his party.
So could Trump be impeached? The big unknown is not what he may have done. That is, does he deserve impeachment? Are his actions sufficient to bring criminal charges against him? Of course they are, just like the actions of many other people of his class.
But that’s not the issue. The American political institution is facing a kind of crisis: to do nothing is to ensure more and greater chaos. But to remove Trump, if he is not willing to leave on his own, could also engender chaos.
This political system, from the beginning, has been bounded in by a formal structure that guarantees stability. Although all representatives face election every two years, only one third of the senators do, making the Senate a kind of bulwark against sudden “passions” in the electorate. It was only in the last 104 years that senators were even elected directly by the population. Supreme Court justices, once nominated by a president and approved by the Senate, serve for life, protecting them from the popular pressures involved in elections. The president still isn’t elected directly – as demonstrated once again in the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than did Trump, but Trump became president.
The two openly bourgeois parties have successfully alternated with each other ever since 1856, that is, for 161 years, with no other party able to overcome the obstacles thrown up against a challenge to this alternation. There’s no parliamentary organization of the government, under which a vote in the legislature on a key piece of legislation could lead to the resignation of a government, forcing a new election. Outside of the every-four-year elections, there is no way of removing an American president – except for impeachment in response to a crime.
On the face of things, impeachment doesn’t seem to be well regarded either. In the 229-year history of government as set up under the first – and only – constitution, only two people have actually been impeached (that is, charged with crimes) by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999. And neither were convicted by the Senate. Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 rather than face not only almost certain impeachment, but also criminal charges, is the only one in this whole long history to have been put aside.
Up until now, whatever chaos Trump has brought into Washington, the state apparatus has continued to function – at least, enough to serve the immediate needs of the bourgeoisie.
Taxes continue to be collected, money spent. Tax breaks continue to flow. Contracts are bid and signed. When Congress couldn’t figure out how to pass a new budget, the old one was just extended temporarily.
Hospitals that are billing Medicare are paid. Private insurers running Medicaid are paid. Insurers in the “exchanges” are paid. Military contractors are paid. Government suppliers are paid.
The war in Afghanistan goes on. The war in Iraq goes on, with the U.S. engaged in one part of the country alongside Saudi Arabian-backed forces, in another alongside Iranian-backed forces. The U.S. war in Syria goes on, while the U.S. military continues to coordinate its bombing there with the Russian military.
The Iranian nuclear deal continues, despite Trump’s objections. Discussions continue with China. Discussions continue with any number of other countries. And when Trump makes a particularly egregious comment, for example, on pulling out of NATO, the professionals who deal with such things are there, right behind him, to sort it all out.
The judicial system marches on, people are tried, convicted, put in prison. Immigrants are stopped at the border and turned back after having a felony recorded on their record for trying to enter without papers.
The fact that Trump hasn’t begun to fill most of the political posts that sit on top of departments hasn’t prevented the departments from functioning. They go on, just as they would if a new set of political appointees were in place, when administrations shift from one party to the other. The ones who carry on the real business of the capitalist class go on, no matter who is in the White House, no matter who is the new department secretary, undersecretary and deputy secretaries, no matter even if there is no political appointee.
All the activities that the capitalists needed have gone on without anyone even taking much note of it.
Trump may be more preoccupied with himself than most presidents. (On the 12th of July, just when his administration was coming undone, when the Republican health care repeal ran up against a wall, and nothing else was getting done, he tweeted: “The W.H. [White House] is functioning perfectly, focused on HealthCare, Tax Cuts/Reform & many other things. I have very little time for watching T.V.” Functioning perfectly!)
And his tweets, filled with lies, contradictions and bluster may be annoying to the professionals of the state apparatus.
But that state apparatus has been able to ignore him and, for the most part, to bypass him.
In fact, the bourgeois state – its “bureaucracy” and its military officer corps – is an entity which does not depend on the political representatives chosen in quadrennial elections. The elected officials may be frosting on the cake, but they aren’t the cake itself.
From this standpoint, the situation might go on for a long time: Trump under investigation, but the issue swept under the rug, and nothing concluded.
The problem is, at some point the amount of chaos may be too much for the political system to tolerate. And today, there certainly is chaos.
The legislative process has ground to a halt. Of course, the problem is not only Trump. The Republican Party, by making an issue for seven years that it would repeal “Obamacare,” painted itself into a corner. It didn’t really expect to win the presidency, so all the talk about repealing Obamacare was just that, campaign talk. The Washington Post columnist noted that the Republicans who won elections by being the party of opposition, had no idea of how to govern. Or even how to repeal a bill. But Trump, with his incessant tweets, only added to the problem. For weeks, he repeated that repeal would be done on “day one” – even while the Republican leadership, which had no idea of how to replace it, wanted to avoid the issue, pushing it aside to take up tax measures. He blistered the Republicans with tweets, at one point saying, “I am the only one who can get it done.” But “get it done” is exactly what he didn’t do. A New York Times article on July 20, after the first collapse of the Republican effort, quoted a number of Republicans who faulted Trump for not doing what Obama or Bush or Clinton or other presidents always did, use their office to push through a bill. A short statement by one of the Republicans was typical: “The president scares no one in the Senate, not even the pages.” Ironically, what he did do, with his incessant tweets, was scare the population, and push many of his own voters who once opposed it into support for “Obamacare.”
Sooner or later, the banks, insurance companies, corporations and other capitalist institutions will need new legislation to come out. Trump’s brand of chaos gets in the way.
It also is disturbing the professionals in the state apparatus, even if they continue to carry on their business. When he took credit for a Saudi Arabian attack on Qatar, the country which houses the biggest U.S. military bases used in its bombing of Syria, the State Department had to send multiple emissaries to smooth over the problem. When he announced in a “tweet” that he was banning the participation of transgender people in the services, claiming the issue had been studied and he had discussed it with the military, even the Republican party erupted. It was ironic to hear the Republicans pretending to be the defenders of equal rights – their big problem was simply that Trump not only stepped on the generals’ toes, he lied when he said he had talked to them. The generals’ reply was short and not at all sweet: “The Pentagon will make no changes pending further direction.”
So legislation isn’t getting done and the professionals who run the state have to mop up after Trump’s messes. Behind these facts is the underlying problem, and that is Trump himself, his preoccupation with his own legal problems, problems that he himself makes worse almost by the day. This preoccupation has replaced the ordinary functioning of any administration. His decisions on who to appoint, who to fire, who to attack boil down to one question: can this person prevent further investigation into his financial dealings? But, of course, the more he goes down this road, wildly tweeting, the more he guarantees the investigation will delve further into his finances. His attacks on the people close to him – perhaps aimed at scaring them from giving out any information – probably only guarantee that some of them will. And his rush at the end of July to require that anyone working for any Trump company sign a “confidentiality agreement” or leave, will do little to protect him from leaks of information, but it does indicate how worried he is about what could be revealed. And this, also, can only help to drive the investigation.
Trump is an embarrassment for his own class, the possessing class that owns everything. He puts himself out there, an exhibit for the whole world to see: the President of the United States is nothing but a scheming crook. This is not exactly how the United States possessing class likes to style itself.
In May, when the independent counsel was established, it seemed that the threat of an investigation might rein in Trump. There are certainly many who believed, or at least hoped, that the very fact of the investigation would serve as an ax held over his head.
Apparently, Trump thought it would be like every other tight spot he ever got himself into – he would slide out free, as he did in all those bankruptcies, allowing him to come out ahead, while other people suffered the brunt of the damage. Maybe he believes he is untouchable, still that surly guy on “The Apprentice.”
It may be funny to see the wealthy class that runs this society squirm right now, as their secrets are put on display. Funny, but disgusting also. Whenever and however Trump leaves office, there is nothing in this whole affair that touches the basic interests of working people.
Yes, Trump is corrupt. But so what, this just makes him the perfect capitalist specimen. The drive of capital to maximize profit is the motive force leading to corruption, including all of that we see surrounding Trump.
And Trump hardly stands alone. Remember, the same people who pretend to be shocked at Trump today are the ones who feted him yesterday, the ones who gave him a national platform on “The Apprentice.” Before that, he was just a real-estate speculator, known for his dirty deals.
Whether Trump stays or goes, the state apparatus that continues to run things, and will continue to do so, no matter who is in office – that state apparatus will do so to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, that is, of the class of capitalists who benefit from the exploitation of working people.
Trump can be thrown out. Other Trumps will come. What needs to be torn up and thrown out is the profit-directed system that spawns many, many Trumps. What needs to be pulled up and thrown out, root and branch, is the state apparatus that goes on running things, no matter which gangster is in office.
That can’t happen through an impeachment process. Congress won’t do it – they are part of the problem. Elections can’t bring it about.
The organized activity of the working class, the only force in this society that has the capacity to build a new communal and fraternal society – that’s what can overthrow this corrupt system, and build a new one in the interests of all of society.