Sunday, August 26, 2018

Trump's Presidency: The Cancer Spreads

      Donald Trump's worst day as president naturally prompted commentators, such as CNN's David Gergen, to recall John Dean's famous warning to Richard Nixon of a cancer on his presidency. In Trump's case, however, the many legal problems besetting him show not merely that there is a cancer on his presidency, but help show that his presidency itself is a cancer that is ravaging government policy and the body politic itself.
      Trump responded to the simultaneous federal court convictions of his one-time campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former lawyer Michael Cohen [Aug. 21] not with concern or apology but with renewed appeals to his political base to shore up his unpopular presidency. The strategy requires a constant diet of red meat for the Trump base with little if any regard for public policy or political standards, so Trump's response was to change the subject to politically salable issues.
      Thus, Trump made no mention of the Manafort verdict or Cohen's guilty plea in a West Virginia rally marked by his denunciation of the  "illegal alien" charged with murder in the death of a female college student in Iowa. Americans have grown so accustomed to Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric that hardly anyone noticed that the president he was trampling on the defendant's right to a fair trial and presumption of innocence.
      In like vein, hardly anyone remarked a few days earlier that Trump, as president of the United States, was criticizing the prosecution of his former campaign chairman Manafort while an unsequestered federal court jury was deliberating on the case. Only with the dust somewhat settled after the verdict did the Washington Post make the obvious point: "President undermining legal system, critics fear" was the headline on the page-one story. [Aug. 24].
      The legal threats to Trump's presidency increased with news that David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, had been granted immunity, possibly to provide more evidence about the eve-of-election hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. In pleading guilty to two federal campaign finance violations, Cohen had explicitly implicated Trump —  "a candidate for federal office" —  in directing the payment to "influence a federal election."
      Trump responded to Cohen's guilty plea not with contrition but deliberate confusion. He told the friendly Fox News interviewer Ainsley Earhardt, incorrectly, that the payment to Daniels was legit because it came from his personal funds, not from the campaign. As for the Manafort verdict, he stated, correctly, that he longtime lobbyist's convictions for tax evasion and other charges "did not involve me." Still, critics could hardly fail to note the seeming contradiction of Trump's promise that he was hiring "only the best people."
      The legal pressure on Trump increased yet again on Thursday [Aug. 23] with the news that the Trump Organization's longtime chief financial officer Andrew Weisselberg had also been granted immunity after having testified before a federal grand jury. Weisselberg appears to be the "Executive #1" in the charging document in Cohen's case who is identified as having directed another Trump organization executive to reimburse Cohen from the charitable trust marked as  a "retainer." A federal prosecutor could readily make a criminal tax fraud case out of the directive. More broadly, Weisselberg is widely described as knowing "where all the financial bodies are buried."
      Trump's travails pale in comparison, however, to the physical and pscyhological toll on more than 500 immigrant children still separated from their parents one-month after a federal court ordered the administration to reunify the families. The family separation policy that Trump allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to institute was so heartless that it even prompted a meek protest from First Daughter Ivanka Trump.
      Meanwhile, Trump's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) is proceeding full-speed ahead with plans to weaken Obama-era regulation of dirty coal-fired power plants. "Trump digs coal" is a great slogan in West Virginia and elsewhere, but it is bad for climate change in the mid- to long term and, even sooner, to public health. The government estimates that the regulatory retreat will result in an additional 1,400 premature deaths annually between now and 2030.
      Cued by the Fox talk-show host Tucker Carlson, Trump found a new bone to throw to his white-power political base by lining up with white Afrikaners mobilizing against land reform efforts by the African National Congress-led government. Carlson aired a misleading segment that falsely claimed an increase in the killings of white farmers and mindlessly attacked the government's plan to expropriate apartheid-era landholdings without compensation for distribution to the still disadvantaged black majority.
      Trump tweeted instructions to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to investigate as though the United States has some legitimate interest in post-apartheid land reform in South Africa. The "beloved country" of Alan Paton's poignant novel is still struggling with a full array of political, social, and economic problems two decades after the end of apartheid. The last thing South Africa needs is a tweet from Trump: a tweet that the  New York Times aptly described in an editorial as a "vile ploy" intended for domestic political purposes.
      With Trump under siege as never before, he can be expected to respond in kind with political tactics that divide the country further and distort government policy for short-term political gain. The cancer spreads, with no easy path to protecting the body politic from its ravaging advance.

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