Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 15, 2018
Trump’s legal peril increases, as does combined weight of investigations

US President Donald Trump is entering perhaps the most difficult phase of his presidency as his legal and political difficulties mount and his denials wear thin.

His former strategist Steve Bannon has stressed the need for a “war room” with disciplined aides giving a consistent message to tackle what’s coming but so far there is no sign of a strategy.

Trump remains his own defence strategist, issuing a barrage of tweets at every new legal development.

His strategy of denying everything and attacking the prosecutors hard has lost him some support within his own party. The multiple lies are coming apart as former associates choose a plea bargain over loyalty to an embattled president.

The Republican Party’s anxiety levels are rising in direct proportion to the new revelations, convictions and confessions related to at least six investigations into the Trump campaign and business dealings.

Republican leaders are beginning to worry if the party can withstand the hailstorm as they enter 2019. With the House of Representatives under Democratic control, there will be more pressure and more public hearings about Trump’s conduct.

The biggest question is whether Trump can stand the pressure. Is winging it as he goes along enough of a strategy in the face of increasing legal challenges?

The latest blow was Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, which essentially implicates the president for potentially violating campaign finance laws. Cohen admitted he paid hush money in 2016 to two women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs to protect his chances in the elections.

Two major strands of investigations are coming close to being completed – Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference and Trump campaign’s alleged collaboration with Russian entities to influence the 2016 elections and New York state prosecutors’ investigation into payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep quiet about their alleged affairs with Trump.

There are four other investigations and lawsuits in progress, the latest by federal prosecutors in New York looking into whether his presidential inaugural committee misspent $107 million it had raised in donations.

As of now, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort has been convicted, six associates, including Cohen have pleaded guilty, 26 mainly Russian officials have been charged, and more than 20 White House and government officials have been interviewed by prosecutors.

The circle of loyal aides has shrunk considerably – at least three potential candidates have publicly declined to be Trump’s next chief of staff after John Kelly’s departure next month.

Kelly, a former marine general, failed to impose discipline in the chaotic White House while running afoul of the family.

A spreadsheet is necessary but not sufficient to keep track of the investigations, personnel changes, loss through attrition and the many administration jobs that remain unfilled.

It took almost two years for the White House to nominate an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia – Robert Williams, a former intelligence officer, was nominated for the job on Dec. 12.

The institutional capacity of the US bureaucracy may be large enough to carry on the basic functions but it still needs political direction from the top to provide substance.

As Trump prepares to enter the third year of his presidency, he may find supporters on Capitol Hill diminishing in number, especially if Mueller’s investigation proves collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives. The jury is out whether he can find a smoking gun.

Even though Trump’s base will believe him and not Mueller, the Republicans on Capitol Hill are likely to protect themselves first -- siding with Trump would essentially mean siding with Russia, which could also mean political suicide given the intense anti-Russia sentiment in Washington.

Signs that Republicans are distancing themselves are already beginning to appear. This past Thursday, the Republican-controlled Senate voted unanimously to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a US resident.

Trump has publicly sided with the Saudi leader against the assessment of his own intelligence community that the crown prince masterminded the attack inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

The vote to condemn the crown prince therefore is a significant indicator of which way the winds might blow once Mueller releases his full report.

The White House will expect the hard right to come to its rescue. There are a few key members in the House and Senate who will defend Trump on Fox News but most Republicans do not want to get caught up in the Trump-Mueller war because they see no good or useful outcome.

Trump has constantly accused the special prosecutor of conducting a “witch hunt” against him and largely managed to lull Republicans to a place where they simply ignored the details of the many court filings and various legal developments from Mueller.

But they are going to wake up in 2019 because the Democrats will weaponise the Mueller report when it comes out. And that wake up call may not be pleasant.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. Seema has worked with several ...

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