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Donald Trump Is a Walking Maelstrom

Robert Mueller, Gary Cohn, Stormy Daniels—all are swirling around a presidency that looks more vulnerable by the day.

John Moore/Getty Images

So much is happening on so many fronts involving the president that it leaves those of us who try to follow it all gasping for air. Until now, this served Trump’s interest: the less we can focus any one thing the less trouble he’s likely to seem to be in. Despite my college freshman English professor admonishing us to never use the word “seem”—“It is or it isn’t,” he insisted—I use it here because what we in Washington see may not comport with underlying reality. The most prominent example of this is Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible role in that effort. But the impressive secrecy of Mueller and his team has left us with scraps of information from witnesses and their lawyers, and none of them has the complete picture of what Mueller is seeing.  

Mueller’s charter permits him to go into ancillary issues that may arise out of the core investigation, and at this point we can’t know, and possibly Mueller can’t, either, what’s ancillary. In a special prosecutor investigation, what once seemed ancillary can transition into being central to the story. When the investigation began into Whitewater, a questionable investment that Bill and Hillary Clinton had made in Arkansas, no one had heard of Monica Lewinsky. The Whitewater deal turned out to be a nothing, but the Lewinsky scandal nearly brought down Clinton’s presidency.

Simlarly, could a mysterious meeting in the Seychelles in January 2017, before Trump’s inauguration, lead to explosive discoveries? The meeting was apparently arranged by a new figure on the scene, George Nader, a Lebanese fixer and an adviser to the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, with ties to the Trump entourage. (The meeting was called in the Crown Prince’s name but it appears the person who made it happen was Nader—who by the way is now cooperating with Mueller.) Also at the meeting was Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm Blackwater, which played a controversial role in the Iraq War and is now called Acadami, like something out of The Da Vinci Code. Prince was also an adviser to the Trump transition team, and had known Nader for a long time. The third figure at the meeting was yet another Russian close to Vladimir Putin, Kirill Dmitriev, who presides over Russia’s $10 billion sovereign investment fund, which had been sanctioned by the U.S. during Barack Obama’s presidency. Theoretically, Americans shouldn’t be dealing with a sanctioned Russian entity, but such niceties have long since been abandoned in the Era of Trump.

Press reports say that Mueller is interested in whether Dmitriev funneled Russian money into the Trump campaign, but something else about this meeting caught my attention. It’s been reported that the principals discussed how to establish a back channel between Russia and the Trump administration. This makes the meeting at least the second time the back channel was brought up. It may be recalled that, in December of 2016, international policy whiz Jared Kushner spoke of this same matter with the Russian ambassador to Washington. In his typically dim way, Kushner suggested that the back channel be operated out of the Russian embassy in Washington.

Why was a back channel to the Kremlin deemed so important? Might that have been a way for Trump to get orders from Putin? This sounds fantastical, but the fantastical has become the real in the Era of Trump. This brings up something else I’ve been curious about: How does Trump know what policies would please Putin? How did he know this throughout his campaign as well as into his presidency?  Was there a back channel then, and if so, who was it? 

The list of Putin-pleasing actions keeps growing. Starting in the campaign there was Trump’s otherwise odd antipathy to NATO, in particular Article 5, which commits the treaty members to come to each others’ assistance if subjected to outside attack. We still don’t know (but presumably Mueller does) why Mike Flynn, Trump’s chief foreign policy adviser during the campaign and his short-lived national security adviser, was talking during the transition to the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions Obama had imposed in retaliation against Russia’s meddling in the election. Flynn, too, is cooperating with Mueller. And what innocent explanation can there be for Trump’s flaccid response to Russia’s meddling in our supposedly democratic elections? (Come to think of it, Russia, too, was surprisingly passive about those sanctions when they were imposed. Russia uttered not a peep, and Trump praised its forbearance, tweeting, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!”)

More recently, there’s been Trump’s refusal to implement a law passed overwhelmingly by the Congress to impose more sanctions on Russia for its 2016 activities, which U.S. intelligence officials have said are continuing into this year’s midterm elections. And it was learned that a fund of $120 million that had been allocated to the State Department in late 2016 to combat Russia’s interference in our elections is sitting there idly. Did Trump tell Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to do nothing? Might Tillerson, who in his capacity as CEO of Exxon had become pally with Putin, be a conduit in the please-Putin endeavor? Why do the stories always stop with the fact that a back channel between the new Trump administration and the Kremlin “was discussed”? Might there now be a back channel between the Trump presidency and Putin’s gang?

About Gary Cohn’s departure from the White House: The criticism of Cohn from some liberal quarters is that he didn’t quit Trump last August, even though he was known to be deeply troubled by Trump’s racist remarks following the violence in Charlottesville—but now he’s breaking with Trump over proposed tariffs. This criticism is, I think, off the mark. As the head of the National Economic Council Cohn didn’t have responsibility for Trump’s social positions, and he wouldn’t have to defend them publicly. He did let it be known that he was unhappy about them—which didn’t help his relationship with Trump. But if Cohn were to stick around while the president imposed tariffs, which Cohn had vehemently opposed, he would have to answer for them on the Sunday interview shows and in appearances before Congress. That he could not do; he was in an impossible situation. Trump’s position on tariffs represented a drastic shift from Republican orthodoxy that free trade is best for the economy and growth. (Most Democrats also favor free trade, as have the last several presidents of both parties.) 

It was quickly apparent that Trump was as ill-prepared for the blowback from other nations, which threatened reciprocal tariffs on American as he was for making the proposal in the first place. His impulsiveness got the better of governance. No formal announcement, no position papers had been prepared; significant cabinet officers, such as the secretaries of Defense and State, were caught off-guard, as were his party leaders in the Congress. 

Trump’s ignorance of and disregard for policy substance also got the better of him. He had long argued for protectionist policies but hadn’t bothered to learn about their consequences. He was not only breaking with Republican orthodoxy, but was also inviting a trade war that would threaten the livelihood of the working class that he had based his campaign on; it was altogether likely that price increases as a result of his tariffs would wipe out the small income gains that his tax cut bill had brought and slow the healthy economy. As of recent weeks, the tax cuts, which had been unpopular when they were moving through Congress, were enjoying support as people were enjoying  the small—and temporary—net decreases in their taxes. Corporations and the country’s wealthiest were enjoying their tax cuts even more, and the Democrats’ argument against the new tax law as increasing inequality got lost.

At a press conference with the Swedish prime minister on Tuesday, Trump delivered his first lengthy comments on the tariffs and they had the ring of yet another pitch to his base. The prime minister, in this setting where he and Trump were straining at politesse, gave a stony-faced Trump a little lecture on the errors of his approach to trade. It was clear that Trump was unmoved.

Having tried to dissuade Trump behind the scenes, hoping that he would vacillate on this issue as he had on DACA and guns, the usually supine Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan finally spoke up after five days of public silence, expressing concern on the part of their followers that the tariffs would set off a trade war and wipe out the economic gains on which they were pinning their November election prospects. But what they didn’t do was also noticeable: They didn’t threaten to take back the president’s authority to set tariffs that Congress had ceded to the White House over the past few decades (regardless of the Constitution’s stipulation that the Congress set tariffs).

Despite the shambles that the current White House is in, despite the exodus of aides like a mighty river, and despite Trump’s manifest ignorance about trade (among other topics), Republicans still fear him. Or, better put, they fear his implications: Trumpites, aspiring politicans who echo his dark and exploitative populism, could threaten incumbents in this year’s primaries and then the midterm elections in November. His base might be smallish—it’s estimated to consist of 20 percent to 35 percent of voters—but it constitutes a very high percentage of Republicans. Republicans are already nervous about the various sightings this year of a blue wave, so Trump’s support—or the absence of his opposition—becomes all the more necessary. 

This week, a parade of callers from Capitol Hill kept up the Republicans’ effort to persuade the president to change his mind. Sensing an outrage, foreign and domestic, that he didn’t anticipate, the president let float that Canada and Mexico, which some experts say would be the most gravely hurt by the new tariffs, might be exempted from them. But Trump maintained the threat of imposing the tariffs if the two countries didn’t renegotiate NAFTA to suit him. This is an example of what one observer calls Trump’s “tantrum theory” of conducting foreign policy: Do as I wish or I’ll blow you or it up. This has also been applied to the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump is reported to be on the verge of tearing up. It remains to be seen how many times Trump can huff and puff before the tactic wears out.  

Meanwhile, Trump can legitimately claim—as opposed to all his farfetched boasts—that he’s got himself into the mother of all presidential sex scandals. It has been reported that two women with credible claims say they had consensual sexual relations with him—at the same time, in 2006, a year and a half after he’d married Melania and four months after Barron was born. It has also been credibly reported that the silence of both women had been bought—one, of a Playboy model, through the purchase of an article she’d written by American Media, owner of The National Enquirer, a magazine friendly to Trump that had no intention of publishing it (a silencing method that The National Enquirer had undertaken for Trump over the years). But the second woman, the porn star Stormy Daniels (her real name is Stephanie Clifford), clearly presented a new level of difficulty and danger for Trump.

For whatever reason, Trump, who has regularly castigated and insulted those who have accused him of untoward sexual behavior, has had nothing untoward to say about Daniels. (Though he has denied the affair.) When the story broke in mid-January that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had himself, just eleven days before the 2016 election, paid her $130,000 for her silence, it was as if a long fuse had been lit. (Cohen later said that he’d “facilitated” the payment but wouldn’t say where the money had originated; it was paid through a newly established Delaware company, ostensibly to hide the source of the funds.) One obvious question raised by this is whether a lawyer would, without consulting his client, make a non-disclosure deal in his name and arrange to pay someone $130,000 in hush money. The story was titillating when it first broke, but soon became lost in the walking maelstrom that is Donald Trump.

But the fuse reached its explosive end this week, even amid the news about the tariffs and the Mueller investigation, when Daniels sued Trump, claiming that she wasn’t actually muzzled because Trump hadn’t signed the agreement. For the moment, at least, she still isn’t talking about the affair with Trump (though she’d done her share of television appearances in which she smiled knowingly when the question came up). In keeping with the high comedy of this whole business Trump had been assigned a pseudonym for the purpose: Trump is David Dennison and Daniels is Peggy Peterson. The sordid business then descended into farrago of charges and counter-charges between Cohen and Daniels’s lawyer, and hints that Daniels has lascivious information about Trump, including photographs, tapes, and something about “paternity.” The scandal about Stormy Daniels took its rightful place as a major problem for Donald Trump, possibly the most dangerous one of all.