As 2018 begins Donald Trump has reason to be satisfied.
He has survived his first year in much better shape politically than might have been expected, seeing off the single most sustained attack on a newly elected President that the US has witnessed since Abraham Lincoln’s first year.
Newly elected US Presidents can normally expect a honeymoon in the first six months following their election, with support for them tending to tail off towards the year’s end.
In Donald Trump’s case the pattern has been the reverse. Not only are his ratings improving but his position in Congress looks stronger now than it has ever been before.
Though talk of impeachment is still there, with the Republican Party in Congress now finally closing ranks behind him its prospect, even if the Democrats win control of Congress in the autumn, is starting to melt away.
In order to understand how this has happened the reasons for Donald Trump’s problems in his first year as President must first be explained.
Donald Trump won the Presidency as an outsider running against the US’s political class. He did so by highlighting the growing problems of ever larger numbers of Americans and the growing disconnect between them and the political class, which has increasingly turned its back on them.
Nothing is more calculated to infuriate professionals than to be beaten by an amateur at their own game, and the mere fact that Donald Trump won the President as an outsider would have sufficed to make him a host of enemies in Washington.
However the manner of his victory – with his calls to “drain the swamp” and have “crooked Hillary” “locked up”, together with his emphatic rejection of ‘identity politics’, criticism of interventionist wars, and calls for a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin (the US political establishment’s bête noire) – in other words by his total rejection of the orthodoxies of the US’s political class – was horrifying, calling into question the whole political and ideological construct within which the political class operates and casting doubt on its legitimacy.
In view of this a pushback against Donald Trump was inevitable, and one fact more than any other gave it an extra spur.
This was that Donald Trump won the election in the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, falling behind his opponent Hillary Clinton by as much as 3 million votes.
There has been much discussion about this – far too much in my opinion – but the key point about it is that the fact that Donald Trump cannot show that a majority of Americans backed him in the election has exposed him to attacks on his legitimacy and has emboldened his opponents.
This is what lies behind the challenges he has experienced in his first year.
They began on the very first day of his Presidency with a row about the size of the crowd which attended his inauguration.
Contrary to what is often said, I do not think this was a trivial episode, and I am sure Donald Trump did not see it that way either. That is why he and his officials insisted in defiance of all the evidence that the crowd was bigger than it really was.
Trump has come in for much ridicule for this, but this overlooks the reason why the question of the size of the crowd was brought up in the first place.
It was in fact yet another attempt to highlight the fact that he lost the popular vote in the election so as to insinuate – again – that he is not the legitimately elected President of the United States because the majority of the American people did not vote for him.
Given that the issue of the size of the crowd was being used in that way, Trump’s insistence that it was larger than it was becomes fully understandable as a defence of the legitimacy of his election to the Presidency.
Soon after that attack more followed.
Within just two weeks of the start of Donald Trump’s Presidency a series of political and judicial attacks were launched against his ‘travel ban’ Executive Orders, even though these Orders fulfilled pledges he had made during his campaign.
Of all the attacks Donald Trump has experienced since his election the attacks on his ‘travel ban’ Executive Orders are the ones which have troubled me most.
This is not because I agree with the policy set out in the Executive Orders. On the contrary I think it is harsh and cruel. However I have never had the slightest doubt that Donald Trump has the constitutional authority as President to make these Orders, and I have been dismayed that no less a person than the Acting Attorney General of the United States not only argued otherwise but sought to sabotage them, and that several federal court judges have done the same, citing as grounds arguments wholly lacking in legal merit which read as if they were lifted straight out of the editorial pages of certain newspapers.
That it has required the Supreme Court to intervene to state what is legally obvious is deeply disturbing, and shows just how politicised the federal court system in the US has become.
The US constantly preaches to the world and to itself the importance of judicial independence, judicial impartiality and the separation of powers. Indeed the whole US Constitution is based on these principles.
The grossly partisan way certain courts have behaved in the battle of the Executive Orders shows that in the US these principles are in danger of becoming a fiction.
That ought to be a very worrying fact, and it is a matter of still greater worry that so few Americans seem concerned about it.
If Donald Trump’s political opponents have not hesitated to use the courts and elements of the Justice Department’s bureaucracy to try to obstruct the implementation of his policies, they have also not hesitated to obstruct the appointment of officials to his administration.
The process of Senate confirmation of candidates for senior posts in the administration has been spun out to a ridiculous degree, with many middle ranking positions still unfilled.
This is not because the candidates Donald Trump is nominating are unfit for office. It is because it is Donald Trump who is nominating them.
That this sort of behaviour is utterly self-destructive ought to be obvious. The United States cannot function properly without a government yet some people in Congress appear to be so hostile to Donald Trump that they are prepared to sacrifice the efficient operation of the US government in order to conduct their feud with him.
It is however the Russiagate scandal which eclipses all other attacks which have been made against Donald Trump in his first year.
The origins of Russiagate go back to 2015 when Donald Trump up-ended US political class orthodoxy in the most radical imaginable way by speaking well of Russian President Vladimir Putin and making clear his wish for better relations with Russia.
In doing so Donald Trump had the courage to doubt one of the central charges the US political class regularly makes against Vladimir Putin: that he carries out extra-judicial killings (ie. murders) of his Russian political opponents.
Worse still, it turned out that the American people were not only unfazed by what Donald Trump had to say about Putin, but his talk of wanting a rapprochement with Russia was actually striking a positive chord with them.
To a US political class which to a disturbing degree has internalised hostility to Russia and for whom the demonisation of Vladimir Putin has become an article of faith, this was well nigh unbelievable heresy, so shocking that there had to be some ulterior motive behind it.
The result was a series of investigations which were launched in the first instance privately in the autumn of 2015 to try to find the ‘hidden link’ between Donald Trump and Russia which would explain his supposedly extraordinary behaviour.
These investigations gained critical mass in the early summer of 2016 when Hillary Clinton and her campaign hit on the story of Donald Trump’s supposed connections to Russia as the silver bullet which would kill off his campaign, divert attention away from the ugly revelations in the DNC and Podesta emails, and deliver Hillary Clinton the Presidency.
Accordingly at some point in July 2016 the private investigations of Donald Trump’s supposed Russian connections expanded into an official investigation by the FBI based on the Trump Dossier, a grotesque compilation of salacious gossip about Donald Trump and members of his campaign team paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign and put together at the request of Fusion GPS by the ex British spy Christopher Steele.
The result was that from July 2016 until the inauguration on 20th January 2017 members of Donald Trump’s campaign and transition teams were placed under surveillance by the FBI, with the US intelligence community publishing an extraordinary statement a month before the election which all but said that the Russians were trying to swing the election to Donald Trump, and publishing a further Intelligence Assessment on 8th January 2017 – after the election and shortly before the inauguration – which without providing any evidence again all but said the same thing.
This was accompanied in the last weeks of the transition period and the first weeks of the new administration by a flood of leaks from the Justice Department, the FBI, other sections of the US intelligence community and from former members of the Obama administration, which also sought to delegitimise Donald Trump and destabilise his administration by also insinuating that he owed his election to the Russians.
The media, which in the United States as in all other Western countries has now become the servant of the political class, picked up and magnified these unsupported claims to an extraordinary degree, treating the Russian role in Donald Trump’s election as “proved”, ridiculing Donald Trump’s denials, and labelling anyone expressing any doubt about the claims as a “Kremlin stooge” or a “conspiracy theorist”.
The resulting scandal has resulted in two very dangerous moments for Donald Trump.
The first came in February 2017 when with weeks of his inauguration he was forced to ask for the resignation of General Michael Flynn, his National Security Adviser and the person who was spearheading his attempt to mend relations with Russia.
Flynn was felled in part by his own mistakes but mainly by a concerted and in part illegal campaign of leaks and bureaucratic traps which in the end successfully brought him down.
Flynn’s resignation created a gap within the administration’s foreign policy team which has never been properly filled, but more critically it gave an appearance of reality to the conspiracy allegations at the heart of the Russiagate scandal, which gave the scandal extra life.
The immediate result was to harden the already strong hostility to Donald Trump in Congress, with many Republicans now convinced that there might be something to the Russian conspiracy allegations after all, making the possibility of impeachment appear for a time a very real one.
It was the bad feeling caused by the Flynn affair which in my opinion lay behind the strongly negative reaction to Donald Trump’s entirely correct and fully justified sacking of the FBI’s scheming and incompetent Director James Comey, and to the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel.
It was also the Flynn affair which led to the second dangerous moment in Donald Trump’s Presidency, the passing by Congress in August of its bizarre anti-sanctions legislation targeting Russia.
The plan was that Donald Trump would veto the legislation, exposing his ‘loyalty’ to Vladimir Putin and Russia, Congress would then override his veto – just as it once overrode Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act – so that with with Trump discredited and his support in Congress shot to pieces Congress would move to impeachment as soon as a convenient pretext arose.
In the event Donald Trump showed much more political skill and agility than his opponents had reckoned on, sidestepping the impeachment trap they had laid for him by signing the legislation into law instead of vetoing it whilst making clear his belief in written provisos that the legislation is unconstitutional, thereby preparing the ground for a future challenge to the Supreme Court.
Since then events have begun to move in Donald Trump’s direction.
The reason is that the main thrust of the attack on him – the Russiagate scandal – has turned out to be a grotesque and gigantic misfire.
The evidence to back the collusion claims with Russia which Donald Trump’s opponents staked so much on in order to bring him down stubbornly refuses to appear, and the longer the scandal continues the more obvious it becomes that that it is not appearing because it is not there.
The result is that instead of Donald Trump being exposed as a Russian stooge, it is his opponents and the US security agencies who are being increasingly exposed as conducting a witch-hunt against him. Moreover it has also become increasingly clear that this is a witch-hunt which has repeatedly tipped over into gross impropriety and sometimes into outright illegality.
The point has now been reached where even former Republican opponents of Donald Trump’s are now calling for the appointment of a new Special Counsel to investigate the actions of his accusers.
Though this has not yet been noticed by the wider US public, it has transformed the situation in Congress.
Whereas in July many Republicans in Congress were worried that their President would turn out to be a Russian stooge, now only an irreconcilable hardline minority of anti Trump Republicans in the Senate believes it or pretends to believe it.
The result is that whereas in the first half of the year Donald Trump was desperately short of support in Congress, making it all but impossible for him to get legislation passed, now with the Republican Party in Congress rallying behind him not only is the danger of impeachment receding but he has finally scored his first big legislation win in the form of the tax reform bill, which is now set to become law.
Here I ought to say that I happen to think that the tax reform bill is as wrong on economic grounds as I think the entry policy contained in Donald Trump’s ‘travel ban’ Executive Orders is wrong on moral grounds. However politically speaking it is Donald Trump’s success in getting the tax reform bill through Congress which is what matters. The point is that whilst Donald Trump did not have sufficient support from Republicans in Congress to get it through six months ago, he has that support now.
The result is that with the Republican Party in Congress closing ranks behind him, with doubts about Robert Mueller’s and the FBI’s conduct of the Russiagate inquiry growing, and with the economy looking strong, Donald Trump starts 2018 politically much stronger than he has been at any time since he was inaugurated President.
Even his approval ratings are rising, so that according to one poll they now stand at the same level as Barack Obama’s at this stage in Obama’s Presidency.
Donald Trump has paid a price for his survival in his first year.
He has lost his two most important lieutenants – Flynn and Bannon – and has been obliged to surround himself with a Praetorian Guard of generals who behave more often as his captors than as his servants.
The result is that the belligerent foreign policy of confronting everybody everywhere all the time which Donald Trump pledged during the election to reverse has not only continued but has intensified.
As for the project to mend fences with Russia, at least for the moment it has been kicked into the long grass.
Given the forces stacked against him at the start of 2017 Donald Trump will consider that an acceptable price to pay.
The key point is that he has survived and grown stronger after the most sustained attack ever experienced in modern US history on a newly elected President.
It is now all but certain that he will continue to the end of his term, with at least a possibility – especially if the economy remains strong – that he will be re-elected in 2020.
Donald Trump’s political space is increasing. The test of his Presidency will be how he uses it.