Analysts are suggesting that recent controversies generated about Trump and his Administration will cast a long shadow on the coming mid-term election paradigm. Attention has been drawn in the past few weeks to several sensitive developments.
President Trump’s long-serving personal lawyer, Michael Cohen has apparently pleaded guilty to twin federal election law offences directly implicating the President. Mr Cohen’s statements has set the foundation for the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York to subpoena Mr Trump to testify about $280,000 paid to an adult film star (Stormy Daniels) and a Playboy model (Karen McDougal) during his 2016 campaign for their silence about his alleged affairs with each to influence the outcome of the election. The disclosures might have alienated his religious right-wing supporters. It is understood that Mr Trump might resist the subpoena. That would force a challenge in the United States Supreme Court as to whether a sitting President is accountable to the criminal law, as are all other officers of the United States, including members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court. The controlling precedents might complicate matters against President Trump.
It is also being recalled by judicial analysts that in the case United States v Nixon, the Supreme Court unanimously compelled President Richard Nixon to surrender presidential tapes and documents for use in a criminal trial against his top assistants. None of Mr Nixon’s four Supreme Court appointees voted in his favor. Similarly, in Clinton v Jones, the Court held that President Bill Clinton could be compelled to testify in a civil suit bright by Paula Jones alleging sexual harassment.
Neither of Mr Clinton’s two appointees voted to the Supreme Court in his favor. Mr Trump might similarly be unlikely to win the votes of Justice Neil Gorsuch, whom he appointed, or Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination still awaits confirmation. They might, it is being anticipated, avoid a situation where they are reduced to bowing to their benefactor as did the Nixon and Clinton justices. An adverse ruling by the Supreme Court would create serious difficulties for the Trump presidency including possible impeachment proceedings.
Some analysts have also drawn attention to the fact that the Manafort convictions combined with Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea and the guilty plea of Mr Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn and Mr. Chen, have impacted on the President’s popularity. According to Bruce Fein Mr Manafort has become a wild card for President Trump after his tax and bank fraud convictions. Even if he resists cooperation with special counsel Mueller, Manafort can be compelled to testify with a grant of immunity about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian officials when he was Trump’s campaign manager to solicit “dirt” on Clinton. This dynamics assumes importance because Mueller can afford to grant immunity. He does not need additional convictions to dispatch Mr Manafort to prison.
Chris Cillizza of the CNN has also observed that this dynamics has also been affected by the publication of Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House” and an unsigned op-ed article in the New York Times that suggests that a group of senior staffers within the White House and administration are actively working to circumvent President Donald Trump’s wishes under the belief that to do what he wants at all times would endanger national security. This indeed is a remarkable observation that points to top aides around Trump trying to marginalize the US President. Woodward’s remark that he has never seen a President “so detached from reality” is also being taken very seriously.
Some of President Trump’s critics have immediately taken advantage of this assault to also point out that Trump is “an isolated figure who frequently lashes out at a staff that views him with some combination of fear, loathing and ridicule”. One thing is clear. Trump is compounding an already difficult situation. It has also not helped calling the famed political writer Woodward an “idiot” and his book a “work of fiction” less than a month after he was heard on a recording made by Woodward praising the reporter as “very fair.”
All of this is happening when the US midterm elections of 7 November are less than 60 days away. Republicans currently hold majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. If such a evolving dynamics continues it might lead to some major Democratic gains in the House. If Democrats take over the House, Trump’s life could get more complicated. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs along with 35 seats in the 100-member Senate and also the posts of Governors in around 30 States. Former President Obama is trying to assist the Democrats in this regard and has accused Trump of “capitalizing” on “fear and anger”.
To tackle the growing challenge from the Democrats, the Republicans have been focusing on Trump’s achievements in the economic sector. In this context they are underlining that unemployment, as promised by Trump during his Presidential campaign is currently at an 8-year low at 3.9 per cent and Gross National Product has also grown by 4.2 per cent in the second quarter.
However, despite the efforts of the Republican Party, a recent Washington Post/ ABC News poll of registered voters has revealed that 52 per cent said that they favored the Democrat candidate over the Republican Party in their District. Thirty-eight per cent said they favored the Republican. Some critics have observed that such a situation has partially been due to the unpopularity of Trump himself. Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia has however commented that while Democrats are “soft favorites” the fortunes could change because of “unforeseen events”.
No evaluation of Trump would however be complete without referring to his Administration’s latest initiatives with regard to the changing geo-political and strategic paradigm in South Asia, particularly in the context of China, Iran and the Taliban. Within this matrix one would also have to refer to recent developments that have taken place due to the changes in the leadership structure in Pakistan.
Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State began the tricky diplomatic trip to Pakistan on 5 September before eventually travelling to India. This latest tour, on the back of his visit last month to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore was an example of the US seeking traction for his revamped Indo-Pacific strategy in the face of China’s growing strength. While in Islamabad, Pompeo held a meeting with his counterpart- Pakistan’s Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi and both attempted to iron out the problems that have emerged within their bilateral relations. In this regard one might refer to Washington’s plans to cancel US$ 300 million of military aid that had been promised earlier to Pakistan. Media reported subsequently that both sides promised to have a more balanced approach in their bilateral relations in the future.
This was followed with the visit to India by the US Secretary of State Pompeo and the US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis. The United States gave special emphasis on their visit to India and their meetings with- Sushma Swaraj, the Indian Minister of External Affairs and Nirmala Sitharaman the Indian Minister of Defence.
Katrina Manson has correctly pointed out that Washington sees India as the linchpin of the new Indo-Pacific strategy to counter the rise of China and has in this regard spent some quality time in the past few months to facilitate this process. It wants New Delhi to “participate in more joint military exercises, boost its role in regional maritime security and also increase its arms purchases (from USA)”.
The 2 plus 2 dialogue offered both countries an opportunity to identify the issues that have been troubling the policy makers and also helped them to move forward in their inter-active engagement pertaining to the region’s geo-political factors. The two sides also concluded the International Agreement Communications Compatability and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This will enable the Indian military to get a better picture of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which has been witnessing increasing Chinese movement.
Media reports have also indicated that the two countries discussed the question of halting import of oil from Iran as opposed to facing US sanctions which will come into effect from 4 November. This has been an awkward point as Iran is the third largest supplier of of crude oil to India-which imported 22 million tons from Iran in 2017-18.Both India and the US know that the stakes are high at this point of time. Representatives from India’s manufacturing sector are anxiously waiting to see how things eventually evolve.
Mattis took the opportunity of being in the region by also undertaking his fourth visit to Afghanistan since taking over as US Secretary of Defence in January, 2017. He met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and apparently discussed in detail about the growing number of terrorist attacks being carried out in recent weeks by the Taliban and the IS in different cities in Afghanistan. This was given importance as these attacks have been resulting in a large number of civilian casualties and also deaths among Afghan policemen. Mattis, after the visit, renewed the hope that the Taliban would be willing to sit down for talks. However, there has not been any clear indication of such a possibility.
Trump realizes that his actions and that of his Administration have been creating controversy all over the world- over Palestine, over walking out of the UN Human Rights Council, over China, over Iran, over migration, over Climate Change, over NAFTA and now with remarks made by his National Security Adviser Bolton about the International Criminal Court undertaking probe of alleged US war crimes..
That has probably persuaded him to now seek some prime time world attention during the UNGA session. This decision however appears to have generated more qualms and anxiety instead of relief. Many countries are worried because they think that Trump might make things more difficult with regard to the complex topics- including imposing of sanctions on Iran and other questions related to the Middle East and trade.
I guess one has to wait and see how the dynamics unfolds over the next two months.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information
and good governance