The Donald Trump presidency is pure circus. India should be realistic in its expectations
James Astill | 20 Sep, 2018
INDIAN PROPONENTS OF closer ties with America have always taken the long view. But the barriers to more rapid progress in the bilateral relationship have shifted. Where anti-Americanism and partisan feuding in India were once the big hurdle, now the unreliability of US President Donald Trump’s administration is. The inaugural ‘two-plus-two’ Indo- US ministerial summit that was held in Delhi earlier this month, attended by Mike Pompeo and James Mattis, the US foreign and defence secretaries, provided an illustration of this. The summit’s format, which America had previously only afforded to close allies such as Australia and Japan, was intended to show America’s seriousness about its budding relationship with India. Yet, it ended up inviting the opposite impression.
Declaring that US-India relations had entered a “new era”, Pompeo pointed to the great strides the two countries have taken together over the past decade or so. They are manifest, in military cooperation especially. I could scarcely have imagined, while reporting from Delhi on the politicking that threatened to kill off the promised US-India nuclear cooperation deal a decade ago, that India’s armed forces would soon conduct more training exercises with America than any other major power. The highlight of the recent summit, the signing of an agreement to let India buy US communications gear, will further that cooperation. It will make India’s forces more capable and more interoperable with America’s, an important objective for the top brass of both countries. Yet, without underplaying this diplomatic shift, the strategic rationale for closer US-India ties—including the rising threat of Chinese aggression and America’s stuttering global commitment— has become much stronger in recent years. And it is far from obvious that the current rate of progress is commensurate with it. The relationship, in other words, is lagging reality.
That is primarily the fault of America’s wandering attention. The communication deal was in the offing for a decade. The two- plus-two summit was twice delayed, most recently by Trump’s near- farcical talks in Singapore with Kim Jong-un. And if that suggests Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to accelerating the strategic closening has borne little fruit, the other track of US-India cooperation, concerning trade and economic cooperation, is straightforwardly dispiriting. The best that can be said is that India, with a trade deficit with America a twelfth the size of China’s, is much less of a target for Trump’s emerging trade war than China is. But India and China are not supposed to be in the same bracket of American foreign policy at all. Modi may justly wonder how serious America is about reciprocating his commitment. Indeed, on the basis of Trump’s domestic plight, which has raised questions about the president’s grip on power, and even his sanity, India’s Prime Minister may wonder how serious America is at all.
While Pompeo and Mattis were doing their best to project an image of superpower business-as-normal in Delhi, some folk back in Washington DC were debating whether Trump might be too deranged to be president. This is not a new discussion. Trump’s manic self-regard, lack of empathy and sense of entitlement have long been identified by psychologists as possible symptoms of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’. Many politicians, to be fair, probably have at least a touch of this affliction. But Trump’s is a rare case. The president appears incapable of viewing any global or national issue—including the weightiest that there are—outside the prism of his interest and pressing need for validation and applause.
Perhaps more worrying, there have been dark warnings from inside the White House that the 72-year-old president’s regime of high stress, junk food and four or five hours sleep a night may be accelerating the ageing process
Perhaps more worrying, there have been dark warnings from inside the White House that the 72-year-old president’s regime of high stress, junk food and four or five hours sleep a night may be accelerating the ageing process. Trump is reported to struggle to concentrate on any topic and appears to have only a superficial understanding of his own policies. His ignorance of basic facts— like the existence of Nepal and Bhutan, or what trade deficits signify, or how time zones work—is extraordinary for a man of his experience. Even more shocking is his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his understanding. That suggests the psychologists may be right, that Trump exists in a mental place where the usual correctives of embarrassment, shame and ambition cannot reach. At the least, Trump, a TV star who acted his way to the presidency, is dangerously out of his depth.
A new book by Bob Woodward, a veteran chronicler of presidencies, describes an administration suffering a ‘nervous breakdown’ over the president’s impulsiveness and incompetence. Woodward alleges that Mattis complained to colleagues that the president had the understanding of a “fifth or sixth grader”. He claims Trump’s respected chief-of-staff, John Kelly, has referred to the commander-in-chief as an “idiot” and the Trump White House as “Crazytown”. A major theme of Woodward’s book, entitled Fear, is the madcap efforts of the town’s occupants to foil Trump’s bad ideas. In an immortal illustration, Woodward claims Gary Cohn, the then chief economic advisor, prevented Trump withdrawing America from a trade agreement with South Korea by surreptitiously removing the relevant document from his desk. It is debatable which is more shocking: the fact that a former president of Goldman Sachs would feel the need to attempt a Bart Simpson trick in the Oval Office; or Cohn’s confidence that the president, if unprompted by the document, would forget all about the policy change he was due to initiate. (It appears that Trump did not notice the missing document—which Woodward reproduces in his book—or remember that he was due to scrap the trade agreement in question.)
There is little question that Woodward’s account is broadly accurate. There have been many similar reports, in newspapers and books, about the craziness and dysfunction of Trump’s manner of operation. But Woodward’s reputation for investigative smarts and rigour makes his book unusually damning. That was affirmed by an opinion piece in the New York Times, written in response to the author’s revelations. Penned by an anonymous ‘senior official in the Trump administration’, it appeared to corroborate them, describing an administration gripped by feuding and paranoia. Trump’s advisors, Anonymous claimed, live in fear of what he might do next and constantly try to limit the damage. ‘The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,’ he wrote. ‘Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision- making.’ Devastatingly, the writer also claimed that, after Trump’s incompetence became apparent to them early in his presidency, his Cabinet officials discussed the possibility of removing him through a never-yet-used article of the US Constitution, which was designed to prevent America falling into the grip of a senile or otherwise incapacitated commander-in-chief.
On the basis of Trump’s domestic plight, which has raised questions about the president’s grip on power, and even his sanity, Modi may wonder how serious America is about Indo-US ties
Trump’s senior officials have lined up to deny that they were the author of the offending column. It hardly mattered. No one outside the president’s devoted fan base doubts that the letter was genuine and, again, broadly accurate. The mere fact that Mike Pence, Mattis and the rest felt impelled to deny having described the president as a half-wit was in itself a national humiliation. And Americans are feeling it. Barely 18 months into his presidency, it is hard to see how Trump can greatly improve his dire reputation among the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. His approval ratings are at close to their lowest level. According to the latest weekly poll commissioned by the Economist, 53 per cent of voters disapprove of Trump’s performance— including 42 per cent who ‘disapprove strongly’. That is despite an economy that is humming along, with unemployment below four per cent, after one of the longest periods of growth and job creation in American history. In fact, all the signs are that Trump’s problems are about to get much worse.
THERE ARE TWO related spectres hanging over his presidency. One is the justice department’s investigation into his conduct and business affairs, including his campaign team’s possible collusion with the Russian spies who sought to fix the 2016 election in his favour. The investigation, which is being run by Robert Mueller, a highly respected former FBI director, as special counsel, is easily the most productive ever assembled. On September 14th, Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, joined his former national security advisor, Mike Flynn, and two former other Trump aides in agreeing to cooperate with Mueller’s investigators. Manafort had little choice, having already been convicted of serious crimes as a result of their investigations. At the age of 69, he is facing a minimum of seventeen-and-a-half years in jail for a litany of financial and other crimes, including tax and banking fraud. He has also to forfeit property and cash worth over $40 million—about twice the estimated cost of Mueller’s investigation so far. Only by assisting the special counsel, with ‘any and all’ matters, including by providing an account of ‘his participation in and knowledge of all criminal activities’, can Manafort now hope to reduce his sentence and thereby have a reasonable prospect of leaving prison alive.
If Trump’s campaign team were in cahoots with the Russians, Manafort, who made a career out of working for Russian oligarchs, is likely to know the details. That is not least because he participated in an event that forms the main shred of evidence for the Russo-Trump collusion theory. This was a now-infamous meeting, held in Trump Tower at the height of the election campaign, between senior members of Trump’s team and a trio of well-connected Russians. The meeting had been arranged after Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, had been told the Russians had dirt to dish on his father’s rival, Hillary Clinton. He and Jared Kushner, the president’s son- in-law, who also attended the meeting, have since dismissed it as a nothing-burger. Whether Manafort, now under oath and fighting for his freedom, says the same is an intriguing question.
This is not the only Mueller-related threat to Trump. In the absence of more solid indicators of collusion, it has long looked likelier that the special counsel could find evidence that he had obstructed justice through his various efforts to evade or shut down the investigations he faces. Perhaps the most egregious, Trump’s decision to fire his FBI director, James Comey, who was then leading the investigations, led to Mueller’s appointment. Even if the special counsel does consider Trump guilty of obstruction, a sitting president probably cannot be charged with a criminal offence while in office. An obstruction finding could nonetheless warrant impeachment proceedings against him by the US Congress. It therefore matters enormously to Trump that the Republicans retain their current control of both congressional houses in the coming midterm elections. The second dark shadow looming over his presidency is that this looks increasingly unlikely.
In Fear, Bob Woodward claims Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly referred to the president as an “idiot” and the Trump White House as “Crazytown”
Midterm elections are invariably a verdict on the president, which makes Trump’s poor ratings potentially calamitous. There are, to be sure, a number of things the Republicans favour nonetheless. In the House of Representatives, all of whose 435 seats will be contested on November 6th, the Republicans currently have a big majority. They also have a favourable district map, having had the opportunity to redraw its boundaries to maximise the electoral impact of their strongholds. (Both parties engage in this pernicious practice, known as ‘gerrymandering’, when they can.) Moreover, partisan loyalty is driving hardcore Republicans to stick with Trump come what may. Even as he has slapped tariffs on imports, made nice with Vladimir Putin, denigrated America’s intelligence agencies and otherwise ridden roughshod over the hoariest of conservative principles, over four-fifths of Republican voters say they approve of Trump’s performance.
As impressive or incomprehensible as that might sound, however, Republicans represent much less than half the electorate. To build majorities in much of the country, they therefore need to attract independents and moderate Democrat voters, and these groups are turning against the Trump party with disdain. The Democrats lead the Republicans by around 10 points in national polling. Most forecasters make the opposition party a strong favourite to take the House of Representatives. The Democrats would then be in a position to pile up Trump’s troubles. They could kill his hopes of passing legislation. Having control of House committees, and therefore subpoena powers, they could also launch their own congressional probes of his presidency and affairs. They would certainly demand to see his tax returns—a snapshot of his financial affairs that Trump, unlike all his recent predecessors, has chosen to keep hidden. With a simple majority in the House, the Democrats could also launch impeachment proceedings against him.
Even if they did, they almost certainly could not remove him from office, which would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and therefore many supportive Republican votes. That was a high bar even before partisan polarisation became as entrenched as it is now: no president has been removed via an impeachment trial. In the current hyper-partisan environment, it is almost unimaginable. But the Democrats may nonetheless have an unforeseen chance at least to win control of the Senate in November.
It is a much more daunting prize than the House, with only a third of Senate seats up for grabs, including a clutch that the Democrats were expected to lose and hardly any that were expected to wrest from the Republicans. Yet, again, Trump’s epic unpopularity appears to be changing the electoral calculus. In conservative states such as Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri, where Democratic incumbents had been expected to lose, they are suddenly looking more competitive. Meanwhile Democratic challengers in Arizona, Tennessee and Texas, who were formerly expected to have little chance of dislodging the Republican incumbent senators, are starting to look more competitive. Lose control of the Senate, and the Republicans would struggle to confirm Trump’s future judicial and political appointments. Less than two years into its first term, his administration would be badly hamstrung.
That would be good for America. The Democrats would seek to constrain a rule-breaking president in a way that Republican congressmen, fearful of Trump’s supporters, have failed to do. Their spinelessness to stand up to Trump, despite their clear constitutional duty to do so, has been one of the most dismal aspects of his presidency.
Yet a significant downside for India and the world might be that Trump, finding himself constrained on domestic policy, might take more interest in foreign affairs. Indian optimists may view that as an opportunity to accelerate the strategic closening that Mattis and Pompeo spoke of so respectfully in Delhi. Yet his record suggests US-India relations would not be a priority for Trump. Rather, the world could expect—or at least reasonably fear—an escalating US-China trade war, damaging the world economy; a messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan; and US aggression against Iran. Not until Trump leaves office, in 2020 or 2024, will it be possible to hope for steadier American leadership. But the coming midterms may at least provide an early clue, in the success or failure of his rivals, to how far off Trump’s departure might be.