Ronald Reagan was called the teflon president because his embarrassing miscues and falsehoods seemed to roll off him like burned food does off of teflon. Trump makes Reagan a piker in comparison. Now he may have overstretched the limits. But he is not alone: Similar heads of state are in similar crises. This includes Boris Johnson in Britain, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. And just this weekend, news arrives about a 33% drop in support for the far right Austrian Freedom Party in elections there.
The specifics vary in each case, and it is necessary to know the specifics to understand the general process.
Central to those specifics as far as the Trump crisis is concerned is the role of Ukrainian politics. Caught in a no-man’s-land between Russia and Western Europe, Ukraine is both a central battle-ground for intrigue and a conduit between Western European/US vs. Russian capitalism. That includes oil and gas, for Russian oil and gas pipelines pass through Ukraine to deliver their product to Western Europe, especially Germany. Ukraine is also a center for corruption. As Craig Unger explains in House of Trump, House of Putin, top oligarchs in Ukraine would buy the gas from Russia at artificially low prices before they were passed on to Germany, skim off the profits while kicking some of those profits back to their Russian counterparts.
One Ukrainian gas company involved in this profit skimming was called Burisma. In 2014 (that is, during the Obama/Biden administration), Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, joined Burisma’s board of directors. He was paid $50,000 per month for his presence.
At the time of Hunter Biden’s presence on the Burisma board, the regimes of Western Europe and the US were pressing the Ukrainian government to prosecute the more blatant corruption as they felt this was the best way to stabilize Ukrainian capitalism and to counter Russian influence. Among other things, they sought the release of Ukrainian chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was dragging his feet in investigating corruption in the gas industry. Presumably, an investigation of this corruption would also have undermined the influence of the corrupt Russian oligarchs.
Their ultimate success in securing Shokin’s removal did nothing to clean up the Ukrainian government, and as a result, in May of 2019, the Ukrainian people – fed up with the corruption – elected Volodymyr Zelensky as president. Zelensky was a professional comedian who had actually played the part of president in a popular Ukrainian TV series. On July 21, snap parliamentary elections were held in Ukraine and Zelensky’s party won a large majority of the seats. (Ukraine has a complicated political structure under which the president is directly elected and represents the government in foreign affairs while the prime minister, who leads the majority party, is the head of state.)
During this time, corruption investigations were supposedly proceeding, but as often the case, the investigator was part of the corruption. Under Zelensky, the investigator was one Nazar Kholodnytsky. According to the Washington Post, Kholodnytsky “was caught on tape advising witnesses in corruption cases how to avoid prosecution.” It was for that reason that long-time US diplomat and then-US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, pressed for Kholodnytsky’s removal.
Donald Trump had two interests in Ukrainian politics, both of which involved preparations for the 2020 elections:
First was the conspiracy theory revolving around “Crowdstrike”, which is a cybersecurity company based in California. According to some far right wing conspiracy theory web sites, the 2016 hacking of the Democratic Party National Committee (DNC) web site was not carried out by the Russian based and Putin connected Guccifer. Rather, the DNC collaborated with the (supposedly) Ukraine-based Crowdstrike to spread this false claim. Aside from his own narcissistic obsessions, Trump wants to squash the reality that Putin and company did, in fact, help get him elected, because this reality undercuts his power and threatens to reveal his money-laundering past.
Second, Trump wants to discredit the rival that he sees as most dangerous to his reelection – Joe Biden. For that reason, he wanted to spread the view that Biden had tried to cover up for his son’s alleged participation in corrupt practices as Burisma board member. According to Trump, that was why Joe Biden pressed for the removal of Ukrainian then-prosecutor Shokin in 2014.
Trump vs. “the rule of law”
Trump took several steps towards accomplishing these goals. Those steps helped reveal his key weakness. That weakness revolves around the fact that ever since the US Civil War the US capitalist class has based its rule on the consent of the majority of those over which it has ruled – in other words, based on a form of capitalist, or “bourgeois”, democracy. Not only is this form of rule safer and more stable, it also enables the capitalist class to keep its representatives – first and foremost its president – in check and see to it that the president in the main carries out the policies that the mainstream of the class wants.
The extreme narrowing of the base of support for this mainstream of the US capitalist class is represented by the Trump presidency, and in several key arenas Trump is not carrying out the desires of this mainstream. Domestically, this is so in how he stokes the flames of racism and xenophobia rather than keeping them slowly simmering on the back burner. “Divisiveness” they call it. They are also unhappy with his removal of even a pretense of combatting global warming, his absolute denial of science, his fomenting of trade wars, and his close alliance with one of their main rivals – Russian capitalism and their representative, Putin.
The problem that the capitalist mainstream had and has is that the US president’s base is in sharp conflict with the desires and the policies of that mainstream. Trump has his own base, which is also the base of a minority wing of the US capitalist class – the Mellon-Scaife’s, Mercer’s, and their ilk. The 150 year rule of this mainstream is represented in several ways, one of which is the presence of loyal representatives throughout the entire local, state and federal government structure. It is exactly because of this that the continued leaks from the Trump administration make Obama’s administration look like a hermetically sealed stainless steel box.
It is also for this reason that Trump has increasingly moved towards one-man rule, which includes his cycling through administration members on a near weekly basis. In the process, he has pushed out or fired nearly all those who represent the US capitalist mainstream. These include the generals in his cabinet as well as several top diplomats, whom he has replaced with his sycophants. The reason for this has been to enable him to follow his policies without any opposition. Those within the government who oppose some of his policies often feel forced to leak the information to the media as the only means of stopping or slowing him down. It is through that dynamic that we get to the present scandal:
Trump and Ukraine
On May 20, Trump fired Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine who had pressed for the removal of apparently corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky.
Yovanovitch’s formal removal was simply the end point in an ongoing process of her being edged out by Trump’s personal representative (as opposed to the representative of the US government) and Trump sycophant, Rudy Giuliani. For months, Giuliani had been meeting with various Ukrainian government officials, including Kholodntsky (see Post article) in an attempt to pressure the government to take up the two issues of concern to Trump. One can only assume that Kholodntsky, as a collaborator of and probable participant in the old corrupt practices, had shown himself to be amenable to Giuliani and also was opposed by Marie Yovanovitch.
In fact, Trump’s attitude towards the incoming anti-corruption campaigner Zelensky had been hinted at when Zelensky was first inaugurated into office on May 4 of this year. At that time, Trump downgraded the US presence at that event by sending US Energy Secretary Rick Perry in place of Mike Pence. These are the sorts of diplomatic signals that indicate a more general attitude. That more general attitude was due to the fact that Trump did not consider Zelensky reliable as far as his personal interests in Ukraine.
Around this time, Trump put a hold on the $391 million in military aid that had been agreed to in the 2019 budget. This was too much for even his Republican sycophants in congress, who maybe were unaware of Trump’s real aims as far as Ukraine were concerned. Even Mitch McConnell started asking why the money had not been disbursed. So on Sept. 11, Trump suddenly authorized release of this money.
On 21 June, Trump’s personal representative to Ukraine, Giuliani, tweeted: “New Pres of Ukraine still silent on investigation of Ukrainian interference in 2016 and alleged Biden bribery of [former Ukraine president] Poroshenko. Time for leadership and investigate both if you want to purge how Ukraine was abused by Hillary and Clinton people.”
Matters were reaching a head. In the whole Mueller “investigation”, Trump was able to cover many of his own personal tracks. Not so in this case.
July 25th phone call
If it needed further clarification, government officials got it in the now famous July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. One of the highlights of that call was Zelensky’s sucking up to Trump. “I had an opportunity to learn from you,” Zelensky said. “We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge.” After noting that the phone conversations between himself and Trump came after two successful election campaigns, he said, “I should run more often so you can all me more often…. We wanted to drain the swamp here in our country…. You are a great teacher for us.”
Trump took all this ass-kissing as his rightful due. He noted how much “we” do for Ukraine and then immediately transitioned into asking for two “favors”. One was to find information supporting the Crowdstrike conspiracy claim and the other was to find dirt on Hunter Biden. In this context, he reinforced the role of Giuliani (“Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man…. If you could speak to him it would be great.”) Trump also referred to the “unfair” firing of the former corrupt prosecutor.
To this Zelensky also replied in code. “The next prosecutor will be 100% my person, my candidate,” he said. “He or she will look into the situation.” Worried that there was no “there” there regarding the Crowstrike claiims, and wanting some help in finding something, he added “if you have any additional information that you can provide to us, it would be very helpful.” He concluded by letting Trump know that he had helped in a matter that is always near and dear to Trump’s heart – his own personal enrichment. “The last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed… at the Trump Tower,” said Zelensky.
A few other US government officials were listening in to that phone call with Zelensky. They were so disturbed that some of them decided to place the record of that call in the most secure government computer – a stand alone computer that is normally reserved for only the most highly classified information. In other words, they were trying to prevent the news of that phone call from leaking out. (According to reports, similar calls between Trump and bin Salman have also been squirreled away on that super secure computer.)
Blowing the whistle
To no avail.
Somebody evidently informed the now-famous “whistleblower”, who it turns out is a CIA official, within a couple of days of the call. Then:
- On 8/21 that CIA official filed a “whistleblower” complaint with the Inspector General of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson.
- Five days later, on 8/26, Atkinson found the complaint credible and forwarded it to the acting Director of National Security, Joseph Maguire. Maguire sat on the complaint, despite the fact that the law requires him to forward it to congress within five days.
- In early September, somebody leaked the news of the complaint to the Washington Post, which published the news of its existence on 9/5.
- Four days later, with the cat out of the bag, Atkinson formally informed congress of the existence of the complaint.
- On 9/10, Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, requests the complaint itself.
- On 9/13 Maguire refuses to send the complaint, claiming confidentiality and privileged communication. Schiff responds by issuing a subpoena, which Maguire also refuses.
By this time, the issue has become a major scandal in the news media, and it’s clear it will be impossible to cover it up as usual. As a result:
- On 9/19, Inspector General Atkinson meets behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee, but without authorization to discuss the complaint itself.
- On 9/24, Pelosi announces that she will start a formal impeachment “inquiry”.
- Freelancing, and against the advice of several of his advisors, the very next day (9/25), Trump has the memo of the now-famous telephone call released. (Bear in mind, this is just a memo; there may be even more damning information in the call.) Later in the day, he authorizes the release of the whistleblower complaint itself.
Trump compounded his blundering by ranting “I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” In other words, it’s treason to act on behalf of the interests of the US government and the US ruling class if those interests class with the interests of Trump. These comments in themselves, made the day after the release of the complaint, are a crime; they constitute a threat to a whistleblower.
Initially, Trump’s supporters and sycophants showed a united front of support. The Wall St. Journal editors, who have been converted into real Trump supporters by Trump’s profitable policies, called the release of the phone call memo a “Fizzle”. “The conversation was largely routine diplomacy,” they said. “No quid pro quo…. Mr. Trump was unwise to mention Mr. Biden, but the tenor of the conversation was genial.” They seek to maintain their credibility by proudly proclaiming that they “have often criticized” Trump for his “refusal to abide by the normal guardrails”, but threaten the Democrats that impeachment will end up backfiring on them.
The editors of both the Washington Post and the NY Times, expressed real alarm, however. As opposed to the WSJ editors, these latter represent the thinking of the more strategic mainstream of the capitalist class, those who think beyond the next quarter’s financial statement.
Trump’s Republican sycophants initially kept the united front, with one of his main attack dogs, Senator Lindsay Graham, calling the phone call a “nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger”.
Even from the start, however, that united front had cracks, as both foreign secretary Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin strongly opposed Trump’s releasing the phone call memo. On the other hand, as the Post reports “the White House was also receiving private pressure from Republican lawmakers, who said that the administration’s position — which allowed rumor and worst-case speculation to fester — was untenable and that Trump had to release something to move past the controversy.” Caught in a no-win situation, Trump as been his own worst enemy. As Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post wrote , “(Trump) was so thickheaded he didn’t even realize what was incriminating. He was so foolish as to take advice from the equally unhinged Giuliani. …. he is likely to become more self-destructive, antagonistic and downright crazy. All of that makes it that much easier for Republicans to abandon him.”
That abandonment seems to have already started. US Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) said “Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say there’s no ‘there’ there when thee’s obviously a lot that’s very troubling here.” And Senator Mitt Romney, the figure head for the old-line Republican Party, said “it’s deeply troubling.” As the whole process develops, Romney is liable to become more of a beacon for those Republicans who want to return to their party’s old days as the more reliable representatives of the mainstream of the US capitalist class.
Nor is the loyalty of Mike Pence guaranteed, especially after Trump hinted at throwing him under the bus. At a news conference Trump held in New York City during the UN meeting, he was asked if anybody else had been involved in the conversations about Ukraine. Trump is reported to have suggested they ask Pence, who he said “had a couple of conversations also.”
Even the ever reliable Sean Hannity said the whistleblower’s allegations are “really bad”. And Vanity Fair is reporting that “Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch is already thinking about how to position the network for a post-Trump future.” (They also report that there is “management bedlam” at Fox!) Trump’s former reluctantly loyal ally in congress, Paul Ryan, now a Fox official, is reported to also be critical of Trump.
A recent column in the NY Times is encouraging those cracks in the united front. Entitled Republicans, the Time Has Come” and addressed to “the Republican members of the United States Senate”, the column appeals to the former basis of the Republican Party. “Can you for a moment imagine the icons of your party, like Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower, risking the security of a country threatened by Russia, for the sake of smearing a political rival?” he asks. He then goes on to name six Republican senators who he evidently has hopes might support impeachment.
However, the Republican senators in general, and Mitch McConnell in particular, are caught in a no-win situation. If McConnell refuses to even hold hearings (assuming that the House passes the matter on to the Senate), or if he has a blatantly fraudulent hearing which is a clear cover-up, he and his party will suffer. If he holds a hearing that even approaches openness, then what will be called into question is why they have so determinedly supported Trump up until now.
As for the Wall St. Journal editors, since their initial show of support, as Trump is becoming increasingly unhinged, they have maintained a discreet silence as have their regular columnists, the majority of whom are steering clear of the issue. This contrasts with the columnists of the NY Times and the Washington Post, who have had a steady drumbeat of attacks.
It is still highly unlikely that the Senate would vote to convict (i.e. to remove) Trump. But whatever the outcome, both Trump and the party which he controls are likely to be weakened even further.
Predictably, the Republican-turned-pro-Democrat/independent, Max Boot, an important figure in the prestigious Council on Foreign Affairs’ journal, Foreign Relations, has weighed in with a sharp attack, this time in the Washington Post. He praised the motives of the whistleblower’s “act of courage” as well as the “courage shown by the House Democrats, especially by the members elected last year in districts previously represented by Republicans.”
There are two interlinked issues motivating the Democrats to show “courage”: First, they do, in fact, base themselves on the “rule of law”, also known as capitalist democracy. That is interlinked with the fact that their own personal careers have that same basis, and the revelations about Trump’s role in Ukraine show his determination to fraud the 2020 elections and suppress the vote – to do anything possible and necessary – in order to secure his reelection and to maintain a Republican majority at least in the Senate.
Their “courage” will now be amplified by the fact that the most recent polls show a swing in favor of impeachment. As the Washington Post reported on September 27, “An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll shows a plurality (49 to 46 percent) favors impeachment, a large bump from April, when 39 percent favored and 53 percent did not. Likewise, the Morning Consult polls shows 43 percent favor and 43 percent oppose impeachment, including a small plurality of independents. These figures are stunning insofar as the rough transcript and whistleblower complaint have been out for only a couple of days.” A CBS poll released on Sept. 29 showed 55% support for an impeachment “inquiry” but only 42% support for actual impeachment. 22% said it’s too soon to determine, which means that as the inquiry proceeds, a majority is likely to shift into the pro-impeachment camp.
The shift is reflected in the one post- whistleblower release column on the issue in the Wall St. Journal. Peggy Noonan, usually another one of the Trump cheer leaders, wrote that: “the Democrats have set a “bear trap” and that “something wild and unpredictable has been set loose.” As she pointed out, “no one who has spoken in defense of the president, including his spokesmen, has said these words: “Donald Trump would never do that!” Or, “That would be unlike him!” That will be the president’s problem as public opinion develops: everyone knows he would do it, everyone knows it is like him. There’s no mystique of goodness to be destroyed.”
She concluded by quoting two Trump supporters she knows, both of whom have said “Maybe Pence wouldn’t be so bad.”
Limits of One-man rule
There is a story about Saddam Hussein which shows the limits Trump is running up against.
Supposedly, Hussein had gathered together all his advisors to tell them about some plan or another that he had. He is supposed to have earnestly asked for their opinion. All of them enthusiastically supported his decision except for one advisor who suggested a different course of action. Hussein asked all the others to leave the room. When they left, he took out his gun and shot the advisor who expressed a different opinion. Even though that advisor had Hussein’s best interests at heart, just the nerve to express a different opinion meant that he could become a pole of opposition. Best to nip it in the bud.
Unfortunately for him and although he is trying to change that, Trump still lives in a bourgeois democracy. The best he can do with such advisors is to fire them. Even there, he can’t fire everybody; there are too many as the whistleblower shows. That means he can’t stop the leaks, and in the coming turmoil that will make what’s come before look like a stroll in the park, there will be even more leaks and more rats leaving the sinking ship.
Nothing is assured, however. As Peggy Noonan said, something wild and unpredictable has been set loose. Among other possibilities, Trump may conclude that he needs to start a war with Iran to divert attention. Or Israel could do so on his behalf. In that situation, the tendency of the Democrats would be to band together to “defend our country”. On the other hand, some act of domestic terrorism could be carried out by some of the more fanatical of Trump supporters. Or a massive environmental disaster could happen.
The example of Kurt Volker, Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine is instructive: Appointed to replace Marie Yovanovitch (remember her?), he was simply a cover to hide the fact that the real Trump representative to Ukraine was Giuliani. A long time respected diplomat with a side career in finance capital, Volker was perfectly willing to play that role… until it became clear that he was simply a figure-head. Then on September 26, he suddenly resigned. Another rat leaving a ship he expected to sink. How many more will there be, and what stories will they have to tell once they’ve left?
Finally, we mustn’t allow the Trump impeachment – important as it is – to distract us from the environmental crisis. To give one example, on Monday, September 29, the NY Times carried a column entitled Three Billion Canaries in the Coal Mine. After explaining how when the canaries in the coal mines stopped singing it was a warning of poisonous air, the article reports on a recent study showing that “nearly 3 billion North American birds have disappeared since 1970. That’s 29 percent of all birds of this continent.” the implications of this disaster is reason to “impeach” and remove not only Donald Trump and not only both capitalist political parties, but capitalism itself.