This Political Moment

The United States is at a very weird moment and that is not because the President of the United States is weird, what with all his lies, rants, meanness and ignorance, a collection of vile qualities we have never before seen in a President, some of his predecessors, like Nixon, suffering from one or another fatal flaw, but not from such a collection as this one which makes Trump unfit to don the cape of tragic hero, as was true of Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy for his risk taking, Nixon for his conniving. Trump is merely contemptible and many of his followers see him that way, as a figure useful for upsetting the applecart rather than one who is very good at keeping it on a straight course.

No, it is the moment that is weird because it is the suspension of activities, however much the House Committees go about distributing subpoenas, everybody awaiting the arrival of the Mueller report. What is happening in this interregnum is that both parties are hedging their bets so that whatever Mueller does they will find themselves in a win-win position: they win whether Mueller reports nothing much about collusion with the Russians other than a few chats in which they two sides explored how they would relate to one another should Trump become President, or if Mueller should find that Trump was an asset of the Russians even if not an agent because of what they held over him with regard to loans and money laundering and personal secrets. Both parties have figured out how to play the interim. The Michael Cohen hearings made that clear.

The Republicans attacked Cohen and did not defend the President. That wasn’t simply partisan; it was a strategy. They did not say that the President had not reimbursed Cohen for hush money payments to a porn star and they did not say that hush money would have been correct under the circumstances, which was that Trump was trying to protect his wife, which is what some defenders of Clinton said was the case there: a gentleman who commits adultery may be required to lie so as to protect his wife’s feelings. Nor was there a defense of Trump’s policies other than to say, as Jim Jordan did, that Cohen, a convicted liar, was casting aspersions on a President of the United States, as if that august title were defense enough against scurrilous charges. No, they remained mute on the President and spent their time calling Cohen a liar. This way the Republicans wash their hands of Trump entirely. He has some good programs but they will not vouch for his character. If Mueller finds bad things, so be it, though so many of them, and Democrats as well, claim that what the Southern District of New York has on Trump is far more important., which is a way of saying that even after the Mueller report, Russian collusion will remain a conjecture, an inference from the evidence, while what SDNY has is the basis for criminal indictments.

Maybe so, but what the SDNY has is probably not grounds for impeachment because it doesn’t rise to the level of actions meant to overthrow some important part of the Constitution as both Watergate and Irangate did, but are more like the charges against Clinton. They are about personal sleaze and personal greed, such matters as Trump’s trumped up charity which he used to buy a portrait of himself, or his Trump University shenanigans. Remember what Chris Christie reminded us of on Morning Joe on Monday, which is that John Edwards was not convicted of campaign violations because he argued that the payments to the mother of his love child were made to keep the information from his ailing wife. I, for one, don’t want to get rid of a sitting President only because he is a sleazeball. (Christie claims, in his recent book, that he might have gotten the Republican nomination for President in 2016 if he had been the only “tough guy” in the race. That is not implausible, given that he is also articulate, smart and informed. What sank his candidacy was probably the whiff of the Bridgegate scandal. Christie now knows what Colin Powell felt when his State Department plan for what to do in Iraq after the American takeover was shelved because Defense and the White House didn’t like him. Kushner and Bannon had no use for Christie. Personal feeling, in some Administrations, are more important than competence.)

By their actions, the Republicans have shown that they are free and clear of Trump, let the blows fall where they may. If he has done something impeachable, they can claim they hadn’t known and have suddenly been enlightened and so can shove him aside and if he has done something which is only arguably impeachable, then they can soldier on with a candidate of whom they disapprove but has done their bidding and so they will stay on board. It is all up to the Mueller Report.

Democrats, for their part, play a mirror image win-win strategy. They put forward legislation in the House which is itself praiseworthy, such as a voting rights bill and a gun control bill, knowing that they will not get Senate approval, just so that they show themselves to have a political agenda which they can campaign on in 2020 whatever happens with Trump, and they do not talk impeachment, saying instead that Mueller will provide the facts and only then will they have to deliberate on whether the facts are weighty enough to support a move to impeach. So they are above the fray as are all of those Presidential candidates who stress either their progressive or their moderate sentiments, all as if whatever Mueller unleashes will not become the overwhelming topic of conversation and how they handle that will determine their fates, never mind that the job of the next President will be to undo the damage Trump has done to domestic and foreign policy and to the Presidency itself, in that he has made its occupant an object of ridicule, and that is quite aside from whatever legislative agenda a new President might want to pursue. But the Democrats stick to an agenda because then they don’t have to prejudge whether Mueller has something or has nothing.

Only Mueller is likely to find an impeachable offense, whether through the Russian connection or through the emoluments clause, the second of which is questionable, since what Trump was going to do about his own businesses was clear doing the campaign and so it is a good question whether you can impeach someone for doing something legitimated by the fact that people had legitimized it by electing him in the first place. They knew that his assets were not the sort that could be converted into a blind trust-- into money invested by a hands off person in stocks and bank deposits because Trump’s assets consisted of whatever it is that claims to be valuable in the real estate industry, and that includes the volatility of the person who is supposedly in charge. What is the Trump Organization without Trump?

Let us give a name to such weird moments, for there have been many of them in American history. They are moments of anticipation when events have been set in motion and one awaits a dramatic moment before the government is able to move beyond the, One such anticipatory moment was between the time of Lincoln’s election and his decision to resupply Fort Sumter, the nation hoping against hope, or at least the North was, that civil war could be averted by Lincoln merely acceding to the succession of the Southern States or somehow negotiating them into dropping their already declared secession. That was when officers surrendered their commissions in the U. S. Army so as to take up commissions in the CSA. No one tried to prevent Jefferson Davis from leaving Washington D. C. to go to Montgomery, Alabama.

A similar anticipatory moment took place when FDR’s diplomats had their last meetings with the Japanese envoys in the summer of 1941 and told them that there would be no lifting of the iron and steel embargo. FDR knew that the Japanese were going to do something, and he took a vacation, knowing it would be his last for a long time. That did not mean he knew the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, only that they would take some military action somewhere, most observers thinking it would be in South Asia. The ball was in the Japanese court. What would they do?

An anticipatory moment less global than that which awaits a war is the case of the buildup to Brown v. Board of Education, which everyone knew would have a big impact on civil rights in the United States and especially in the South, where Orville Faubus insisted on maintaining segregation. The integration of the schools happened to be a major intervention into Southern institutions, as would be, ten years later, the Voting Rights Act and as, four years before Board, had been Truman’s integration of the armed forces. Some major event was to be expected, even if education might well have not been the best cutting edge, in that we still don’t know how to achieve de facto integration even if legal segregation has been abolished. It might have been better to declare lynching or job discrimination unconstitutional, but the cases involving schools had been working their way up through the courts for years and the Supreme Court knew that they were going to have to resolve the matter one way or another and that, in fact, the majority on the Supreme Court used the anticipation of a significant decision as one of the ways to persuade undecided justices to make the decision unanimous because that would make it more credible to the American people, so revolutionary was it.

The present impasse among politicians and, I suspect, among the public, about whether Trump has done something really terrible leaves the ball in Mueller’s court. This impasse is less serious than the crisis leading up to a war, but the possibility of impeachment is serious enough, having happened only three times in previous American history, that there is reason to hold our breaths. There is too much information out there that the public doesn’t know about and we can draw conclusions when that is available and then see whether the Republican base is swayed or the Democrats have to focus on electing someone to replace Trump by going back to their issues and to the character of the person they choose to oppose him, and also whether such person has the moxie to go into the cage with him, because that is what it will come down to. But the anticipatory moment will have passed and good riddance to it because all that goes on during it is maneuvering and looking at the clock. Very little of significance goes on during that time.