The current American president’s chaotic administration has rarely suffered a worse week than the one just past. If a Democratic effort to impeach Donald Trump was not previously on everyone’s mind, it is now unlikely to again be far from the epicentre of the media circus and public discourse.
The most significant recent event by far was the resignation of Defence Secretary James Mattis. Mattis, much more than Trump’s two secretaries of state or three national security advisers, has advocated for a reasonable foreign policy based broadly upon the liberal democratic principles for which the United States has served as the global standard-bearer since 1945.
Mattis, a well respected retired four-star general in the marine corps, served with distinction in combat and important senior commands during a long military career. He brought a combat veteran’s pragmatism to inform naïve and inexperienced civilians in the White House about military intervention and its costs and consequences.
The Defence Secretary finally left this administration after Trump recklessly decided to pull out American forces from Syria that have largely stabilised the northeastern part of the war-torn country and kept it away from Russia, Iran and ISIS. Trump’s decision, taken after no apparent consultation with Mattis or the defence department, partially fulfilled the president’s campaign promise to bring US troops home from the Middle East. Worldwide criticism poured in from everywhere but Moscow.
Mattis’ resignation was not scheduled to be effective until the end of February, but yesterday Trump suddenly announced it would take effect January 1 and parachuted into Mattis’ role Deputy Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan.
“He will be great,” tweeted the president. Once again we’ll wait and see how a senior appointment plays out.
Other “highlights” of Trump’s week included his forcing a shutdown over Congressional failure to include $5 billion for his border wall with Mexico – another misguided 2016 campaign promise. In fact, the government shutdown is a nuisance but little more. Economists estimate the last prolonged shutdown five years ago cost the US $1.2 billion of lost GDP each week. In a $20 trillion economy, this is lamentable but not catastrophic. And most 2019 American government operations are already funded and not affected by the shutdown.
Trump also initially struggled to find anyone willing to serve as his Chief of Staff, a position of immense potential power and influence in Washington.
He continued to deny his own intelligence community’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was complicit in the assassination of journalist (and American resident) Jamal Khashoggi.
And indictments, plea deals and convictions of Trump campaign figures and advisers continued in a steady stream.
There are now rumours the Robert Mueller investigation may conclude within two months. House Democrats under skilled and combative Nancy Pelosi will have a full head of steam by then, and the House Judiciary Committee will be led by Jerry Nadler, a constitutional law expert who represents a New York City district where the last Republican congressman served in 1923. If there’s an impeachment specialist in the House today, it’s Nadler.
Also eager to put the Mueller findings to good political use is incoming House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff of California. Schiff, a bookish-looking and mostly measured and well-spoken congressman, must be itching to take back the gavel from Devin Nunes, his craven California GOP colleague for whom no lie or distraction has been too insignificant or unbelievable to use against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Nunes is one of Trump’s most obsequious followers in Congress, and it will be a relief to see and hear less of him.
It is possible and maybe likely the outline of Mueller’s report is already known. Trump does his lying and manipulating mostly in plain sight. Respected Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote that in 2016, “Russian intelligence officials invested in an innovative strategy to support the election of a corrupt US businessman with suspicious ties to Russian oligarchs.” Many pundits echo these sentiments.
Impeachment in the House of Representatives needs only a majority vote. Conviction after trial in the Senate requires two-thirds of those voting, so unless evidence of obstruction of justice and wrongdoing is of Nixonian proportions, Senate Republicans likely won’t desert the president any more than Democrats did in 1998 when Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath.
But the impeachment process will likely be riveting theatre again next year.