RICHARD BUTLER. Ethics Etherised

Dec 3, 2018

Based on the facts of his conduct of his office, and there is clearly much more to emerge, the end of Trump should be in sight. But, this is not certain to be achieved. To an unprecedented degree, the President of the US is enmired in illegal conduct and is directing US external relations disastrously. But, of overwhelming importance, is that he has etherised ethics as a core part of US public discourse and political life. The Republican Party and right wing media, including Murdoch’s Fox, have enabled this.

 Trump and his presidency have become grotesque.

Among the several definitions of “grotesque” provided by the Macquarie Dictionary, the most apposite for Trump and his circle is: “ odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre”.

Trump’s conduct has a criminal character. It is based on lies, uttered continually and, supported by people who are hostile to and breakers of, the law. To describe this as simply bizarre is kind, considering the President’s oath to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”.

Trump’s key attachments are to: self- enrichment; self-aggrandisement and, to lying about virtually all of his conduct.

The latter is the overarching one. It is driven by the other two of his attachments and, it is monumental.

According to the Washington Post fact checker project, Trump has directly lied or manifestly misrepresented the facts of matters on which he has spoken or tweeted, 6420 times in the past 649 days.

On 30th November, Trump was confronted with the news of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea in Federal Court, on the matter of his evidence given to the Special Counsel, on Trump’s attempts to get Russian agreement to his building a hotel in Moscow.

Cohen had been Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer” for ten years. It was he who made the payments to the women who have alleged that they had affairs with Trump. Those payments were made in the context of the then, forthcoming election, and violated Federal electoral law.

Cohen made clear that Trump and members of his family were continuing this activity, which included him offering President Putin a free Penthouse apartment valued at $50million, after he had won the Republican primaries and was about to be endorsed as their candidate.

Members of the Trump family had previously stated that the Moscow Hotel activity had ceased in 2014.This now known to have been false. It went on at least until 2016, including when Trump was being nominated as Republican candidate for President.

Trump’s habitual lying is grotesque but its true importance lies, not in its ugliness, but in the fact that he is President. This makes Trump’s allergy to the truth of any matter, which he might assess affects his personal interest, not merely personal

Trump’s dishonest conduct in office, has crucial implications on two fronts: domestically and in international relations.

It would be tedious and beyond the space limits for this article to list his actions within the US: the unprecedented deficit; taxation changes which favor the wealthy; overturning a raft of environmental regulations; his stoking of racism and xenophobia; the separation of children of refugee families from their parents; sending troops to the Mexican border and, now the use of tear gas on children; to cite only a few examples of so many brutal and regressive policies.

Trump has staged a major attack on: the US legal system; the role of the Congress; and an independent civil service, particularly those branches of it responsible for the administration of justice.

These actions jeopardise the Constitutional order of the US. He sees that order as threatening to his absolute authority. Trump’s view of his role and powers is authoritarian, and many are now seeing his conduct as a form of fascism.

(Bernard F Harcourt’s essay: “How Trump Fuels the Fascist Right”, New York Review of Books, November 2018, is compelling reading.)

It is now looking very likely that the Mueller investigation will expose: Trump’s lies with respect to encouraging and acceptance of Russian assistance in the election; his criminal conduct in his personal financial/commercial business; his perjury/obstruction of justice..

The new Democratic House, due to take office at the beginning of the year will have the ability to subpoena his tax returns. That should tell the story. Trump lavishly justifies the mantra: “follow the money”.

There clearly is a dirty secret here, because Trump has already threatened the Democrats that if they do this, he’ll dump a bucket of stinking stuff he knows about them. Echoes of Tony Soprano.

What I have just written is factually accurate, but a mere summary of the current state of the US polity under Trump.

It is an appalling, grotesque set of circumstances. I have lived for extended periods in the US during the last 40 years. I believe it is unprecedented. My US colleagues agree.

The President is enmired in legal cases. He’s surrounded himself with lawyers and addresses, every day, aspects of charges against him. Importantly, it is manifest that this affects every aspect of his governing, on which, reportedly he spends little time.

In international relations, Trump has been a disaster.

If he has a policy goal it is “America First”. This is a slogan; unenlightened and unenlightening. It is stunning that he seems to believe that its original, all his own work.

An attempt to give it meaning, would be to say that it’s a declaration of unalloyed selfishness and, this in a world that is interconnected and interdependent as never before.

Trump’s operational methodology in his dealing with other states and other leaders, friend or adversary, is to threaten and bully; presumably owing much to the world of real estate competition.

He calls everything a deal. There are good deals and bad deals, and, he claims to never do any of the latter

He called the laboriously negotiated multinational Agreement to restrain Iran from developing nuclear weapons a deal; which he insists was a bad one; a position with which no other concerned State agrees. The Paris Accord on climate change was also a deal; a bad one.

These two examples reflect a fundamental aspect of his position on international relations: rejection of rules; treaties; the Charter of the UN, for example.

He is also at pains to nullify any action or instrument Obama agreed to. This seems to be an obsession, reflecting both his vindictiveness and the needs of his ego. There is no generosity in the man.

Trump also displays a curious interest in autocratic leaders. Indeed he’s made a couple of asides about envying their power.

The two major outcomes of his conduct in international affairs are; destabilization in the relations between nations, on a fairly widespread basis, accompanied by expansion in weapons acquisitions and development; and, the formation of new alliances and levels of cooperation amongst nations, specifically to the exclusion of the US.

There is some irony in the latter outcome: Trump’s stances may have fostered the development of new levels of cooperation among other States.

His antipathy towards multinational agreements is reflected, inter alia, in his interventions in favor of Brexit.

The Trump/Bolton crew have made their preferences clear: US centered alliances, for example with Saudi Arabia. This means massive arms sales; continued support to it in the devastating war in Yemen, ignoring the humanitarian catastrophe is has caused; total and uncritical support for any action taken by Israel; and, the preparation of war on Iran.

Trump’s refusal to accept the findings of the US intelligence community on the Saudi murder of Jamal Kashoggi is an extension of this stance. It gives backing to the reports that Trump/Bolton policy is to attack Iran, with Saudi participation.

There is a continuum between domestic politics and foreign policy. The interest identified in the domestic area feed into and shape external actions.

The most striking current example of this continuum, was provided a day ago when Trump called-off the planned bilateral meeting with President Putin, in Buenos Aires. Trump said it was because of Russia’s actions last week towards Ukraine. No serious person believes this.

Trump called the meeting off a few hours after the Cohen appearance in Federal Court took place. Trump clearly did not want to face questions from the US media, after a meeting with Putin on his continuing to work on a property deal in Russia, after he had been nominated as the Republican candidate.

So, Trump’s US domestic mess and his lying about it, prevented him speaking with Putin, directly, on, for example: the future of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Treaty, which he has decided the US will leave; the current dangerous situation between Russia and Ukraine; the future of Syria. This is serious.

The suspicion in the US that Putin has leverage over Trump, for a variety of personal reasons, is growing, fuelled by Trump’s lying and, his willingness to accept Putin’s assurance that Russia did not interfere in the US elections, when there is much evidence to the contrary. And, it seems extremely likely that Mueller will have more to report.

On a comic note, if they met privately, its irresistible to imagine each of them saying: I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours (their lies) and, we’ll see whose are bigger.

Through his: constant traducing of the truth of virtually everything or issue with which he chooses to involve himself; his relentless insistence on selfish gain; his historic involvement with mafia like figures, including while he has been in politics; his attack upon the US constitution and legal structures; have posed a major challenge to the very existence of the role of truth itself in public discourse in the US and by extension, in US dealings with external States.

(On Trump’s involvement with shady figures, the article in the New York Times of November 29th, 2018, by Mike McIntire, Megan Twohey and Mark Mazetti, on the role played by Felix Sater, in Trump’s Moscow contacts, is very interesting)

Trump has etherised ethics as an essential ingredient in a decent polity and society. The crucial question is how permanent will this retrograde condition prove to be. Can it be repaired, when he goes and what and how long will this take?

When, or how will he be gone?

Impeachment, is described in the Constitution in legal terms: “high crimes and misdemeanors” but, as everyone knows, the process of it is not legal but political; through a trial in the Senate, where the Republicans have a slim majority and, a two third’s vote is required for conviction.

Nixon could see where he was headed, so resigned rather than face an impeachment trial in the Senate.

It seems utterly out of Character that Trump would fall on his sword and there’s nothing in the current track record of the Republicans to suggest that they would put removal by impeachment above their partisan interest, no matter what facts the Mueller and related investigations reveal.

While there are abundant reasons to hope for and end to the Trump presidency and an obvious factual basis for this change, it is by no means clear that it will occur.

In the meantime, Australia should urgently and deeply rethink how we conduct our relations with the US, stating by signaling that we will not take part in an attack upon Iran, initiated by the US.

Richard Butler AC former: Ambassador to the United Nations; Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York; Professor of International Relations at NYU and Penn State University.



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