TONY KEVIN. Trump, Putin and the priming of the impeachment trigger.

A game plan is now evident for the possible expulsion of Donald Trump from the US presidency by impeachment, unless he toes the line of Washington’s established bipartisan national security agenda. Putinophobia is central to this dark Shakespearean drama. Trump is increasingly friendless and bereft of the respect normally due to a US President. Recent polling suggests that 40% of Americans favour Trump’s impeachment: so far missing is sufficient Republican and Democrat votes in both houses of Congress to translate this mounting public antipathy into political action. If present trends continue, he will be either impeached, or politically neutered by his fear of impeachment. On Washington’s blasted heath, Trump’s enemies are marshalling their forces and priming their weapons.  

US Presidents may be impeached if convicted by Senate vote of ‘treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.’ An impeachment process begins with a simple majority vote in the House of Representatives on whether there are any such grounds, followed by a formal impeachment trial in the Senate which requires a two-thirds majority vote to remove a president from office.

It is for Congress to judge what constitute ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. Nixon resigned his presidency one day before he was to be so removed from office over Watergate. By that time, necessary bipartisan majorities to impeach him had emerged in both Houses.

Today, the Republican Party enjoys majorities in both Houses, but not two-thirds in the Senate. A successful impeachment of Trump would require both parties’ support in both houses of Congress. Not easy: some Republicans would feel residual loyalty to Trump as the man whose campaign skills helped win their seats and bring their party to power, and some Democrats would argue that the longer he is in power making terrible decisions, the better their chances in elections in two and four years’ time.

Mike Pence would automatically become President if Trump were removed: an even more conservative, anti-feminist, anti-minorities and homophobic man than Trump, but a shrewd political operator likely to provide foreign policy and national security continuity with the previous Obama-Clinton policies. Democratic Party Senators would be conflicted. Some would see Pence as the greater evil, others not.

The impeachment strategy centres on Putinophobia. It would require convincing enough members of Congress that America’s arch-enemy Putin covertly assisted Trump to win the election, and continues improperly to influence Trump now; that Putin has power over Trump through business corruption links, and possibly even latent threats of sexual blackmail. The weapon is primed now, but the tipping point of necessary congressional majorities has not yet been reached.

I must confess an interest. I am convinced, from my own wide reading and recent first-hand experience of spending a month staying independently in Russia, that however wrong and immoral Trump’s policies are in almost all other areas of US policy and governance, his initial policy instincts towards Putin’s Russia were correct (see Cavan Hogue’s excellent John Menadue Blog piece on 3 February, ‘Should we jump with Trump on Russia?”); and that Trump’s choice of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State was sound. His first presidential conversation with Putin was lengthy and warm, and held out promise of much-needed movement towards US-Russian strategic detente and international military cooperation against violent Islamic fundamentalist terrorism which continues to cause huge suffering in the Middle East and about which the West has hitherto been ambivalent and confused.

To my mind these are important, quite possibly decisive, points in Trump’s favour. Few people who have not studied the issues closely, as Professor Stephen Cohen of the American Committee for East-West Accord has over many years, understand how dangerously the West and Russia were sliding towards risk of hot nuclear war over the past sixteen years since Putin took the helm in Russia, and especially over the past three years since the US-fomented Maidan coup in Kiev in February 2014. We were approaching an August 1914 confrontation scenario where East-West hot war by accidental escalation or miscalculation in Eastern Europe or Syria was increasingly likely. There seemed no safe exits.

Had Hillary Clinton been elected President, these dangerous trends would have been exacerbated, because Clinton and the liberal hawks around her (importantly, Joe Biden, Victoria Nuland, Michael McFaul, Samantha Power and most top US generals) had no other policy vision than forceful confrontation and containment of Russia at its borders and in its nearby regions of strategic interest, most importantly in Ukraine, Syria and Turkey. They welcomed a new Cold War, which they had convinced themselves was entirely Putin’s fault.

Since Obama gained power in 2008, US liberal hawks and their allies in Europe have demonised Vladimir Putin’s government to a degree unparalleled in international relations since the English-speaking world’s existential wars of national survival against Napoleon and Hitler. They have convinced themselves that Putin is a tyrant, murderer and thug, and they have lodged such untrue tropes firmly in the minds of Western quality and mainstream media, and in the minds of allied NATO governments. Amazingly, Trump is trying to swim against that powerful tide.

Possibly because I lived through the Cold War, and saw from Moscow the first hesitant moves towards East-West detente, I know at first hand how existentially dangerous and corrosive of human decency and dignity the Cold War was. It would have been tragic to give the reins of power in Washington to implacable fanatics keen to pursue a new Cold War against Russia. Yet that is what Hillary Clinton promised.

In my view, there is no justification. Putin’s Russia, stereotyped as an aggressive state now for eight or even sixteen years, is more sinned against than sinner. Russia’s alleged ‘aggression’ is no more than the determination of a proud and brave sovereign nation, a great power, to resist steady undermining of its security and self-respect by all means short of hot war. Economic sanctions, military pressure at the borders and in strategic missile systems, covertly forced regime change in nearby states, information warfare that set out to discredit and demoralise and subvert national values, comprise a formidable anti-Russian armoury.

Trump and Tillerson want to wind this back. It is hard to say how many in the Republican Party support them; probably not many. Russophobia is as embedded in the Republican Party as in the Democratic Party. John McCain, Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin are representative of Russophobe Republican views, as Clinton and Biden represent Russophobe Democrat views.

Trump also swims against the tide of the American military-industrial-intelligence complex’s need for a technologically advanced state enemy or enemies, to justify continued huge spending on military bases around the world and huge military R and D, and to fend off arguments to divert resources to restoring America’s degraded civil infrastructure. Trump’s proposed detente with Russia is a mortal threat to these constituencies.

Like all good strategies, the impeachment strategy which I see building in Washington builds on Trump’s own manifest weaknesses and misjudgements.

Trump’s enemies are trying to create a widespread climate of opinion sufficient to convince enough members of Congress that the American electorate made a disastrous mistake in electing Trump. They would need to generate an emotional wave of anxiety and distaste towards the man. This would involve disparaging his policy judgement, his racism and religious prejudice, his lack of sexual morality, his naivete towards traditional enemies (Russia) and disloyalty towards traditional allies (NATO, Australia, Japan), his rash provocation of China, and his unreliability as an international trading partner (in terms of multilateral agreements like TPP, and bilaterally with China and Mexico). They would want him to offend as many voter interest groups as possible as quickly as possible, so that the case for impeachment could build constituency and momentum.

Richard Butler has written on this (John Menadue Blog 3 Feb, ‘Australia and the US: Truth Time’). Butler notes that the Republican leadership ‘does not know how far Trump will go, or when, or if, they will be obliged to face down his authoritarian and illegal conduct,’  and ‘Their problem is, at what point will they conclude that the narcissistic fantasies of Trump are causing serious damage to their interests, and what then will they do about it or him? ’

I would argue that we are not far from that point now. Things can move fast nowadays in the Internet age. Like Othello’s Iago, Pence stands quietly at Trump’s elbow, professing loyalty but awaiting his unearned reward if Trump falls.

Almost all of US media are now deriding Trump’s alleged policy misjudgement of Putin’s Russia. The liberal-Democrat press claims incessantly that Putin improperly interfered in the US election and gave it to Trump, and that Trump has corrupt links with Russian business. Americans cannot forget ‘unprovable’ insinuations that Putin has material to blackmail Trump over gross sexual misbehaviour. Like Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, this is powerful imagery. All this helps to build a climate of discussion of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ involving Trump and Putin.

Trump is clearly already feeling the pressure and is starting to modify his election campaign policies. Thus, in recent days he has stepped up militarist rhetoric that the US must remain the world’s strongest military power. He has rattled more sabres at China, and tried to reassure European NATO allies that the US remains loyal to them. Trump is now stepping up support for the cruel Saudi war in Yemen, and sabre-rattling at Iran. His new UN ambassador in recent days declared in the UN Security Council – in a 180 degree reversal from previous Trump statements downgrading the importance of Ukraine – that the United States would not lift sanctions against Russia until it stopped destabilizing Ukraine:

‘We do want to better our relations with Russia. However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.’

Right on cue, President Poroshenko of Ukraine, on the day after the warm Trump-Putin phone call, launched a new offensive against the East Ukraine rebel area, shelling front-line rebel towns and moving his tanks forward; and blaming Russia for the defensive military response by rebel forces. Ukraine – financially bankrupt, and fearing abandonment of support by the US – is playing its war card. Against logic and available evidence, the well-primed Western media is already blaming Russia for the upsurge in fighting. Senator John McCain called on Trump to help Ukraine.

The pressure on Trump to condemn Russia and to put unachievable conditions on detente is now intense. Trump is being driven back towards Clinton’s policies of confrontation with Russia, as he builds new policies of confrontation with China and Iran.

Australia has now – one hopes unwittingly – become part of the Washington establishment war against Trump. The Turnbull phone call was a foreign policy disaster for both men. Turnbull and many Australians will despise Trump now for his mistreatment and humiliation of the US’s most loyal ally. (See John Menadue Blog 4 February, ‘Self-reliance within the alliance’). Anti-Trump commentators Paul Krugman and Roger Cohen, and again McCain, gleefully seized on the episode.

Trump had some right on his side. From his viewpoint it was indeed a lousy deal – why import over 1000 hurt and angry men, many Iranian, and quite possibly many of them mentally damaged by three years of Australia’s calculated cruelty to them? He compared his risk to that of inviting in ‘the next Boston bombers’. All Turnbull could offer was stiff lecturing that a deal is a deal, and vowing Australia’s undying alliance loyalty. But Trump was not bound by Obama’s deal.  Trump has now semi-apologised to Turnbull. If Trump in the end grudgingly accepts some Manus/Nauru detainees after extreme vetting to save his face, he will test Australian loyalty and gratitude in ways we may not like, especially in respect of China. ANZUS is now at risk of becoming a burdensome or hollow agreement.

In the European Parliament, there is talk of rejecting any Trump nominees as Ambassador to the EU, as a way of indicating distaste for Trump.

In all these ways, Trump is being worn down and pressured to revise his own initial policy judgements, to make major concessions to his critics.

It may finally not be necessary for his enemies to impeach him. If his spirit can be broken, he can be driven into establishment harness. But if not, the impeachment option is there. Birnam Wood is not yet advancing on Dunsinane Castle, but Macbeth would be starting to worry about it. You can see the strain on Trump’s face.

Putin would not see any great grounds for optimism about East-West detente at this point. Trump’s surprise election may prove to be only a temporary respite from visceral US political elite Russophobia.

Much will now hang on upcoming European elections. If the extreme right leaders there should make significant gains in France and Germany, this may invigorate the beleaguered Trump team to hold their ground. But at the moment, Trump’s chances – and the prospects for US-Russian detente – are not looking so good.

Tony Kevin‘s latest book Return to Moscow, a literary-historical travel memoir, published by University of Western Australia Press, will be launched with John McCarthy AO at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Glover Cottages, 124 Kent Street, Millers Point, Sydney 2000 at 6.00 pm on Tuesday 14 February. Enquiries to [email protected]

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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