Making enemies could cost him dear, as McCain has already shown
Donald Trump is an unusual president. Unusual in the same way that a triceratops turning up at Crufts would be unusual. He is not merely of a different species; his whole manner and understanding of the role are utterly alien to DC.
Even by his standards though, this week has been extraordinary. He publicly attacked his own Attorney General, he banned transgender people from serving in the military (without bothering to run it past the Joint Chiefs or the Defense Secretary), he has overseen his communications director describing his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, as a “paranoid schizophrenic”, he lost a key vote on Obamacare after three Republicans rebelled (including John McCain, who Trump mocked for being captured during Vietnam; a war Trump dodged serving in), and he ended it by firing the aforementioned Priebus. And that list could easily be extended.
In normal times, any one of those stories could have dominated the news for two or three days but these aren’t normal times and the rapidity with which they come means that the morning’s news may be barely mentioned by the evening bulletins.
Does it matter? If a president wants to run the White House in a way that might be unorthodox but which has worked for him in business, why shouldn’t he?
The simple answer is yes, it does matter. It matters because politics is not business and as the healthcare vote proved, the methods cannot be directly imported: Trump simply does not have the power as president to shape Washington that he had within his business. Not only can he not fire senators or congressmen, he may find that he cannot even fire members of his own administration if they enjoy sufficient support on the Hill (as Sessions does) – or if he does, it will come at a grievous price.
How high might that price be? Is it time to mention the ‘I’ word again? With Trump, it always is. None of what he’s done this week is impeachable. It may be that his transgender ban is ruled unlawful but even if it is, it’d hardly be the high crime or misdemeanour that the constitution requires. His attacks on his Attorney General are certainly unwise and probably inappropriate but it’d be a stretch to suggest they’re illegal. For that matter, there is no proscription on running a chaotic and dysfunctional administration or losing congressional votes on your platform.
What the week does demonstrates yet again is Trump’s utter disdain for the rules of politics, not just in the sense of what works and what’s effective but in that indefinable but very real sense of what’s appropriate. In a rare moment of modesty on Tuesday, he described himself as capable of being the second-most presidential president ever, after Lincoln (which nonetheless puts him ahead of Washington, for example). It’s a claim which is would be utterly laughable if it didn’t reveal the combination of delusion and rampant ego at the heart of it.
And when delusion, ego and a disdain for the rules meet (plus a thin skin and an unhealthy desire for revenge when he feels wronged), there opens up the very real possibility of Trump doing something which does finally go beyond the pale. There also opens up the likely scenario that should something of that nature occur, he’ll find himself with few defenders.
Rather than try to speculate about what might occur, or when, we’re better off looking at the politics – because impeachment is ultimately about politics. Proceedings are unlikely to be brought in 2020: that’s too close to the election and if there were some particularly scandalous behaviour, congress would still be likely to leave it to the voting public in the primaries and – if it got that far – the general election to deal with the matter.
Similarly, while there is a chance of action being taken this year or next, the odds aren’t attractive. For one thing, Trump is here protected by his otherness. Politicians will be wary of someone who ignored all the rules and yet won anyway as it implies powers in action that they do not fully understand and hence might suffer from. That’s not to say Trump is safe – he’s too hyperactive and too unrestrained for that – but it does give a layer of cover.
No, to me, 2019 offers the best value being priced as far out as 18/1 for an impeachment vote with Paddy Power. 2019 is, obviously, after the mid-term elections. That matters on two counts. Firstly, midterm elections tend to run against the White House and though that’s unlikely to result in a change of control of the Senate, where the GOP are only defending eight of the 33 seats, it could well flip control of the House – and it’s in the House where an impeachment vote would take place (the Senate conducts the trial).
The second reason is related: if the Republicans do badly, that will tarnish Trump’s aura of being able to defy political gravity. He would no doubt try to distance himself from a defeat and put it down to his party in congress but even if there were truth in that analysis, it’s not one that will easily be accepted by the congressmen whose votes would matter and whose seats would be on the line. Not that that would even necessarily matter if the Democrats gain control.
Impeachments are rare but they are rare because presidents usually play by both the written and unwritten rules. Trump doesn’t play by those rules, which is in different ways both an advantage and a handicap politically, as well as potentially courting action by the very fact of his unorthodox behaviour. They’re also rare because in reality, popularity will protect a president. Trump, however, isn’t popular – his current approval ratings are worse than anything that Obama ever recorded in his eight years. He is vulnerable to an attack on the right issue at the right time. And to my mind, 2019 is the easiest time.