News analysis

Drip, drip, drip of scandal derailing Trump train

WASHINGTON • On Day 118 of the Trump administration, a special counsel was appointed. The word impeachment was uttered on the floor of the House of Representatives. And the President of the United States contemplated how to go forward with the next 1,343 days.

The notion that President Donald Trump will actually be impeached seemed like liberal wishful thinking, but a new prosecutor represented a serious threat and Washington was abuzz on Wednesday with the surround sound of scandal. Lawmakers demanded documents. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 372 points. Watergate talking heads flooded cable news shows.

For a president who in most polls has never commanded the support of a majority of his public, the accumulated toll of self-inflicted wounds has been a challenge from the start. Now he faces perhaps the most daunting moment of his young administration after his decision to fire FBI director James Comey, his disclosure of sensitive information to the Russians and a report that he tried to shut down an investigation into a former aide.

Like other presidents before him who felt under siege, Mr Trump expressed resentment rather than remorse, insistent that he has done nothing wrong and convinced that he has been persecuted.

"No politician in history - and I say this with great surety - has been treated worse or more unfairly," he complained to Coast Guard graduates on Wednesday, hours before a special counsel was appointed. "You can't let them get you down."

But he is down, and so are his aides, many of whom wait for the axe they fear is coming as they hear whispers of shake-ups. With his first foreign trip as President starting today, Mr Trump is looking for ways to fend off the attacks and investigations while reinvigorating a presidency that has lost control of its narrative.

That became inordinately more difficult at 6pm on Wednesday (US time) with the announcement by Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein that he was appointing Mr Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel. The last straw for Mr Rosenstein may have been a New York Times article reporting that Mr Trump tried to persuade Mr Comey to drop a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to a memo Mr Comey wrote.

Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein (centre) on Capitol Hill last week. On Wednesday evening, he announced that he was appointing Mr Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel.
Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein (centre) on Capitol Hill last week. On Wednesday evening, he announced that he was appointing Mr Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Mr Julian Epstein, who was the chief counsel for the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings against then President Bill Clinton, said Mr Trump essentially brought this on himself with his "clumsy and self-defeating" attempts to rid himself of Mr Comey in the midst of an active FBI investigation into any ties between his campaign associates and Russia.

"With the appointment of Mueller, they have now totally lost control of this train and have very limited ability to manage the widening crisis around it," Mr Epstein said. "This will go down as one of the most inept and counterproductive efforts of damage control that we have ever seen in public life."

Even before the latest developments, Mr Trump's legislative agenda was going nowhere. So many journalists swarmed the Capitol on Wednesday trying to buttonhole lawmakers about Mr Trump's interactions with Mr Comey that the Senate press gallery sent out a warning about "Senate hallway congestion".

"For President Trump, the drip, drip, drip of scandal has sidetracked, for example, healthcare and tax reform," said Mr James Robenalt, author of January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam And The Month That Changed America Forever.

"If this continues, the paralysis, as with Nixon, will cause a loss of confidence overseas, our enemies will be emboldened, and at home, the Republican agenda will stall."

The pace of political life has accelerated and intensified since Mr Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in 1974 and Mr Clinton was impeached in 1998 and acquitted in a Senate trial the next year.

Republicans, while not ready to abandon Mr Trump, showed signs of nervousness. Representative Liz Cheney deleted a Twitter post she had written last week praising Mr Trump's letter sacking Mr Comey.

After Mr Mueller's appointment was announced, the White House issued a statement in the President's name.

And whether he knew it or not, Mr Trump echoed Mr Clinton's approach - that he was focused on his day job.

"I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2017, with the headline 'Drip, drip, drip of scandal derailing Trump train'. Print Edition | Subscribe