Donald Trump v the United States review: how democracy came under assault

Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has written a masterful and alarming account of ‘the struggle to stop a president’

Now disgraced, Jerry Falwell Jr once announced that Donald Trump was entitled to an extra two years on the job as “reparations” for a “failed coup”, meaning the Mueller investigation. Joe Biden has gone so far as to predict the president will try to steal the election.

Trump and his backers openly speak of four terms in office. “If you really want to drive them crazy, say 12 more years,” the president cackles, despite express constitutional strictures to the contrary.

Even as doubts surrounding its legitimacy grow, the election assumes ever greater significance. Michael Schmidt’s first book is aptly subtitled: “Inside the Struggle to Stop a President.”

The Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter chronicles what he has seen from his “front-row seat”. It was Schmidt who broke news of Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email while secretary of state, and of James Comey authoring a memo that detailed the president ordering him to end the FBI investigation of Gen Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

Schmidt argues persuasively that the Trump presidency has highlighted the fragility of American democracy, and that the current president views the rule of law as something for others. More precisely, Trump believes prison is meant for his political adversaries but not so much for his convicted cronies and for himself, never. Schmidt documents how Trump sought to prosecute Clinton and Comey: literally and seriously.

A central premise of Donald Trump v the United States is that those who have sought to thwart the president have failed. Comey is no longer FBI director, Gen John Kelly is no longer White House chief of staff. Donald McGahn, Trump’s first White House counsel, is back in private practice.

Trump usually gets what he wants. Jared Kushner, for example, holds a “top secret” security clearance despite persistent objections from senior White House staff and the intelligence community. After all others refused, Trump personally granted his son-in-law his clearance. Hindering Trump is one thing, stopping him something else.

Over on Capitol Hill, according to Schmidt, Trump has “routinely outflanked the Democratic lawmakers investigating him”, while Republican leaders have emerged as “Trump’s public defenders”. Career civil servants, including those at the Food and Drug Administration, are “maligned” as part of a ‘Deep State’.” So what if a pandemic rages?

Similarly, Trump targets journalists as “fake news” and as “enemies of the people”, a term popularized by Joseph Stalin. As one administration insider has said, it’s all a “bit” reminiscent of the “late” Weimar Republic.

Schmidt frames his book as a four-act play, Comey and McGahn the central actors, a quote from King Lear as prelude. Chapters weave context with drama, even as they inform.

The reader is continuously reminded of how many days remained before a particular event, such as “Donald Trump is sworn in as president”, “the appointment of special counsel Robert S Mueller III” or the “release of the Mueller Report”. It is difficult to forget what came next. Donald Trump v the United States is laden with direct quotes and attribution. It is credible and intriguing. Beyond that, it is also unsettling.

Schmidt details McGahn’s cooperation with the special counsel. Here, he recalls a conversation for the ages, with McGahn while he was still White House counsel and Mueller’s investigation was months away from its end.

“You did a lot of damage to the president,” Schmidt tells McGahn, minutes before a thunderstorm over the White House. “I understand that. You understand that. But [Trump] doesn’t understand that.”

McGahn replies: “I damaged the office of the president. I damaged the office.”

Schmidt parries: “That’s not it. You damaged him, and he doesn’t understand that.”

Ultimately, McGahn responds: “This is the last time we ever talk.”

On cue, the rain begins to fall.

Equally vivid are exchanges between Comey and his wife, Patrice, she of a keener sense of peril. As he moved toward announcing the FBI’s determination surrounding Clinton’s emails, in late June 2016, she presciently warned: “This is going to be bad for you.”

According to Schmidt, Patrice Comey also pleaded, “You’re going to get shot … you’re going to get slammed.” Months later, her husband would tell the Senate judiciary committee it made him “mildly nauseous to think we might have had some impact on the election”.

The book also clears up the mystery of what happened to the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation, which if concluded would likely have examined Trump’s broader ties with Moscow. One day it was there, the next day it had vanished.

Specifically, the special counsel’s report addressed conspiracy and obstruction of justice but did not discuss related counterintelligence issues. Schmidt reveals that we can blame that on Rod Rosenstein, then deputy attorney general.

According to Schmidt, in the hand-off of the FBI investigation to Mueller, in the aftermath of the firing of Comey, Rosenstein deliberately narrowed the special counsel’s remit. The deputy attorney general directed Mueller to concentrate on criminality. Whether Trump was a Russian agent was not on the special counsel’s plate.

According to Schmidt, Rosenstein “had foreclosed any deeper inquiry before investigation even began”. This is the same Rosenstein who in spring 2017 suggested he secretly record the president, and that the cabinet consider removing him from office.

“The president had bent Washington to his will,” Schmidt writes.

The question now is whether the electorate follows. America goes to the polls in little more than nine weeks.


Lloyd Green

The GuardianTramp

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