Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Another week, another self-imposed controversy that is sending the White House into a state of implosion.
A Donald Trump was the root cause of the latest controversy, but not the one you’re thinking of. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, opened up potentially the most damaging and implicating episode in this short presidency’s long association with Russia.
The brief description of the saga is simple: the Trump presidential campaign remains under investigation by Senate committees and a special prosecutor for potential collusion with the Russian government to help defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
This week, Trump Jr publicly admitted meeting with a “Russian government attorney” who claimed to have compromising information on Clinton at the height of the campaign in June 2016. Email conversations in which the meeting was agreed to were entitled “Russia – Clinton – Private and confidential”.
Refresh your memory. Collusion: noun; secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy in order to deceive others.
Callum Borchers’ analysis in the Washington Post of why Trump Jr’s admission matters so much is a must-read. In short, it is because Trump Jr took the meeting with the expectation of receiving information to the benefit of his father’s political campaign and the detriment of his opponent.
That no such information changed hands may be viewed as pivotal by Special Counsel Bob Mueller, whose legal team working on the Russia investigation grows almost by the day. He will certainly be concerned by the list of attendees at the meeting – Trump Jr was joined by Paul Manafort (then Trump campaign chairman) and Jared Kushner (now senior adviser to the President).
The next step for Mueller’s team will be to send out “retain all documents” orders, creating a legal duty not to destroy anything related to the issue under investigation.
By tradition, a prosecutor will not bring charges against a sitting president. Instead, the prosecutor customarily submits his findings and recommendations for whether charges are justified to Congress and Congress takes it from there. For that reason, any talk of impeachment prior to a Democratic majority after the 2018 mid-term elections remains premature.
This latest saga undermines almost everything the White House and its spokespeople has said about interactions with Russians during the campaign. In January Vice President Mike Pence was asked if anybody in the Trump campaign had any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election. His answer: Of course not. Who are we to believe?
The timing was unfortunate for Trump, who was consistently delivering his ‘America First’ message on another trip abroad. The President delivered keynote speeches that at least outlined policy goals with a broad brush. A Gallup poll published after the trip noted a two-point rise in Trump’s approval ratings (though they remain at an historically low 39 per cent).
The response to this from all things Trump – political and family – will be continuing their tirade against “fake news”. Regrettably for those concerned, there is nothing fake about reporting what is proven on the record and eminently newsworthy.
Americans care about jobs, wages and defeating ISIS, they will argue. That is correct. But legal experts and the investigative press now have the bit between their teeth more than ever before, so the public interest and need for reporting on Russian connections is unquestionable.
What does it all mean for the UK? From a political and policy standpoint, very little. At the G20 Trump made better than expected soundings about a US-UK FTA, promising a “very big, very powerful” trade deal. That will have emboldened Liam Fox and those in the UK Government who advocate full exit from the single market and customs union, allowing us to strike deals with third countries.
The optics give less grounds for optimism. London and Washington are determined to plan a state visit in 2018 that will almost certainly bring protestors to the streets, reflecting Trump’s unpopularity. Since the end of the Obama presidency and beginning of Trump’s, views of the United States have fallen 11 per cent in the UK.
Having initiated our exit from the EU, the UK’s influence on the world stage will become more and more aligned with America’s. That has contagious effects when the President is struggling at home and unpopular abroad. In terms of both policy and personality, Theresa May will be increasingly pressed on her proximity to President Trump. They are both leaders with serious problems of their own making.