Tim Stanley: The latest Russia revelation regarding Paul Manafort further highlights the political tightrope that Trump is walking
With Democrats trying to invalidate the 2016 elections, the President must maintain moderate Republican and base support, writes Stanley
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The latest twist in the investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia is that Paul Manafort, former head of the campaign, was wiretapped under secret court orders before and after the election – including while he was working with Trump. The revelation more or less stops there.
We don’t know what investigators found, or if it involved Trump personally. According to CNN, two sources caution that the evidence is thus far “inconclusive.” But Trump still has cause for concern.
This President is walking a political tightrope. He needs to keep both moderate Republications and his base on his side. Otherwise, Democrats could assume the majority in 2018 and unleash the full fury of the left on the White House.
There are two narratives in the Trump presidency that are distinct but inseparable.
First, the fallout from the election campaign. The Democrats are looking for some way to invalidate the result, and it’s undeniable that links existed between individuals on Trump’s team and Russia. Donald Trump Jr. had a meeting with several Russian lawyers, at least one who is alleged to have connections to the Kremlin, and on the premise that political dirt on Hillary Clinton would be provided. Former national security adviser Mike Flynn had to resign from the administration because he failed to disclose contacts with a Russian ambassador.
The other narrative is Trump’s attempt to drag the US government in his own, unique direction. This has often put him at odds with his party. The President could be justified for being furious that earlier this year he spent political capital on reforming health care only for the effort to initially fail in Congress (though it may get a second chance this month).
The congressional GOP leadership might be unhappy with the President’s executive-level efforts on everything from banning transgendered personnel in the military to a selective ban on migration from some Muslim-dominated countries.
And Trump’s attempt to cut a deal with congressional Democrats on immigration complicates matters further. A compromise might actually be what a lot of congressional Republicans favor, but it may anger Trump’s base if it doesn’t include funding for the Mexican border wall – a key election promise that put him in the White House.
While critics say that Hillary Clinton doesn’t understand why she lost the 2016 election, Trump’s supporters – including Ann Coulter – now suspect he doesn’t understand why he won it.
Here’s the thing: if Trump does alienate both moderate Republicans and his base, and fails to get substantial reform through in Congress as a consequence, there’s a chance that the Democrats will do well in the 2018 midterm elections.
If they do, that’ll turn attention more squarely onto the ethics accusations. Why? Because the majority parties (with majority votes) have subpoena powers in the House and Senate – and if the Democrats take control of one of them, they can really start to create havoc.
A serious impeachment effort could be on the cards. This means that Trump cannot allow the 2018 midterms to be all about the alleged rot in his administration, because that would give the Democrats the gift of an electoral victory that hands them a mandate to hound him. Just as the Republicans did to Bill Clinton during his second term, when they impeached him in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
It must be tempting for Trump supporters to bet on the Russia furor just going away. It has yet to produce a smoking gun, and it smacks of an attempt to rewrite electoral history. Some Democrats agree that if they appear obsessed with the Russia story to the exclusion of concrete issues such as health care, they will alienate voters.
But Trump cannot run the risk of ending up in a war of attrition with a hostile Congress, which is why maintaining good relations with congressional Republicans does matter, at the same time as keeping his base on his side. Trump might not be the most ideologically partisan president in history, but it’s partisanship that will ultimately reduce oversight and fend off impeachment.
In other words, the best way for Trump to flourish in office is – unsurprisingly – for the administration to get things done. Happily for Trump, the Republicans may be in the mood for passing a modified health-care plan and cutting taxes.
But what really matters is building that wall.