This has been one eventful week already – and it is barely half over at the time this article was being written.
In the US, after days of increasingly appalling – let’s say it right out loud, here, frankly racist – rhetoric by the president about those four freshman Democratic congresswomen who dare criticise him, his rhetoric has evolved into an attempt to make them the hard-case, hard-line, left-wing, anti-Semitic, anti-American face of that party for the 2020 election. The acrid taste of that is now becoming commingled with the odours of what has been emanating from the congressional hearing starring former special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the final step in picking the newest prime minister came to an end as Boris Johnson became the successor to the luckless Theresa May. Johnson – or BoJo as he is often called – was able to trounce his last remaining opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, when the two men’s names were put to a vote by the 160,000 paid-up, dues-paying members of their Conservative Party. (The other 50 million or so people got to watch.) Earlier elimination rounds had winnowed out all the other challengers until it was just those two men. (Of course, that roster of wannabes in the UK was nothing like the great, untidy mob of Democrats who want to be president, and who have yet to be thrust out of the inner circle of trust via the early skirmishes of the first televised debates and the furious campaign fundraising in the national casino.)
In London, on Wednesday, Theresa May was done with her final question time and wrap-up remarks and then it was off to pay her respects to Queen Elizabeth before stepping down. Thereafter Johnson paid his own call on that same monarch, a ruler who has been having these meetings with incoming prime ministers since 1952. At that meeting, the queen asked BoJo to form a new government and then, in front of 10 Downing Street, the new prime minister spoke of his hopes for his new government and the new birth of British excellence in a thousand different ways, once the country is freed from its unholy servitude to those monsters in Brussels. Rousing, perhaps, but not up to the universally acknowledged rhetorical standard of his longtime hero, Winston Churchill. The CNN news channel called it “somewhat rambling”, and much longer than the norm.
Some observers have already noted that aside from everything else dogging the new prime minister, there is the possibility Johnson’s fragile coalition government may not even last all that long. It now has just a slender majority, but only by virtue of its partnership with the Northern Irish DUP party, the Rev Ian Paisley’s old crew. Moreover, the Tories may even lose a few seats from within their current ranks in upcoming by-elections. Should that happen, a Johnson government could conceivably be vulnerable to a no-confidence vote, and thus be forced into an early election, one in which the Tories might well lose – to someone, or even no one.
Given the current relative unpopularity of both the Tories and Labour among voters, according to current polling, and given the surprising strength of both the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party in those polls, a future election could even generate some truly astonishing chaos – post-election as the scuffling starts over who would form a new government. Part of the deeper challenge of British politics now is that the positions on Brexit have not lined up along party lines, thereby weakening both the Tories and Labour.
Meanwhile, as all this was taking place, back in Washington, Robert Mueller was getting ready for his morning testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees over the contents of his report on Russian electoral interference and any coordination by the Trump campaign with institutions of that country (and what may have been left out of the report).
Writing in advance of the moment, Wednesday’s Politico Playbook noted, “THERE IS NO WAY [all caps in the original] to adequately encapsulate the gravity of today’s pair of hearings with ROBERT MUELLER. They’re absolutely huge politically, substantively and optically. In a presidency filled with ‘moments,’ this is one that could surpass them all… OR NOT. If we know anything about Robert Mueller III, it’s that he has stuck to the book for most of his career, and all indications point to the fact that he intends to do so again. After all, DOJ, has instructed him to stick to the proverbial ‘four corners’ of his report.
“THE REACTION to the former special counsel’s testimony will be divided sharply along party lines. That’s the nature of politics in 2019, and it’s especially true of big moments like this. AND THE REALITY IS, the hearing will likely enforce and bolster every member of Congress’ gut instinct: If you favour impeachment but haven’t yet said so, this gives you the opportunity to come out. If you think impeachment is wrongheaded, today will probably allow you to stay against it.”
And independent political analyst Mark Halperin offered his pre-testimony takeaways in his early morning blog (the one aimed at bringing him back into national relevance after career-derailing sexual harassment charges), writing, “Democrats who think diners, barbershops, and WeWorks are going to come to a hushed halt, a searching nation’s lonely eyes glued to a lawyer reciting prose in a monotone, are not in Donald Trump’s class as TV producers.
“Russian interference, potential obstruction of justice by the man who currently sits in the Oval Office, and the dangerous precedent of the FBI nosing around a presidential campaign during an election are all things about which both parties and the media should be extremely concerned. It is sadly too late for either political party to honour the oath to the constitution all its members have taken and care about all three topics. It is not too late for the media. Unless, of course, they [congressmen and senators] are planning to base their position[s] on whether public opinion changes. Don’t hold your breath for that to happen.
“[Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi has listened to countless hours of pro-impeachment Democrats make their case. She has heard a lot of passion and smart rationales. She also believes that there is next to zero chance impeachment makes it more likely that Donald Trump loses re-election. Quite the opposite. And after Paul, the kids, the grandkids, her faith, and (again with the) chocolate ice cream, nothing matters to her as much as electing a Democratic president next year.
“Pity the House members of both parties who don’t go into the hearing accepting this fact [nothing will make Mueller say anything he does not wish to say] as the ultimate reality governing the day’s events.”
After watching hours of Mueller’s testimony, the comment by the former special prosecutor that came right at the beginning of the hearing seemed to set the outer limit of what he would say: “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” was a noteworthy statement, in addition to his response when asked whether the president could potentially be indicted after leaving office, to which Mueller responded, “True.” Nevertheless, our verdict of the overall impact of the hearing seems to be that not much has really changed in the way the Mueller report is being understood, and thus how any possible crimes by the Trump campaign will be framed in the public discourse – at least not yet.
Taking the broader perspective, where the two national leaders stand now, separately and in conjunction with each other, is that they are both hamstrung by forces, pressures, and events that are largely beyond their own individual predilections or desires. For Johnson, while finding a clear path to his promised land of a negotiated or just a simple Brexit, pure and alloyed, by 31 October is ostensibly his job one, the most immediate crisis for him must be the two seized cargo ships.
The first is the Iranian-flagged one now off Gibraltar and held by British forces because of charges it was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of economic sanctions. The second ship, British-flagged, is now held by the Iranians near the Strait of Hormuz. Together, these circumstances – and others that could flow from them – may yet make things in that area even more volatile than they are already.
Johnson had said on Tuesday after his victory was announced, “I know that someone has already pointed out that ‘Deliver, Unite, and Defeat’ was not the perfect acronym for an election campaign, since unfortunately, it spells ‘dud.’ But they forgot the final ‘e,’ my friends, ‘e’ for ‘energise’ ”. With that, Britons entered the era of the DUDE acronym, sparking clever headlines like “Hey Dude!” in the nation’s press. But acronyms are not the same as the details of policy, something Johnson will discover soon enough. Actually finding that elusive Brexit deal, forging a new economic relationship with the EU, and beginning real trade agreement negotiations with the US, among other nations, will occupy his attention.
Back in Washington, it is unlikely anything coming out of the Mueller hearings will fundamentally change the policy challenges facing Johnson’s tonsorial rival in the White House. Just for starters, these include his trade imbroglio with China, his stand-off with Iran, his less than stellar success in dealing with North Korea (beyond photo ops), his puzzling and problematic ties with Russia’s leadership, his raw relationship with Nato, his foundering Israel-Palestine initiative, and the unresolved stand-off with Venezuela.
While the two men have been publicly embracing each other as political soul sisters, they (or their governments) actually have some very different views on a range of issues. As Washington Post reporters Anne Gearan and Laura Hughes wrote, despite the initial good chemistry between the two men, “…how long that friendliness lasts probably depends on whether Johnson can deliver on Brexit, and whether Trump can overlook continuing disagreements between London and Washington on key issues, including Iran, Russia, climate change and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The areas of disagreement between the United States and Britain will not change overnight with Johnson’s ascendancy,” said a British official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the two men’s future partnership.
“A Johnson government is not likely to begin aping Trump’s antagonism of Nato, flattery of Russian President Vladimir Putin or rigid opposition to Chinese tech giant Huawei, a builder of 5G infrastructure that the Trump administration is pressuring Britain to swear off.
“It is also not expected to change its backing of the Iran nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of last year. Britain has resisted what it and other European countries see as Trump’s subsequent efforts to kill off the deal altogether.
“…May had also distanced herself from Trump over his recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. On Tuesday, just after Johnson’s victory, the top British diplomat at the United Nations reiterated her government’s commitment to the goal of an independent Palestinian state. Trump’s Middle East peace plan is expected to fall short of that ideal.
“Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative party and chair of Johnson’s leadership campaign, predicted that the two leaders can work out any differences. ‘I believe their relationship will be a strong one,’ he said. ‘Boris, I believe, will be able to have very straight conversations with him as I believe there is mutual respect. Both believe that when the UK and the USA are together the world is a safer place, that’s a vital starting point.’ ”
But personal chemistry can be a tricky, sometime thing. Sometimes opposites can work together well, and sometimes close coordination requires a unanimity of viewpoint and perspective. In the two nations’ World War II alliance, an initial uneasiness between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill gradually became something uniquely close among national alliances, despite Roosevelt’s suspicions of British imperial desires and Churchill’s fears the US was more interested in working with the Soviet Union than with his own nation. And even with their very different backgrounds, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and Tony Blair, and Blair and Bill Clinton had worked well together in what was routinely called the “special relationship”, even if the Blair and Bush team ended up with that very problematic Iraq War II as their legacy.
In fact, by 1946, in the same speech in which Churchill had set out the architecture for the Cold War with his phrase, “the iron curtain”, he had also proposed the idea of “the special relationship”. Buried within that idea was another one from a then-young Harold Macmillan who had argued that given the new power dynamic and balance between the two nations, Britain should position itself to be the new Athens to guide the new Rome that was America, in order to guide the new world power to use its economic and military might effectively and appropriately.
Given BoJo’s natural tendency towards embracing grand visions and speaking to the broad sweep of history and politics in his speeches and writings as a journalist and popular historian, there may be a natural itch on the part of Boris Johnson to attempt to educate, instruct and lead his counterpart in Washington. But considering Donald Trump’s mindset of a reflexive bristling whenever he is told virtually anything by nearly anybody, there may well be both private and public fireworks between the two – especially since both men have that instinctive need to be, as the old saying goes, the baby at every christening, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.
It will be a very interesting team. DM
Moscow, London and Helsinki are the only European capitals amongst belligerents in World War II that were not occupied.