World

2020 US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

From niece’s tell-all book to Supreme Court tax record ruling, it’s been one hell of a week for Donald Trump

From niece’s tell-all book to Supreme Court tax record ruling, it’s been one hell of a week for Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington on 9 July 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Samuel Corum / Pool)

The Trump presidency continues to stumble along in its dealings with Covid, even if the president — under growing pressure — finally donned a face mask to visit the Walter Reed military hospital, saying he needed to be considerate to military patients ‘just off the operating table’. But there have been numerous other blows to the president this past week, including a horrific look at the Trump family by a niece and two Supreme Court decisions that threw out the claim the president was effectively above the law. Talk about your bad-hair week!

It seems like almost every day new and fresh demonstrations of chaos and catastrophic behaviour is now the essential hallmark of the Trump administration. In the days following those rabble-rousing, populist speeches, first on 3 July at Mt Rushmore and then in Washington the following day, the president decided to commute the sentence of his buddy-in-crime Roger Stone. This came along just before Stone was about to begin to serve his time for having done the crime. Well, actually, crimes. Stone had been found guilty of a slew of crimes, ultimately tied to his being the 2016 Trump campaign’s go-between with Wikileaks.

Despite having missed the hurtling two-and-a-half ton truck coming at him while he was crossing a busy highway, blindfolded, Stone remains (and forever will be), just as Robert Mueller, the former special prosecutor for the Russia election interference investigation, says, a convicted criminal. Finally breaking a taciturn silence, Mueller wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post:

“One of our cases involved Stone, an official on the campaign until mid-2015 and a supporter of the campaign throughout 2016. Stone became a central figure in our investigation for two key reasons: He communicated in 2016 with individuals known to us to be Russian intelligence officers, and he claimed advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ release of emails stolen by those Russian intelligence officers… 

“Congress also investigated and sought information from Stone. A jury later determined he lied repeatedly to members of Congress. He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress. The jury ultimately convicted Stone of obstruction of a congressional investigation, five counts of making false statements to Congress and tampering with a witness. Because his sentence has been commuted, he will not go to prison. But his conviction stands.” 

Still, few Republican senior politicians, save for Senator Pat Toomey and Senator Mitt Romney whom the latter had called it “unprecedented, historic corruption”, have publicly rebuked the president for this decision. One has to wonder what would actually provoke condemnation of the president from that sorry gaggle of Republican politicians.

Meanwhile, the staunch non-Trump-supporting Burkean-style, classic conservative columnist, Max Boot, made the judgment, after learning of Stone’s pardon, that Donald Trump was simply the worst president in history. Even worse than Richard Nixon, James Buchanan, Warren Harding or Herbert Hoover. By a country mile or so. As Boot also wrote in The Washington Post, “But now, with the commutation of Roger Stone’s well-deserved prison sentence and so many other vile acts, he has disgraced the nation’s highest office as no previous occupant has come close to doing.

“Think about all that has happened since April 5. That was before security forces attacked peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square so that Trump could stage a bizarre photo-op. Before he pushed to send the armed forces into the streets. Before he embraced ‘white power’ and called Black Lives Matter ‘a symbol of hate’. Before he vowed to veto the defense authorization bill to prevent the renaming of military bases named after Confederate generals. Before he used the novel coronavirus as an excuse to shut down immigration and threatened to revoke the visas of college students unable to attend classes in the fall. Before he ignored reports that a Russian intelligence unit had placed a bounty on US soldiers in Afghanistan. Before he moved to pull out of the World Health Organisation during the worst pandemic in a century. Before he held rallies that most likely helped to spread the disease. Before he falsely accused MSNBC host and Post columnist Joe Scarborough of murdering a staff member. Before former national security adviser John Bolton revealed that Trump praised China’s prison camps for Uighurs and asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him win reelection.

Most of all, that was before the coronavirus had infected more than 3.1 million Americans and claimed the lives of more than 131,000. The pandemic was already a disaster on April 5, but back then we still had ‘only’ 331,000 cases and 9,400 deaths. On April 5, 1,344 new cases were reported. As many were recorded in 30 minutes on Friday, when daily new coronavirus cases climbed to a record-breaking 63,900. In early April it was still possible to imagine that the virus really would abate by the middle of summer. That this hasn’t happened — that the virus is still raging out of control in America while being brought under control in so many other countries — is directly attributable to the epic failure of leadership by a president who infamously proclaimed ‘I don’t take responsibility at all.’ ”

Since Boot wrote those words, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country without letup. The hoped-for flattened curve is now distinctly unflattened, and is, in fact, sharply rising again, largely because of states — largely Midwestern, Southern, and Western — that reopened parks, beaches, restaurants, stores and the like well before the back of the pandemic has been broken, let alone contained. 

With a death toll that has reached over 134,000 by the end of the weekend, the country now also has a total case number of more than 3,200,000. Or, as Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and the country’s foremost immunologist and a key epidemiologist dealing with Covid-19 has repeatedly explained, the country has not yet even entered into the threatened second wave. Rather, it is still, sadly, in the middle of the first wave of the epidemic.

Public opinion polling shows a very strong majority of Americans now believe the president’s efforts on Covid-19 have been deeply unsatisfactory, and, by a significant majority, the population believes the president’s responses to the current tumult over civil rights and inequality arising out of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are similarly inadequate.

Astoundingly, in spite of the near-national economic collapse from the Covid shutdown, with more than 11% unemployment, many more than 40 million applying for unemployment compensation benefits, and thousands of businesses teetering on the edge of bankruptcy or collapse, per recent polling, the president still receives a positive response from slightly more than half the population for his handling of the economy.

Given those dire economic stats, the polling result on the president’s economic record seems a feat of prestidigitation or anti-gravity skills of amazing proportions. (Yes, the stock market has not collapsed, but that appears to be a function of the tsunami of funds released by the government in recent weeks largely to support flailing businesses and corporations, rather than a reflection of basic underlying economic health.)

Still, national polling also shows that the challenger, former vice president Joe Biden, currently has a lead over the incumbent president in virtually every demographic category save for the elderly, white, high school educated, rural/small-town-living, male, genetically Republican voters. Yes, it is true that national polling majorities can melt away as the actual election date nears; but, historically, incumbent presidents this far behind at this point in the electoral cycle — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush — have lost their bids for re-election. Accordingly, such precedents must surely be keeping campaign strategists awake at nights. 

Now brewing as well is a fracas in waiting over how best to open up educational facilities and schools across the country, once the new school year begins at the end of August. Parents (and students) and teachers are increasingly nervous about what is going to happen when — or if — schools reopen and how physical distancing will take place and infections held down. The president is insisting all schools must open, pretty much come what may, even if this creates a virulent second wave for this virus. It is unclear how presidential petulance that schools must reopen, regardless, is going to help him in the upcoming election, especially if virus transmission starts rising once classes begin. Will his insistence cost him at the polls? 

Of course at the university level, the president’s people are now making it still more complex, announcing to foreign students that their study visas will vanish if the universities they are enrolled in decide to stay with online-only education into the fall semester. For many universities and colleges, this will be a real kick in the solar plexus when all that foreign student tuition money disappears as a result of this decision. While places such as Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton may sort things out, some smaller or less well-endowed universities and colleges may even go bankrupt.

The presumed Democratic presidential candidate, Biden, meanwhile, issued a major economic stimulus and infrastructure rebuilding plan. Moreover, a joint commission between Biden and Bernie Sanders (his key Democratic Party opponent) supporters released a kind of pre-platform, compromise document that both wings of the party have signed off on. This should make moot any bitter platform battle at whatever form the Democratic Party’s nominating convention eventually takes in this, the sui generis Year of Covid

Democrats usually love to have bitter, public platform battles, and so agreement on this document has taken serious diplomatic effort to give the Sandernistas enough to snack on, but without handing over the entire buffet table to them. Still, this roster of projects and positions means Joe Biden is going to be seen as the most progressive Democratic nominee since Franklin Roosevelt. So said Bernie Sanders, himself, on Sunday.

Now back to the president’s own, specific circumstances. There was still more to give him a really bad hair week beyond what has already been noted. This past week, his niece released an acid-laced, kiss-and-tell memoir of the dysfunctional Trump family’s mental state over the years. Mary Trump, the daughter of the president’s deceased brother Fred, is a trained psychologist and she and her brother had a nasty spitball fight over inheritances with the president, back when her father had died from alcohol-related illnesses. As a result, she clearly has reasons to be bitter — but she also has the educated insights and professional skills needed to dissect the state of the president’s mental health, both historically and in the here and now.

Essentially, her argument is that the president’s father raised a son who became fixated on always being able to say he was the best at everything he touched, and that everything he did was perfect. As a result, a persistent, poisonous, narcissistic unreality thoroughly permeates the Trump mindset, affecting everything he says, does or believes. The book was already a best seller before a single copy hit the stores. Accordingly, we can all look forward to Democratic strategists (right along with that growing cadre of nervous anti-Trump Republicans) mining this volume for the right clues to trigger further unhinged tirades by the president, once the presidential campaign really gets going. 

As The Guardian review says:

“Mary Trump’s tell-all will not make her uncle’s re-election bid any easier. The president’s late-night walk of shame is already a classic campaign moment. His niece’s allegation that he paid someone else to take his college entrance exams resonates as true, because of his reported disdain for reading and capacity to inadvertently invent new words like ‘swiffian’.

“Adding insult to injury, Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister, appears to be the key source for this smorgasbord of dysfunction. She is a retired federal judge who left the bench with an ethics cloud over her head. Fittingly, as Mary Trump lacerates multiple sets of vital organs, her pen a stiletto, she thanks her aunt ‘for all of the enlightening information’.

It is score-settling time, Trump-style. Go big or go home. Few are spared.

Too Much and Never Enough doubles as mesmerising beach reading and a memorable opposition research dump, in time for the party conventions. Think John Bolton-quality revelations, but about Trump’s family. It is the book Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, likely wishes he had written but isn’t kin so he couldn’t. It is salacious, venomous and well-sourced.”

But then the Supreme Court got into the act as well to round out the week. In two 7-2 decisions, the court threw out the maximalist defence by the president’s lawyers that he has an absolute right to withhold access to his tax and other financial records from prosecutors in New York City, as well as Congress. While the resulting rulings did not force the president (and the banks and accountants he has used) to disgorge these records forthwith, subject to additional lower court proceedings, the prosecutors do have the right to pursue those records — related to possible proof of financial fraud in the payment of hush money to various Trump mistresses — by pursuing requests for the approval by grand juries of indictments. 

As for Congress, while the court did not order the president to turn over his records to Congress, it did not rule out the possibility that if congressional investigating committees approached lower courts with more tightly drawn requests, specifically related to ongoing investigations, that might be acceptable. These two decisions mean that no one should expect to see the president’s financial life plastered all over the newspapers or displayed on websites next week, but the decisions also clearly mean in future there will be ongoing efforts to gain access to this information. 

Oh, and by the way, the president has also told one of his more interesting fibs, promising years ago to release his tax returns, as has become the standard practice by presidential candidates, just as soon as a current audit was completed. By contrast, Joe Biden has released two decades’ worth of tax returns for this campaign, and, in prior years, the vice-presidential candidates had behaved similarly. 

Immediately after the Supreme Court decisions were announced, a lawyer friend in the US wrote to me, “I suspect that Trump is sensitive about the returns because (a) they show how entangled he is in foreign business, (b) they contradict things he has told banks, (c) they show that he isn’t as wealthy as he claims, or (d) all of the above.” Specifically about the president’s lawyers’ submissions to the court, “Trump was making crazy legal arguments which the Court rejected. So the US is not yet a monarchy. However, it is not likely that the returns will become public before November. The NY grand jury may get copies, but they won’t be leaked.”

As a cautionary note, however, for those hoping the Trump financials would be yet more proof of his true perfidy or serious criminality, my lawyer friend added regarding those audits, “Supposedly the IRS [America’s tax office] has been auditing his returns, but no one has ever said that the IRS has been looking into criminal tax fraud. The returns may contain lead information about other crimes, but I doubt they make a case for tax fraud or have clear evidence of crimes such as money-laundering, because [former special prosecutor Robert] Mueller didn’t seem to pick up anything like that.”

Thus the president has not gained a fatal wound from these two court decisions. Rather, he now has festering ones that will continue to dog him, regardless of whether he is re-elected in less than four months’ time.

Finally, a word or two about the impending election itself. The country is clearly headed into uncharted waters. A growing number of states are trying to set up mechanisms for broad mail-in balloting, even if they have little experience with this at such levels, because of the pandemic. There will be all manner of charges and counter-charges about voter fraud and voter suppression by the end of it.

The media and citizens should steel themselves for the distinct possibility that final counts will not be available by first light on 4 November, but rather, not until days or even weeks after the election. While this may not affect the presidential results, down-ballot for votes with tight congressional, state and local races, there may be lingering uncertainty and thus much room for calls for recounts or even non-ballot adjudication of results. A national tapestry reprising the 2000 Bush-Gore debacle all across the nation in many races may be one ugly result. Bad for democracy, but great for lawyers eager for billable hours. 

Finally, there are some analysts and Democratic strategists — not many, but some — who are worrying about what might happen in a very close presidential race, given the above issues, if, say, Donald Trump loses but refuses to concede the election because of still-contested results.

Given such an outcome, how would the presidency pass from President Trump and on to President-elect Biden; and what would that do to an effective, well-managed transition process? What would that do to the standing of the nation internationally, and to the stability and predictability of American relations with both friends and adversaries? Would such an eventuality encourage foreign antagonists to think this is their moment to gain leverage, advantage, or even strategic success?

Those are the things we need to think about now, even if chances for any of it still remain low. DM

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz