The Presidential Apprentice has learnt that the best way to survive a scandal that would have fatally damaged any other presidency is to keep scandals happening at such a rate that the news cycle becomes a tumble dryer. Nobody, not the media, not his critics, not his supporters, can stay focused in a tornado.
But now (maybe the political gods do have a sense of karmic comedy), the three things he has built his brand on – abuse of power, money and sex – may be what take him down.
So, the porn story first. In 2006, three months after Melania gave birth to their son, Donald Trump began an affair with a porn star, Stormy Daniels.
In October 2016, just before the presidential election, Trump’s lawyer hurriedly negotiated a non-disclosure deal with her, and personally paid her R 1.5-million to keep her quiet.
It was a botched job with major legal loopholes. Trump did not sign the non-disclosure agreement and so now she is suing him to be able to tell her story. And of all the scandals dogging Trump this could be the one that has him by the testicles. Adultery is a crime in New York state, it is illegal to take payments in kind for elections in California, and the company that paid her was set up illegally in Delaware – so he faces state crimes (which do not carry any chance of presidential pardon).
The media is loving this story, and the triple XXX star has hired an A-rated lawyer who knows how to drag the story out so it does not disappear into all the other dirty laundry in the spin cycle. He is gradually giving extra little peeks, like a tawdry striptease artist who keeps building the action to the hopeful climax. And Trump is now between the bed post and a hard place. He either admits that he benefited from the non-disclosure payment, and faces charges, or he did not benefit, in which case she can tell her story.
This all happened in the same week that the Mueller investigation into the Trump-Russian scandal got another guilty plea and co-operating witness. This time with a shady fixer, Michael Nader, who successfully connected the Russians and Middle East potentates with Trump’s circle, before and after the election.
And in the same week, Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner, who is part of a real estate family who are massively in debt to the tune of billions of dollars, is facing multiple queries about numerous loans and attempted loans which he (possibly) leveraged while (ab)using his White House position.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? For us South Africans, it reads like a week from the Zuma Years. The other similarity between the US and SA is that the Republican Party is standing behind their Loathsome Leader, just as the ANC stood firmly by Zuma while his family and friends captured and corrupted the country and paternity suits popped out of the presidential package.
So, displaying the political and communications instinct that has seen him through multiple bankruptcies, Trump launched two massive international policy changes – off the cuff. The White House did not know about them, the State Department did not know about them, and the Treasury did not know about them.
First, at the end of a photo opportunity, Trump announced he would be adding an import tax on steel and aluminum. Supposedly this would help steelworkers in the US, but in fact it will raise the price of goods for US citizens and launch retaliation taxes from US trade partners – specifically allies Canada and the EU. In other words, he launched a trade war, with his friends.
Second, after systematically hollowing out the State Department (Foreign Affairs for us) and without briefing any of his subordinates, he announced that he would meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
No prior negotiations, no warning, no briefing.
North Korea, who have expanded their nuclear capabilities vastly in the last 20 years, have been looking for “equal” status for decades. And now they have it.
(Well, for this week, because whether or not Trump will follow through is debatable.)
So just by coincidence (?) Trump impulsively launches two huge stories in a week when he is drowning in dirt. But, sadly for him, sex sells. And the image of an obese, balding man chasing a porn star with massive breast implants around a hotel room “in his tighty whites” paints a psychologically scarring image that cannot be erased by boring stories about dictators and trade wars. Especially when the signed agreement suggests that she also has pictures he texted her. (Yes, we may yet see Donald’s Dinky Winky).
In South Africa under Zuma, the press and the courts did their jobs properly, so too now in the US. Even as the presidency and the ruling party use all their power to corrupt, defend and distract – still the truth comes out. And the Special Council led by Robert Mueller is steadily and systematically unravelling the tangled web of lies, cover-ups and incompetence (and possible treason). Every week the evidence mounts, the guilty pleas stack up, and the co-operating witnesses increase. Trump is cornered.
The ANC paid a steep political price (witness the 2016 elections) and South Africa has been economically bleeding for the last seven years, because it took the ANC that long to get their charming chessmaster to checkmate.
So here is a word of advice from the RSA to the USA. Don’t take too long to deal with this. I know you gotta do it by the rule book. But every day your country will be paying a heavy price that you don’t even know about yet, and the Republican Party will find the journey back to its ideals longer and much more difficult than they can ever imagine.
In the meantime, since we at home only have Tom Moyane’s machinations, Myeni and Gigaba bunking question time, and playing the daily hunt-the-missing-Gupta to distract us this week – keep an eye on the porn star. She might change the world. What a truly 21st Century story. Double D Delight, and Donald’s Dirty Money could suck the life out of a presidency. DM