Reservoir Dogs

Donald Trump’s administration has devolved to a Mexican standoff

World | by Gwynne Dyer

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “The Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since the shooting started — Sean Spicer, Michael Short, Reince Priebus — but nobody would call them unscathed. The latest to take a bullet is Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who was appointed only 10 days ago.

Scaramucci, who could be a Quentin Tarantino character himself — he seemed to be channeling Steve Buscemi’s role as Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Pink — topped all the other bizarre events in the White House last week by delivering an obscenity-laced rant that forced the resignation of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

And why has the new chief of staff, General John Kelly, now fired Scaramucci? Maybe for being a potty-mouth, but more likely because Scaramucci was insisting that he reported directly to Trump, not through Kelly.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine — in fact, rather better — if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left (at press time, anyway) are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr. and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans — but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware the changing demography of the U.S. population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would. ❧

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