The president’s strategy: Distract American attention away from the inquiry into the relationship between the administration’s advisers and Russia. The investigation continues to expand: The intelligence committee has asked seven people to appear, among them Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen, the president’s personal attorney. Next week, former FBI Director James Comey could say whether the tycoon intervened to block the investigation.
The unexpected: If there is one thing that everyone, friends and enemies included, are ready to concede about Donald Trump, it’s his ability to choose unexpected, unforeseen paths, creating a climate of surprise and suspense around his decisions. That’s how it was during his electoral campaign, when Trump went against his advisors’ advice to tone down and moderate. However, it has been the same during these first few months of his presidency. Trump has often preferred to follow his own instincts, choosing to act outrageously — firing FBI Director James Comey — or throwing himself into unseemly clashes, with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, for example.
With the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, this unpredictability has reached hitherto unseen heights. Trump prepared the way for leaving the agreement with a stream of tweets, which announced his upcoming decision. A series of White House employees released a number of contradictory messages — “We are withdrawing from the accord;” “It has not yet been decided” — which served to muddy the waters. At the last minute, the White House has been transformed into some sort of battlefield, with the president listening to opposing opinions before making a decision, almost like a Renaissance prince. Stephen Bannon and Scott Pruitt, along with the Rust Belt Republicans, were for withdrawing. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and most of the U.S. business world were for remaining.
This time there was something different from before, however. The unpredictability was not the result of an instinctive temperament, incapable of adapting to the measured step of Washington politics but able to “sense” the passions and needs of his electorate without having to look at facts and figures. This time, the “rational side,” that of “constructing” the occasion, had the upper hand. Trump may have wanted to give the impression of making a decision after having swung from one side to the other, after having come into conflict with old and new allies (see Angela Merkel.) In reality, the script for abandoning the Paris accord was referred to minimally: tweets, news leaks, advisors who advised and a world that waits. Never in the history of his presidency has suspense been created in such a calculated and effective way.
What was the script for? Most likely, to portray an image of leadership to the sectors his electorate is most fond of. Denouncing Barack Obama’s environmental policies was one of Trump’s strongest themes in his electoral campaign. On more than one occasion, his economic nationalism and his diplomatic isolationism were expressed by means of promising to withdraw from the Paris agreement. Whether in front of miners in West Virginia or Kentucky, or Pennsylvania’s factory-less workers, Trump imbued the theme “America First” with an undoubtedly aggressive tone in the face of the previous administration’s environmental strategies, accusing that administration of losing American jobs to other economies.
Trump therefore needed to act, to show he was keeping his promise, especially at a time when he has failed to keep other promises, such as moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and when his ability to act in the legislative arena seems seriously compromised — not a single major reform has succeeded in passing Congress. The generally rhetorical, demonstrative and theatrical character of his announcement on the Paris agreements is highlighted by a series of other facts. In all probability, companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Walmart — not to mention major cities such as New York and Los Angeles — will continue their transition to renewable energies. Going back to coal will be nothing but a weak, ineffective method of creating new employment. Today, there are around 50,000 jobs in the coal sector, against 400,000 jobs between the wind and solar energy sectors; no one truly believes that America’s economy of the future will be in mining.
Despite this, Trump needed to speak to his electorate and show he was in charge of the situation. However, there is something else here. The carefully stage-managed announcement, the urgently sought media spotlight, shows that right now, Trump desperately needs attention focused on a series of particular topics—the environment, employment, the United States’ relations with the rest of the world—and for that same attention to overlook other questions. It is not difficult to figure out what those other questions are; they have to do with Russia and the current inquiries into the president’s men.
If current anticipations are confirmed, next week could, in fact, prove very tough for Trump. On May 31, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued seven subpoenas, summons to appear, related to the Russiagate inquiry. Among those summoned are ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn and Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Should they refuse to testify or to hand over the requested documents, they could be accused of being in contempt of Congress. The situation is not great for either of them. Cohen had refused to cooperate without a subpoena — which was then promptly issued. Flynn’s situation is much more worrying; he was forced to resign after being caught lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his ties to Russia. Flynn is also in negotiations with the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the handing over of documents concerning his relations, past and present, with the Kremlin and private Russian subjects. The handover should occur precisely next week. The general had at first refused to hand over the documents and invoked Fifth Amendment protections involving self-incrimination.
Also going ahead is the FBI inquiry into the “back-channel communications” requested by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, during a meeting in December at Trump Tower with the Russian ambassador (Kushner was then still a private citizen). Even here, the White House denies all charges. But things don’t seem so quiescent for Kushner, who has effectively disappeared off media radar in recent days and who some sources claim is ready to leave Washington and return to New York. Kushner, along with Trump, wanted White House Counsel Don McGahn — the man appointed by the president to advise on legal matters — to issue a public statement denying any suspicion over Kushner’s conduct. McGahn refused to do so, leaving it to Kushner’s personal attorney. The formal justification is that intervening in Kushner’s case would have resulted in requests for other interventions of this type in future. McGahn’s colleagues instead point to the judicial uncertainty in which the selfsame Kushner could become entangled.
However, next week the true showstopper could detonate in a Senate chamber. Former FBI Director James Comey, fired by Trump in the middle of the Russiagate inquiries, will come here to testify before the intelligence committee. Senators and Robert Mueller III, the special counsel appointed to investigate the Russia case, are still discussing the legal parameters of the questions and responses with Comey. In all probability, Comey will not talk about the details of the FBI inquiries — the testimony is public and will be shown on TV. What Comey might say, however, is that Trump personally intervened to block the investigation into Flynn.
It would be an explosive accusation: A president using his personal power to intervene in another government body to block an investigation which concerns him personally. This is clearly the worst-case scenario for Donald Trump, which could in fact trigger impeachment, something which frightens the president and his advisors most of all. In light of all this, the chaos and suspense created around the Paris accord takes on a whole new meaning—a diversionary tactic to distract the attention of Americans, and the world, from infinitely more embarrassing matters.