The testimony of former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday, June 8 before the Senate Intelligence Committee was overwhelming for President Trump. He could not have expected the pressure of the “Russia affair” to have eased up. And he certainly did not imagine the horizon of his presidency would be so obscured. Yet, this spectacular episode in the Trump saga was marginal compared to other potentially more significant events for the U.S. and for the world that played out that same day.
Russia deployed a sophisticated interference strategy in the 2016 elections. There is no indication Trump’s team was complicit in it, nor that the strategy resulted in voter fraud. Those were the only two elements of Comey’s testimony that could reassure Trump and his supporters. The rest of his testimony was overwhelming. Beyond depicting a lying president with amazingly disturbing behavior, it provided supporters of impeachment with ammunition.
The Trump Smoke Screen
There are two possible incidences of obstruction of justice: the request to abandon the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, formulated by Trump on Feb. 14, 2017, and Comey’s May 9, 2017, dismissal, which was motivated, according to Trump’s own words, by Trump’s dissatisfaction with the FBI-led investigation into Russia’s role in the election and the Trump team’s links to it.
The Nixon and Clinton affairs demonstrated that obstruction of justice falls within the category of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which are mentioned but not defined in the Constitution, and which could open the door to impeachment proceedings. Nevertheless, the current situation is different from those in 1974 and 1998. In both of those cases, Presidents Nixon and Clinton were dealing with a House of Representatives – which has the authority to begin impeachment proceedings – controlled by the opposition. Currently, Trump’s Republican allies comprise the House majority.
House Republicans do not have — at the moment—any incentive or interest in getting rid of this president. Despite record unpopularity, Trump still enjoys solid support from Republican voters (despite emerging signs of erosion from his electoral base, particularly among white, uneducated men). This support is essential in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. More fundamentally, however, the obsession with Trump and the “Russia affair” creates a smoke screen, which allows Republicans to advance their legislative agenda without the media or the public catching on.
The smoke screen was particularly at work on June 8. While all eyes were on Comey’s testimony, the House passed a bill, the Financial CHOICE Act, with the objective of easing regulatory constraints imposed on banks and insurance companies in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Supported by Trump, the bill should be strongly contested in the Senate. It does, however, reflect Republican determination to remove the safeguards erected to protect the most disadvantaged Americans. In addition to the dismantling of former President Barack Obama’s health care law, the budget bill that guts social programs and the tax code reforms that favor the wealthy, this legislation should set off some alarms, and not just in the United States. But it hasn’t.
The Risk of Conflict with Iran
The 2008 crisis demonstrated the devastating impact of the deregulation of the U.S. financial sector on the global economy. There is another area with potentially serious international repercussions, which also passed below the media radar this week: In Syria, for the third time in as many weeks, U.S. air forces struck a convoy of Iran-backed Shiite militants who were too close to a U.S. military base in the southeastern part of the country.
Although the noose is tightening on the Islamic State, intermingling among the different parties engaged in Syria – as in Iraq – is growing. However, Trump has resolutely taken Riyadh’s side in the fight for regional hegemony against Tehran. The proliferation of clashes between American forces and groups supported by Iran could degenerate into a more serious conflict for the U.S., as well as for its allies and the entire Middle East.
Trump provides amusing entertainment. His personal fate is, however, just a diversion, and one we would be better to look past.