The day President Donald Trump moved into the White House he declared a war against the mainstream media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC. What prompted Trump to take a hostile position against the media is still unclear. During the campaign trail many media outlets provided disproportionately larger coverage to Trump because many of his pronouncements were taken as entertainments. By the time it became obvious that undue coverage had caused a disservice to the election process and, to an extent, adversely impacted public opinion, the media could neither retreat nor reverse the process. Trump had already been transformed from a comedian to a potential presidential candidate by default.
On the second day in office, Trump visited the CIA Headquarters. He spoke for about 15 minutes but no more than three minutes were devoted to the CIA and the rest of the speech dealt about the crowd assembled in front of the Capitol Hill to watch the inauguration. Trump claimed that the crowd was much larger than the one assembled at Obama's inauguration eight years ago. He dismissed the image the media had displayed and pointing at the journalists assembled to cover the event, denounced them as the "most dishonest people". At his instruction, the staff at the White House challenged the size of the crowd and circulated photographs that only vindicated what the media had reported - large areas in the Pennsylvania Avenue were found empty. But Trump was unconvinced. His staff provided "alternative facts" which were neither factual nor credible. A few days later, while addressing a rally, Trump characterised the media as the "enemy of the people".
The second phase of the episode began with the formation of the cabinet. General Michael Flynn, a retiree from the Army with no record of outstanding performance, was chosen as the Security Advisor. The selection did not require Congressional approval and Trump had no difficulty in rewarding a person who actively participated in his campaign. But Flynn began flexing his muscle too soon; issued warning to Tehran for its missile programme and discreetly initiated contact with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Washington. His contact with Kislyak began even during the campaign period. Flynn was cultivated by the Russians in order to be able to exert influence on the Trump administration. Flynn denied having contact with the Russians but as irrefutable evidences began to emerge he had to step down after two weeks in office. Trump praised Flynn's services and said he did nothing wrong.
Russia has been an adversary of the United States for the past seventy years. Successive administrations have dealt with Moscow with caution. They were nonetheless able to negotiate on limiting the arms race, reducing nuclear armaments capable of targeting each other, forging coalition on denuclearising Iran and restraining North Korea on its belligerence. But United States, along with its European allies, opposed Moscow's annexation of Crimean peninsula and responded by imposing economic sanction against Russia. Washington and its European allies don't see eye to eye with Moscow on Syrian conflict and lent military support to Assad's adversaries in Syrian civil war. Under this historical backdrop, it is deemed unsettling to establish clandestine link with the senior Russian officials. Flynn reportedly discussed how to soften the impact of sanction and revert to "business as usual".
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Special Advisor Jared Kushner, Campaign Manager Carter Page have reportedly had contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and continued during the transition period. Moscow preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the White House due to former's lack of experience in governance and dealing with international crisis. Russian officials believed Trump would be preferable to Hillary to pave the way for Russia-American reconciliation at Moscow's terms. In October 2016, the emails of the Democratic National Committee were hacked and Trump congratulated Russia's successful cyber attacks. As Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election became obvious President Obama acted during his last days in office. With the concurrence of the intelligence agencies, he slammed wide-ranging sanction against Russia and expelled a large number of Russian officials from the United States. Trump, on the other hand, thanked Moscow for its restraint on retaliation against US diplomats in Russia. On several occasions Trump lavishly praised President Putin and placed him above the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's Moscow visit in early April and his discussions with Putin signalled that US-Russia relation can stabilise only at Moscow's terms. Putin reiterated his strategic plan on Syria and Ukraine and asked the United States to stay away from both hotspots.
In March, the then FBI Director James Comey confirmed the existence of an investigation on Russian interference in 2016 presidential election. During his courtesy-call with the president, Trump reportedly asked Comey to shut down the investigation against Flynn and secured an assurance that Trump would not be subjected to any investigation. Comey was dismissed on May 09 and Trump told the visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergio Lavrov, "I just fired head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off." He also told the Russians, "I am not under investigation." In the same meeting Trump admittedly shared classified information on "Syria and ISIS" with the Russian diplomats raising concern in the Intelligence community.
The termination of FBI Director, the alleged sharing of classified information with Russian officials and collusion of Trump's campaign team with Russian high command have unsettled the administration and the Capitol Hill to such a degree that hardly any administrative or legislative function has been carried out since Trump came to office. The much-maligned Obama Care was abrogated but it took months to formulate an alternative health plan which was narrowly passed in the House of Representatives by 237 votes in favour and 233 against - 20 Republican members voted against.
Under these unsettled circumstances, the Department of Justice appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as Special Counsel to lead the investigation into "Russian meddling". Although the case began in July the appointment of Special Counsel now has added a new dimension, especially with the recent disclosure that Trump had allegedly asked the heads of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency to publicly deny that there was any collusion between Trump's surrogates and the Russians. The purview of the investigation has enlarged many folds. It would "include everything and may not exclude anything". Mueller is bringing in a new team to oversee the investigation. It would determine whether Trump associates coordinated with Russian operatives to meddle in the presidential election and whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the president. Now that references have been made alleging the president had sought exemption from investigation, put pressure on the security officials to make denial of alleged collusion and the President himself shared "classified information" to Russian diplomats, the Special Counsel could very well bring President Trump under the scope of investigation.
In the event the Special Counsel becomes reasonably satisfied that Trump's associates were involved in collusion with an adversary, criminal proceedings would be recommended against them. With regard to President Trump, if the Special Counsel arrives at the conclusion that he had attempted obstruction of justice or acted in a way deemed prejudicial to the interest of the state, the President would face impeachment - a Congressional process that would warrant two-thirds members of both houses of Congress voting in favour of his removal from office.
The investigation will take months to evaluate evidences, interrogate the suspects and arrive at the conclusion. It is doubtful whether the President, during this period, can focus on doing what he promised to the electorate to do, i.e., giving employment to the unemployed, extending health insurance to uninsured and making America great again. What is fraught with great anxiety is whether the President would take an unscrupulous action to divert people's attention. Richard Nixon, prior to his resignation, became emotional and began drinking heavily. His senior staff got worried whether he would take a reckless decision. The White House sent a confidential memo to the Pentagon asking the military to ignore any order coming from President Nixon unless vetted by the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This was unconstitutional but was called for to avert any possible catastrophe.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and characterised the appointment of a Special Counsel a "witch-hunt". But the White House has reportedly formed a team of lawyers to counsel the beleaguered President should impeachment become a reality.
The writer is a former official of the United Nations.
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