Published On: Thu, Dec 7th, 2017

Was Donald Trump’s campaign too chaotic to pull off a conspiracy?

AMID the spicy anecdotes, superficial insights, sycophancy, score-settling and casual loutishness displayed in a new memoir of Donald Trump’s election campaign, “Let Trump be Trump”, by Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, the two essential characteristics of Trumpland shine through. One is a permanent state of confusion, and sometimes chaos, attending a campaign that initially did no opinion polling, had no detailed policies, set its communications strategy by whatever crazy thing Mr Trump had just made up, was mainly staffed by people who “wouldn’t know the difference between a caucus and a cactus”, and whose top logistical priority was co-ordinating the tycoon’s post-rally return to his plane with the arrival of a warm Big Mac. It fell to Mr Lewandowski, as campaign manager, to perform that task, which he considers “as important as any other aspect of [Mr Trump’s] march to the presidency”. He had it lucky. The campaign’s press secretary, Hope Hicks, who is now the White House communications director, was charged with steaming Mr Trump’s trousers, while he was wearing them.

The other central ingredient of Trump world is chutzpah on an epic scale. A lifetime of cutting corners, a businessman’s contempt for the political realm and an insight that voters would welcome his boorishness as straight-shooting, encouraged Mr Trump to transgress every democratic norm he encountered. His policy pronouncements were nonsense and he lied all the time. His advisers were complicit in this, either because they were enraptured greenhorns like Mr Lewandowski: “Only Donald Trump could get away with what he got away with,” he coos. Or because they were Mr Trump’s children (one of whom had Mr Lewandowski frogmarched out of Trump Tower, after concluding he was no good) and doubly compromised, by a sense of entitlement and filial deference to Mr Trump.

For players of Washington’s favourite parlour game—predicting where Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between Mr Trump’s campaign team and Russia might end up—this combination of rule-breaking and chaos looks apposite. Mr Mueller is giving nothing away. Yet even before he revealed details of a plea deal with Mike Flynn, Mr Trump’s first national-security adviser, he seemed to have something on the president.

Mr Trump has lambasted the investigation as a “witch-hunt”, hinted that he might shut it down, asked Republican leaders to quash three related congressional probes and helped draft an erroneous explanation of a meeting that his son, son-in-law and other senior advisers held with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer who is alleged to have offered them dirt on Hillary Clinton. Those are not the actions of a blameless man. Nor, especially in the light of Mr Flynn’s plea deal, was Mr Trump’s attempt to warn James Comey, his then FBI director, off pursuing Mr Flynn over some surreptitious conversations with a Russian diplomat—and his decision to sack him when he demurred.

At the same time, the chaos in Mr Trump’s team suggests that it might have been incapable of the organised collusion with Russian spies many Democrats are willing Mr Mueller to uncover. At the least, it seems the feuding, amateurish Trump team would have struggled to keep such a plot under wraps. And the curious terms of Mr Flynn’s plea deal may also point to that conclusion. The disgraced former military intelligence officer has been accused of a lot of shady activity since his sacking—including unregistered lobbying activity for the Turkish government, a kidnapping plot, a plan to flog nuclear power technology around the Middle East, as well as lying to the FBI. As Mr Trump’s main foreign-policy adviser during the campaign, with pro-Russia views, he might additionally be expected to have known about whatever collusion was afoot. Yet his plea deal mentions only the lies.

That would normally imply Mr Mueller had not been able to stand up any of the other charges: prosecutors tend to cram everything they have into such deals, to show the strength of their leverage and intimidate other targets. As this does not seem to square with Mr Flynn’s spicy record, or the fact that he is said to be deeply demoralised and almost bankrupted by legal bills, many have assumed Mr Mueller has additional aces up his sleeve, which he is concealing to keep Mr Trump and his advisers guessing. Maybe he has. But there is no obvious prosecutorial precedent for this. Without knowing what wrongdoing Mr Flynn has confessed to, it is meanwhile impossible to surmise how much Russia-related trouble Mr Trump is in.

Obstructionschmuction

There are perhaps three ways this could play out. Mr Mueller could end up exonerating the president. He could accuse him of—or conceivably, though legal experts consider it unlikely, charge him with—colluding with Russian spies. Or he could provide evidence to suggest he was guilty of the arguably lesser, or at least more explicable in a blundering political amateur, offence of obstructing justice by leaning on and sacking Mr Comey in a bid to cover up the sordid, but not treasonous, sorts of collusion between his advisers and Russians that have already come to light. Based on what is now known, the third scenario seems most likely. It is also in a sense the most troubling.

That is because there is both a clear historical precedent for ousting a president on the basis of obstruction, the charge that did for Nixon, and at the same time little prospect of a repeat performance. Mr Trump will not step aside as Richard Nixon did. Congress, though it may impeach him, looks too divided to remove him. The Republican Party, rallying behind a man campaigning for the Senate in Alabama who is accused of molesting teenage girls, looks too morally compromised and afraid for its future to turn on him. The result would be yet another Trump-sized exception for behaviour Americans used to consider unconscionable. This is what it means to let Trump be Trump.

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Was Donald Trump’s campaign too chaotic to pull off a conspiracy?