Could a murdered student be Trump’s salvation (if Melania stays silent)?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (26th August, 2018)

In the spring of 1973 a smart lawyer advising Richard Nixon decided to co-operate with prosecutors as the cover-up over a mysterious break-in at Democrat Party headquarters started to unravel. 

John Dean’s move – made to protect himself from jail – was devastating since he helped sort covert payments to the burglars and co-ordinate lies to investigators. It led, ultimately, to the resignation of a crooked president facing impeachment.

This weekend many citizens in the United States are wondering if another turncoat lawyer seeking to shield himself from a long stretch behind bars might lead to a another shifty president being forced from office. 

For Donald Trump is firmly in the firing line, feeling intense heat as the net closes on illegal campaign payments and links to election hacking by Russia. No wonder he tweeted Dean was a ‘RAT’ for exposing the Watergate scandal.

Yet while a former porn star threatens to bring down a dismal president over their dalliance, two very different women are key to his survival.

Even for Trump it was extraordinary week that set Washington alight. First came the fraud conviction of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort for hiding mountains of cash from Russian-linked oligarchs. 

Moments later came news that his lawyer Michael Cohen had confessed to making hush payments to two women which he claims was on Trump’s orders during the 2016 election battle. So four members of his campaign team and his private fixer are now felons.

Then it trickled out that two more close allies – his own firm’s finance chief and the boss of supermarket tabloids that bought stories to bury them – had been given immunity in return for aiding the inquiry into campaign violations.

Meanwhile special prosecutor Robert Mueller continues his inquiry into whether Trump’s team, including his son, colluded with Russian interference in the election.

It seems fitting for this shameless president that at the core of his political tsunami is a one-time stripper known as Stormy Daniels, who says they had a relationship while Trump’s third wife Melania nursed their newborn son.

As so often in political scandals, it was the cover-up that turbocharged his problems. Voters knew Trump was a philanderer while his appalling attitude to women had been caught on tape. He is a serial liar. Now he is personally implicated in illegality. So the first question is if he faces prosecution while in the White House – and consensus in Washington seems not.

Daniel Petalas, former head of enforcement at the Federal Election Commission, told me the president is in ‘a peculiar position’ when facing criminal investigation. ‘It is not clear if he can be made subject to a prosecution.’ This issue is constitutionally ill-defined but justice department legal advisers have in the past said it would not be appropriate to pursue a serving president.

So might Trump instead be the first US president impeached? The answer lies in the hands of the electorate – and their verdict hinges on those two other women.

The first is a 20-year-old Iowa student named Mollie Tibbetts who went out jogging on July 18 and never returned. Last week her body was found after the arrest of a farm worker who appears to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico.

The beleaguered president jumped on the revelation. Trump has built his unlikely political career by exploiting fears of immigration with all that talk of a wall and bile against Mexicans.

He knows this issue impacts on Middle American voters who care more about crime on their own streets then corruption in distant Washington – and typically ignores evidence indicating migrants commit less crime than natives.

‘Many people here consider all people in politics are sleazy anyway,’ said Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University. ‘This case is like an electric shock to the issue of immigration.’

The tragedy gives the Republicans, unnerved by Trump’s behaviour, a cause to rally around ahead of crucial mid-term elections in three months time – and the results will determine if the 45th president survives or goes down in flames.

Currently his party controls both houses of Congress so can thwart impeachment moves from Democrats – especially if the economy stays strong, the jobs market keeps booming and the bull market in stocks carries on running.

‘There are very few Republicans with any love for Trump,’ said one party insider. ‘At the moment they are more scared of his supporters than his voters. But if they get a shellacking from voters or the economy turns, that balance of fear tilts against him.’

Yet the Democrats still seem dazed by defeat at hands of a man they despise and divided over how to respond. They only need two more seats from 35 up for grabs to control the Senate – but are defending 10 of them in states won by Trump. 

Observers think it more likely that they seize back the House of Representatives if they can fire up enough Trump haters to vote. 

The other woman who could determine Trump’s future is his wife Melania, silently enduring the humiliation of her husband’s infidelity playing out in daily discussion.

She is a Sphinx-like figure, leaving analysts to wonder if she is trolling Trump when she condemns ‘harmful’ abuse of social media and announces she will take a trip to Africa to ‘learn about its rich culture’ after her husband’s talk of ‘shithole’ countries.

She stated her admiration for the charity work of sports star LeBron James the day after Trump posted a scathing tweet on his intellect. She watched his hated CNN on Air Force One.

‘If she would just turn these fitful baby steps into full-length strides, she might finally undo him and set us free,’ wrote one prominent commentator praising her ‘psyops’ last week.

Already this brazen president has floated a pardon for Manafort, there are fears he may fire Mueller and he savages his own attorney general who was forced to warn that justice should not be ‘improperly influenced by political considerations.’

Some worry what happens if this disruptive president confronts impeachment given his combative approach, ability to inflame fans and readiness to defy norms. 

‘He is a menace to the Republic with no respect for the constitutional order,’ said Elliot Cohen, a political scientist who served under George Bush. ‘I would not put it past him to do things that provoke violence.’

Strong words even in these strange times as one woman threatens to bring down Trump, the shocking murder of another might help salvage him and his wronged wife knows she possesses the power to save – or sabotage – his presidency.

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