Storms in Texas, clouds over Washington

Published by The ipaper (28th August, 2017)

The rain is still coming down hard here in Houston. And soon the president will be down also, trying to look commanding in response to the devastation across parts of Texas. This is Donald Trump’s first domestic natural disaster since taking office – and he will be well aware how his Republican predecessor George W Bush was badly hurt by cack-handed response to Hurricane Katrina. It is also arguably his first major crisis since inauguration that he has not stirred up himself.

On Friday, as a typical summer storm suddenly blew up into the most ferocious hurricane to hit the United States for 13 years, he made no mistakes in response. Trump met with key aides, declared a federal disaster and said sensible things on Twitter. As the skies dumped torrents of rain on Texas, the White House dumped three huge pieces of news.

First came departure of Sebastian Gorka, a British-born former Breitbart staffer, supposed counter-terrorism expert and close ally of sacked strategist Steve Bannon. He was an absurd figure, with links to the Hungarian far-right, hideous views on Islam and few clear duties beyond ranting on television. Yet his exit has symbolic importance since it shows the efforts of John Kelly, the new chief of staff, to salvage this presidency by purging disruptive ideologues and imposing order amid chaos. Given the boss, this remains a big challenge.

Then as winds raced towards the shoreline, Trump signed a directive banning transgender recruits from the armed forces. This move highlights everything wrong with Trump. It is, of course, grotesquely bigoted. It is also a gross insult to people seeking to serve their nation by a man brought up in great wealth who dodged the Vietnam draft. And this cruel step seems only to have been taken as a tactical feint to divert attention from a trio of crises swirling around the White House last month.

Trump lied when announcing the ban, saying he had consulted military experts and generals when it later emerged he had not even told his own defence secretary. His ‘evidence’ was erroneous, saying the military could not be ‘burdened with the tremendous medical costs’ when it spends ten times as much money on erectile dysfunction drugs and the sums are minuscule compared with other health costs. Finally, it underscores how this self-centred man is utterly untrustworthy, given his pose as an ally of LGBT voters during his presidential campaign.

The third piece of news rushed out as rain began to fall on Texas was a presidential pardon for Joe Arpaio, who once proclaimed himself the toughest sheriff in America. He was fond of stunts such as forcing inmates to wear pink underpants, an ultra-hardliner on immigration and key figure in the nasty ‘birther’ movement challenging Barack Obama’s place of birth. Trump spared him prison after Arpaio was found guilty last month of defying a court order to stop patrols that targeted immigrants suspected of being illegal.

This egregious action sent clear signal to Trump’s base that he remains firm on immigration despite abject failure on the wall front. Yet it also effectively endorses racial profiling at a time when the president is already facing widespread outrage over his ambiguous stance on white supremacists. And it defies the judge in the case, who had not even yet sentenced the former sheriff, thereby undermining the criminal justice system and exposing Trump’s hypocritical stance on law and order.

Yet its significance goes far wider. For there has been speculation Trump is testing the water on presidential pardons before the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his election campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. Meanwhile it widened the splits between leading Republicans and the White House, with House Speaker Paul Ryan saying he disagreed with the dodgy decision. ‘Law enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States,’ he said.

So under cover of storm clouds, three significant steps showing the perniciousness of Trump. A sacking, a signing of a presidential order and a sickening pardon, which taken together show in starkest possible light the corrosive impact this crass man is having on his nation. Yet the big question confronting America is whether this farce can really carry on another three years – or could the curtain come down quicker?

Perhaps Trump and his new White House team will prove they can handle a crisis in wake of Hurricane Harvey. Yet surveys show support rising for impeachment of an unpopular president, not least after his appalling response to Charlottesville’s terror attack. Speculation is also growing over whether Trump could be ousted on grounds of incompetence, although this would need Republicans to wake up from their stupor and stop being so scared of his supporters despite elections next year.

Yet this is risky talk without firm grounds given the wave of popular fury that carried a billionaire posing as an anti-establishment outsider to the White House, especially with his ability to fire up his base. As former Obama adviser David Axelrod says, this could be seen as ‘a bloodless coup’; others warn ominously it could spark civil unrest among groups armed with guns. Certainly only a fool predicts politics in these tempestuous times. Yet it does feel like heavy clouds are gathering over Washington even as floodwaters drench the Lone Star state in this divided country.

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