WASHINGTON, D.C.—The eyes of the United States and much of the world turned to a committee room on Capitol Hill this week as public impeachment hearings about President Donald Trump’s conduct began, but it wasn’t the only presidential news event where testimony, evidence, and cross-examination were key features. Indeed, it seems that the story of Trump’s presidency has recently entered a legal proceedings phase, where news comes fast and furious from courtrooms and witness stands.
Also this week: Trump adviser Roger Stone was convicted in a criminal trial for his part in the Russian activities that were the subject of the Mueller Report; a federal appeals court ordered Trump to turn over his tax returns and he announced an appeal to the Supreme Court; the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a Trump immigration policy; and we heard news about court applications concerning impeachment testimony submitted by former National Security Agency adviser John Bolton and potential ones by current Trump acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The trial of former national security adviser Michael Flynn is moving towards sentencing next month.
“I do think there’s a lot kind of coming to a head now,” says Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings think tank in Washington, D.C. and senior editor of Lawfare, a publication of expert analysis of national security that closely tracks such legal matters. “You’re seeing these processes that have been in play for a very, very long time, where these months- or years-long debates that have been taking place finally kind of coming to fruition and approaching an end.”
Anderson says that the slew of legal blotter items on the White House news agenda is partly a function of the seasonal cycle of the American legal system, where action tends to come in the spring and fall, but the timing of many of these items is also tied to political considerations.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the drive for many of these is to, you know, try and find a way to bring them to a close in advance of the 2020 elections, probably substantially in advance of the 2020 elections. Because I don’t think that most of the political actors that are involved in these decisions want to see them drag on so long that you are going to see them interfere with that election or create a lot of unpredictability.”
But that’s not to say there’s anything business-as-usual about the volume of these type of proceedings. “I think it is really, really exceptionally unusual. For two different reasons,” Anderson says. “It says something both about Trump as a person and the Trump White House.”
His long and controversial record as a businessman before coming to office is as unique among recent presidents as his refusal to share any details of his personal financial details through his tax returns, Anderson says. And the White House has recently pursued “very aggressive legal strategies” asserting privilege and immunity from prosecution. “There’s a willingness to really play brinksmanship with the law and with legal privileges,” Anderson says.
In his career in business, Trump developed a reputation for similar brinksmanship, defaulting on payments to contractors, for instance, and forcing them to sue him before often settling to avoid the cost and hassle of lawsuits. Anderson says he sees a parallel in the approach of Trump’s White House, “100 per cent.”
“I don’t know how much of that is the president himself versus the lawyers he surrounds himself with. Although, you know, the president appears to be personally directing a big part of his defence in the impeachment inquiry and a range of other issues.” The potential ultimate difference is the end-point that brinksmanship threatens to bring about. “The real question becomes, you know, what happens if the Trump administration gets adverse rulings against it,” Anderson says.
So far, the Trump administration has complied with adverse rulings from courts, he says, but if they decided to push their strategy by refusing to do so, “that would be a pretty momentous moment. I think that’s when the point where you start getting towards something that you could call a constitutional crisis. Because, of course, you have a system where the president is primarily in charge of taking care that the law is faithfully executed. And when the Supreme Court said something is the law and the executive branch doesn’t play along with it. That’s a big problem.”
But that is, of course a hypothetical possibility, and not an imminent one. “That’s still a ways down the road at this point,” Anderson says.
In the meantime, there’s a caution to those following all the news items and seeing the various narrative threads converging towards a conclusion of some sorts as if they were the plot lines of a television series wrapping up at the end of a season.
“Not many of these things are likely to have what is clearly a big, revelatory moment. We could be wrong, like something could tip a certain way. But you know — impeachment, it seems like the most likely outcome is you’ll see articles of impeachment adopted by the House. There will be a trial in the Senate, but they will not have the numbers to remove the president from office, so it’ll be kind of fizzle,” he says. There will be implications of that during the election and beyond but no gavel-banging cathartic climax. “That’ll be kind of a political question, but it’s not going to have a clear, decisive moment.”
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