On 30 September, four days after a Congressional hearing related to the Ukraine scandal that has engulfed the White House, President Donald Trump suggested on Twitter the arrest of Representative Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and one of Trump’s main political adversaries. In later tweets, the President restrained himself, calling instead (repeatedly) for Schiff’s resignation.
In the age of Trump it takes a while for it to sink in that the President of the United States of America publicly called for the arrest of a political opponent. After letting that sink in, our questions may begin to arise, the first of which probably contains an expletive, the second of which is likely along the lines of ‘why?’ and ‘can he be serious?’. This is worth exploring.
The reason Donald Trump wanted Schiff arrested was rather straightforward. In his own, typically eloquent, words: “Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people.”
In fairness to the President, Rep. Schiff’s opening statement during the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire did not reflect well on the President. And, what Schiff read out was not a verbatim transcript of the call. But he made clear it was never intended to be. “Shorn of its rambling character and in not so many words, this is the essence of whatbthe President communicates”, Schiff begins, before relating his take on the President’s call. It arguably made him look no worse that the summary released by his own White House.
Perhaps one can question the Congressman’s decision … was his disclaimer emphatic enough? Should he have ‘made up’ statements by the President during the call? But really, how else — in the absence of an official verbatim account — should the President’s actions be presented?
Irrespective of this, the key question here is why Trump reacted so wildly. The jailing of political opponents is regrettably not without precedent in the world – Alexei Navalny, the leader of the opposition in Russia has been jailed multiple times, most notably for 30 days (and then another 20) in September 2018. Whilst Trump has repeatedly denounced other investigations and attacked opponents and the media, accusing someone of treason and suggesting they be arrested is new, even if unsurprising.
Since the beginning of Trump’s Presidency, many critics have pointed to Trump’s cordial relationships with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and his alignment with or respect for authoritarian regimes as a sign that he desires to rule over the US as a dictator. They point to his attacks against the press, his disregard of facts and dislike of any criticism as signs of authoritarian tendencies, and argue he would like nothing more than to impose his will on the citizens of the US without interference from others who disagree with him.
This can be dangerous. It is more likely that Trump’s main goal is re-election (winning, in Trump-terms) than getting rid of elections entirely.
The Trump tactic so far seems to have been one of ‘in-reach’ rather than outreach — that is, ensuring that his ‘base’ (which Trump likens to Nixon’s ‘silent majority’) turns out as strongly as they did in 2016. As any war-time President will know, there is nothing like a common enemy to unite a country (or in this case, half a country). But who is Trump, famously a bone-spur pacifist, warring against? The other half.
Trump presents himself as a victim of the Washington elite, the career politicians and the swamp-men who only serve the rich and powerful in the United States. He presents himself as against those who don’t care for the ordinary man, and against those who will do everything in their power to get rid of him — as a president of, for and by the people. Trump hopes his enraged supporters will come out in even greater numbers in 2020. By picking out statements such as Schiff’s, the President is advancing this narrative.
As he is undoubtedly aware, the (profuse) reactions from his critics, and the voices of those who compare Donald to Vladimir or even Kim serve only to strengthen his base’s support and Trump’s well established rhetoric. These are voters who understand comments such as ‘Arrest for Treason?’ as encouraging bait, designed to elicit outrage. They view critical reactions as exaggerated or conspiratorial, designed to hand the Democrats a victory in 2020. Is this not precisely what Trump wants? To depict his opponents as willing to do anything to win? Sound familiar?
Image: Michael Vadon