The panhandlers outside the White House hold signs saying: ‘Trump is President — saving to leave the country.’ Those signs will have to be updated if Trump’s enemies are right and the 45th President is driven from office by a scandal called ‘Putingate’. Inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump is said to be in a fury about the allegations that he is Russia’s pawn. Washington is gripped by rumours of a president sitting up in bed at night, a cheeseburger balanced on his stomach, raging at the television news. He does not, like Nixon, wander the halls at night talking to the portraits. Instead, he reaches for his phone to tweet.
Unflattering stories in the US media portray Trump as behaving like, well, Trump. The President is served Diet Coke at lunch while his guests get only water; the President gets two scoops of vanilla ice cream, his guests one. My sources say the President often fails to attend his daily intelligence briefing; when he does, his attention span is disastrously short; he’ll read only documents a page or two long which ‘must have pictures’. Some believe Twitter’s time stamps even show him tweeting during these briefings.
A regular visitor to the White House told me that leaks about the President shouting at his senior staff were true. ‘The White House is not a happy place.’ Television images show Trump getting to the lectern in the West Wing to make an announcement, then forgetting to make it and walking out; or Trump at the Nato summit, shoving the Monte-negrin Prime Minister aside to get to the front of the leaders’ photograph. Trump’s critics paint a picture of the President as rambling, confused, irritable and prone to tantrums: the madness of King Donald.
Some of those critics have an explanation for this: not porphyria — the ‘blue urine’ disease that afflicted George III — but dementia. One of the TV news shows that so infuriates the President, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, devoted a whole segment to this. The host, Joe Scarborough, compared a ‘mumbling and incoherent’ Trump to his aged mother who had dementia — though, he said: ‘We’re not diagnosing anything.’ A well-connected Washington figure — a Democrat — told me that he had learned of a ‘cognitive assessment’ by a friendly nation’s intelligence services that compared video of Trump’s speech now and 20 years ago. There were ‘signs of the rage that comes from that ageing process,’ he said. ‘You do worry about somebody in their seventies under this kind of pressure. It takes a toll. When you get older, your anger and frustration become a bigger phenomenon. It obviously is a concern. Inevitably, it’s going to be part of the conversation.’
Trump might be forgiven for being irritable if his supporters are right and there is a conspiracy of lies and leaks by the intelligence services to show him as a Russian agent. ‘Official Washington hasn’t liked Donald Trump from the day he declared,’ said Bob Tyrrell, publisher of the American Spectator, one of the few in the national media to defend the President. ‘He’s an honest man and he’s going to be discovered to be an honest man. He’ll probably be the most investigated president since Nixon…Donald Trump will transcend his enemies.’
At a lunch with journalists, a senior White House aide scoffed when I asked if Trump or his staff could have compromising links to the Kremlin. ‘If there was anything in the files, it would have come out by now.’ However, what seems to have leaked from the intelligence files, so far, does raise questions. In the worst of the bad news stories for the White House last week, Jared Kushner, presidential son-in-law and advisor, was said to have tried to set up a secret back channel to Moscow through the Russian ambassador. In another story, the Trump campaign was reported to have had ‘18 contacts’ with Russian officials last year, a ‘soft number’ in the opinion of one source I spoke to.
It is the unanimous judgment of the US intelligence agencies that Russia ‘brazenly interfered’ (as the outgoing CIA director put it) in the presidential election and did so to get Trump elected. But was this done in concert with the Trump campaign? The main allegation is that Trump loyalists told the Russians which Democrats to hack and then discussed how the stolen information could be used to do the most damage. There are now six separate Trump-Russia inquiries, five by Congressional committees and one by the FBI overseen by a special counsel.
But despite all this effort, no single piece of evidence has emerged of collusion, otherwise known as treason. There is feverish speculation in Washington about what may be in the intercepts of Russians communicating with Trump’s staff, family or friends. However, there is reason to think the contents of these calls or emails may not be as damning as the President’s enemies hope.
Ted Kontek was a Russia intelligence analyst in the State Department, with the highest classified clearance: TS/SCI or Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information. He saw much of the ‘wiretap’ material and says none of the transcripts point to a conspiracy. ‘There is nothing like that,’ he told me. ‘And nor would you expect there to be. People are not that stupid: the Russians know we’re listening and others know we’re listening. If you’re going to do something nefarious, you’re not going to publicise it.’
Trump also faces allegations that he is vulnerable to blackmail by the Kremlin because there is video of him with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room. Although it’s not impossible to imagine Trump in this situation, the evidence, if it exists, is no doubt buried in a vault in the Lubyanka. Some intelligence people believe this story is what the Russians call provokatsiya, a provocation or lie designed to confuse people, in this case perhaps to inoculate Trump against the other accusations he faces. So Congressional investigators — the ones who work for Democrats, anyway — have decided to ‘follow the money’. They want to know who gave loans to Trump after his companies went bankrupt four times. Was it Russian banks? And is this why he won’t release his tax returns? They want to know who has bought apartments in Trump properties. Often the owners are hidden behind shell companies but — as Trump’s son has reportedly acknowledged — there are many Russian buyers. How much of this is dirty money? The working assumption of these investigators is that the Russian mafia and state are the same thing. Is Trump in hock to both? It would be a bitter irony for the President if he were brought down not by something in his past but by his efforts to fight the many accusations he faces.
His enemies believe in two scenarios — that he is ushered out office under the 25th amendment, deemed ‘incapable’, or that he is impeached. Joel McCleary, a political consultant with decades of Washington experience, told me there were ‘quiet conversations going on’ between Democrats and Republicans about how Trump’s exit could be engineered. ‘There’s talk about a grand deal where Pence becomes president,’ he says. ‘We’d pull the leadership of the nation together. Everybody understands their country is in a constitutional crisis.’
Trump is a fighter — he seems to thrive on pressure — and he is lawyering up. He is not going to retire to spend more time with his golf clubs. But even he must feel the walls closing in. Notes written by the sacked FBI director, James Comey, have somehow made their way to the New York Times. Trump is said to have asked Comey to ‘pledge loyalty’, removing him when he refused. Another leak has Trump calling Comey a ‘real nutjob’ and telling aides that the pressure over Russia had been taken off with Comey gone.
So some Democrats in Congress talk about making a case for obstruction of justice, which formed the first of Nixon’s articles of impeachment. The lesson of Watergate: it’s the cover-up that gets you, not the crime. For the moment there is a Republican majority in Congress, though if the Democrats gain control of the House next year, it’s over for Trump. Events are moving so fast the President has to worry about next week as much as next year. Comey is testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee soon. If he answers ‘Yes’ to the question about whether Trump tried to block the Russian inquiry, then things will really start to get interesting.