Buckle Up for Year 2 of Trump
Four major crises the president is steering America toward in the year ahead.
It may sound strange to say, given that Donald Trump has been the least popular first-year U.S. president on record, but he has been extraordinarily lucky during his first year in office. There have been lots of controversies, mainly generated by him, from his ill-advised ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries to his endorsement of an accused child molester for the Senate in Alabama. But there have been no major domestic or foreign crises of the sort that normally test a first-year president — nothing comparable to the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Wall for John F. Kennedy, the Gulf of Tonkin incident for Lyndon B. Johnson, the Vietnam War and antiwar protests for Richard Nixon, the fall of Saigon for Gerald Ford, the energy crisis for Jimmy Carter, the recession and assassination attempt for Ronald Reagan, the fall of the Berlin Wall and invasion of Panama for George H.W. Bush, the “Black Hawk Down” battle for Bill Clinton, 9/11 for George W. Bush, or the economic meltdown for Barack Obama.
The odds are that Year Two of the Trump era will not be so placid. Predicting what Trump will do is a fool’s errand, and crises by their nature are usually unexpected. That said, here is my best guess at the three or four major crises that could pop up next year.
First and foremost: a war with North Korea. Trump has put himself into a no-win position with regard to North Korea. Even before he was inaugurated, he tweeted on Jan. 2: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” But Trump’s attempts to forestall that dire development by ratcheting up sanctions and trying to enlist China’s help have predictably failed to stop a nuclear weapons program that Kim Jong Un views as essential to regime survival. On Nov. 29, Kim tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching any point in the United States.
Trump could switch to de facto acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear capability, relying on deterrence to keep America and its allies safe, but his national security advisor H.R. McMaster claims that isn’t going to happen. On Oct. 19, McMaster said, “The president has been extremely clear on his perspective on North Korea. He’s not going to accept this regime threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon. He just won’t accept it. There are those who have said, ‘What about accept and deter?’ Well, accept and deter is unacceptable.”
If deterrence is unacceptable and sanctions are unsuccessful, that leaves only one way to stop the North Korean nuclear program — through military action. Those who are in close contact with the administration say the odds of a preventative strike are going up. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a notable hawk who has become a golf buddy of Trump’s, says there is a 30 percent chance of an American military strike, going up to 70 percent if the North Koreans conduct another nuclear test, which would be their seventh. Kori Schake, a former colleague of Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Hoover Institution, writes that the way the Trump White House is talking about North Korea “sounds eerily and increasingly like the George W. Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War.” Even if Trump doesn’t launch a preventative strike, there is a still a worrisome chance that a nuclear war could break out by accident, with tensions exacerbated by his saber rattling and unhinged tweets. Nuclear nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis lays out a frightening scenario for how a string of miscalculations could result in the death of millions.
The chances of war with Iran are smaller but can’t be ruled out. Trump has already refused to recertify that the Iran nuclear deal is in America’s interest. He called on Congress and America’s allies to toughen sanctions, or he would pull out of the deal. Congress has already ignored a 60-day deadline to act, and our European partners have made clear they have no interest in renegotiating the agreement. As with North Korea, so with Iran: Trump will either have to make a humiliating climb-down or double down, raising the risk of war.
There is also a growing risk of another kind of war in Year Two — a trade war. Trump campaigned as a protectionist, promising sanctions against China and the renegotiation of “bad” trade deals like NAFTA and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. He did not deliver in Year One but, as he showed by announcing that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he is still eager to make good on campaign promises. Axios quoted him in August telling White House chief of staff John Kelly: “I want tariffs. And I want someone to bring me some tariffs.” He may well get those tariffs he so dearly desires, especially once he figures out that China is not going to “solve” the North Korea problem for him — the chief reason why he has been holding back so far.
Trump’s trade negotiators have been working with Canada and Mexico to revamp NAFTA. The leaks out of the talks suggest that the administration is making such “pretty harsh, pretty horrible” demands — e.g., demanding that “50 percent of the value of all NAFTA-produced cars, trucks, and large engines come from the United States” — that the other two countries can’t possibly accept. Maybe these are simply hardball negotiating tactics from a president who prides himself on his deal-making skills. But it’s also quite possible that Trump simply hates NAFTA and is ready to abandon it, even if launching a trade war with America’s three largest trading partners — China, Canada, and Mexico — would risk ending the strong economic growth that he inherited from Obama.
The final risk that I see in Year Two is the possibility of a constitutional crisis triggered by Trump either pardoning his aides or firing special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump and his fans are signaling that a crisis may be near with their hyperbolic attacks on Mueller. If you watch Fox News, as Trump does, you will be told that Mueller is leading a staff full of Democratic partisans who are eager to overturn the results of the last election and stage a “coup in America.” The latest accusation of misconduct against Mueller is that he obtained access to all of the emails that the Trump transition team sent via their .gov accounts. If you listen to Trump’s lawyers, this is a gross abuse of justice — but it’s just fine for the public to have access to all of Hillary Clinton’s emails or all of the texts sent by FBI agents who were critical of Trump. Consistency is not the hobgoblin of this White House.
This is all, of course, cynical nonsense, but the fear is that this propaganda barrage is laying the groundwork for Trump to pardon his aides and try to fire Mueller — along, presumably, with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation. Trump hardly put such concerns to rest when he said on Dec. 15: “I don’t want to talk about pardons with Michael Flynn yet, we’ll see what happens, let’s see. I can say this, when you look at what’s going on with the FBI and the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.” There are even rumors in Washington that Trump could act before the end of the year, although on Sunday he denied any such intention.
If Trump does move against the prosecutors investigating him, the public cannot count on much pushback from Congress, at least not initially. All too many Republicans have joined in the shocking character assassination of a special counsel who has spent a lifetime in his country’s service and who does not have a partisan bone in his body. But it will be a different story if Democrats take control of Congress next November — and the odds of that happening have increased with the unexpected Democratic victory in the Alabama Senate election and polls showing a double-digit lead for Democrats when voters are asked which party should control Congress. Whether Trump fires Mueller or not, he is likely to face impeachment — the only way he can avoid it is if Mueller exonerates him, which is unlikely. Getting the articles of impeachment through a Democratic-controlled House wouldn’t be a problem. Peeling off enough GOP senators to convict (67 votes needed) appears unlikely, but at least a few Republicans might abandon the president if Mueller finds unequivocal proof of collusion between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin — or if Trump fires Mueller.
If an impeachment trial does occur in 2019, it would unleash a political war that for sheer nastiness would easily surpass the struggles over Richard Nixon’s and Bill Clinton’s impeachments. Trump has fewer compunctions than either Nixon or Clinton about using every tool at his disposal to stay in office, and with Fox News, Breitbart, Infowars, and other propaganda outlets at his beck and call, he has a way to bypass the mainstream media to mobilize his rabid followers. Street violence is not out of the question. What’s truly worrisome is that Trump might try to save his own skin by launching either an actual war or a trade war in a Wag the Dog ploy.
Fasten your seat belts. We survived Year One. But Year Two of the Trump presidency promises to be an even bumpier ride, with catastrophe looming around every corner.