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Trump needs victory
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 12 - 2018

2018 has certainly not been a kind year to US President Donald Trump. While he will continue to brag about his economic achievements, such as lower unemployment, a higher growth rate and decreasing US trade deficit, reality is that the crises that faced Trump this year are likely to continue, if not get worse, in 2019.
“Russia gate”, or allegations that Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign received precious help from Russian Intelligence to sway the vote in his favour and assure the defeat of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, might reach a conclusion early next year.
Special Counsel Robert Muller is expected to wrap up his investigation soon, amid speculations that some of Trump's closest aides, including his son, Donald Trump Jr, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, might be among the suspected key players in illegal collusion with the Russian government.
Considering the Democratic victory in the recent mid-term elections, restoring control of the House for the first time in 12 years and allowing the Republicans a small majority in the Senate, calls for impeaching Trump over Russian connections are likely to be heard loud and clear in 2019, especially if Mueller issues a damning report.
However, Russian collusion will only be the topping if Democrats decided to make impeachment a priority next year. Senior Democrats have already begun talking openly about the imprisonment or impeachment of Trump amid fresh allegations linking the president to hush money paid to two women he allegedly had extramarital affairs with ahead of the 2016 election.
The latest twist came in new court documents that said Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, had acted at the direction of his employer in arranging the payments. “They would be impeachable offences. Whether they're important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question,” Jerry Nadler, a Democratic Congressman from New York, said in a recent interview with CNN's State of the Union.
“Certainly, they're impeachable offences, because, even though they were committed before the president became president, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office,” Nadler added.
A sentencing memo filed by prosecutors in New York against Cohen raised the stakes. “In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” the memo said, using the term prosecutors have deployed to refer to the president.
It is the first time that investigators have said they believe Cohen acted with Trump to silence two women who worked in the porn industry. Trump has denied the affairs and any role in payments, and has not been accused of any offences, so far.
Yet the accelerating flow of court documents and legal pleadings as the investigation enters its final phase has Democrats openly discussing whether the president can be prosecuted. Although most legal analysts believe a sitting president cannot be indicted, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who will head the House Intelligence Committee when a new term begins in January, said that would not protect Trump once his term ends.
“There's a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office the Justice Department may indict him,” he told CBS. “He may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.”
Besides his legal trouble, Trump is also likely to maintain a chaotic White House in 2019. Since he was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States in January 2017, Trump has overseen one of the most unstable administrations in modern history, with resignations, firings and whispers of future resignations and firings an almost daily story.
While General John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, has fallen the latest victim of Trump's revolving chairs policy in dealing with his cabinet, the big question in 2019 is whether US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will be the next in line.
The shuffle in President Trump's team at the end of 2018 indicates elements of both continuity and change for 2019. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley will be replaced with Heather Nauert. Haley was a political heavyweight and had built a strong relationship with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. On Middle East issues, she pushed a very hard line against Moscow, Iran and Damascus and boosted Israel while undermining the Palestinians. Haley was very much her own force; Nauert is much more of a political neophyte. But on Middle East issues, she is likely to follow the same playbook.
While General Kelly's replacement as White House chief of staff has not yet been announced, US observers expect that he might be the last general in a top White House position. “Former National Security adviser H R McMaster and General Kelly brought real-world field experience to White House decision making while current National Security Adviser John Bolton and the next chief of staff might indicate the primacy, respectively, of hard line ideology and pressing domestic political challenges,” said Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute.
Salem added that the departure of McMaster and Kelly begs the question as to whether Mattis will stay through 2019. As Trump remarked a few weeks ago about Mattis, “at some point, everybody leaves.” While the recent changes in personnel are significant, they remain secondary compared to any potential change at the head of the Department of Defense.
And while economic growth pops in 2018, boosted by tax cuts, those benefits should fade in 2019 and growth will get back to its longer-term pace of near two per cent, according to a recent CNBC survey. A group of 10 economists, including the US Federal Reserve, have an average forecast of 2.4 per cent for 2019, the survey added. Three big factors are behind the slower growth: the fading impact of tax cuts, trade wars and tariffs with China and Europe, and the Federal Reserve's rate-hiking policy, experts believe.
Considering the many domestic challenges Trump is likely to face in 2019, several experts wonder whether this spur an appetite for foreign adventures, particularly in the troubled Middle East.
Democratic Representative Eliot Engel is reportedly drawing up an aggressive oversight plan for January, when he is likely to take the gavel of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee.
First on his priority list would be a wide-ranging examination of Trump's ties to Russia and an investigation into how the president's business interests have intersected with his foreign policy decisions, among other matters.
The Trump administration has shown that it will “do the minimum possible to interact with Congress” and that it sees the State Department “as the enemy,” Engel told USA Today in a recent interview previewing his plans for next year. “I'm not going to accept that.”
The president's defence of Saudi Arabia is also certainly to come under close scrutiny in the wake of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The Post reported that the CIA concluded that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, ordered Khashoggi's killing. Trump emphasised the crown prince's denials and questioned the CIA's assessment.
Engel blasted Trump for casting doubt on the CIA's assessment in the Khashoggi case and said it was reminiscent of his friendly stance towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite allegations of his interference in the 2016 elections and reckless policy in Ukraine and Syria.
“We saw him do it with Putin, and now he wants to downplay a horrific murder,” Engel said in a statement last week after Trump said he would work to preserve the US-Saudi alliance. “We need answers about why the administration has behaved the way it has in the wake of this incident.”
The Trump administration has made Saudi Arabia a linchpin of its foreign policy, relying on the kingdom to keep oil prices low as the United States ratchets up sanctions on Iran, and hoping to win Saudi support for its Middle East peace plan. Engel is a staunch supporter of Israel, and he shares the administration's views that Iran presents a threat to Middle East stability. But the New York Democrat said he wants to make sure the Saudis realise they don't have a “blank cheque” from the United States to commit human rights abuses.
However, a possible sudden escalation with Iran, most likely through proxies such as Hizbullah or Syria, cannot be excluded in order to distract attention from Trump's critics at home. That's been a classic policy for US presidents over the past decades, in “wag the dog” style.
Trump might also try to act like a peacemaker in case he decides to go ahead and issue his so-called “Deal of the Century” to reach a new peace agreement between Palestine and Israel. The expected release of the Middle East peace plan, overseen by his son-in-law, Kushner, has been repeatedly delayed. The little experienced Kushner has claimed that maintaining support for his personal friend, Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman, was vital to gain support for the peace plan.
However, there is little trust left between the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and the current Trump administration, especially after his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump has offered no carrots to Palestinians, and opted instead to increase pressure on Abbas, through cutting aid to UNRWA and Palestinian refugees, and closing down the PLO office in Washington. Therefore, it is unlikely that Abbas, and several other Arab governments, would rush to offer help to Trump so that he can claim a foreign policy success.
Considering both his trouble at home and abroad, many US observers believe that if Trump is not impeached first, he is likely to face a primary challenge from his own Republican Party in 2020. The matter was regarded as an open question for most of 2018, but a new emergent consensus among the party's consultants and strategists has taken root after Paul Manafort's conviction and Cohen's implication of the president in federal court. If that trend continues, Trump could easily be a one-term president.


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