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Playing to the stands
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 03 - 2019

As Special Counsellor Robert Mueller is reportedly close to concluding his report on possible collusion between US President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia to give him an edge over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, White House lawyers expect to have an opportunity to review whatever Mueller will submit to Congress before it reaches lawmakers and the public, sources familiar with the matter have said.
During his confirmation hearing last year, US Attorney General Bill Barr told Congress that while he did not “have a clue as to what would be in the report”, he said “someone might raise a claim of executive privilege” if there is “material to which an executive privilege claim could be made”.
The reported request by White House lawyers to review the report first was likely to set up a potential political battle over the hotly anticipated document, and charges by Democrats that Trump was trying to shield certain information from the public about an investigation that has swirled around him since the first day of his presidency.
Justice Department lawyers could advise him against certain assertions if they don't feel they're legally defensible. If Trump does assert executive privilege, the decision could be litigated in court if challenged, which Democrats would almost certainly do.
While Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, suggested privilege could be used to keep parts of the report from public view, the issue is up to the White House, not the president's personal attorneys.
As the White House is bracing for Mueller's investigation to conclude, some officials describe a sense of anxiety at the contents of the report, even as they welcome the probe's end.
Such anxiety was obvious Sunday when Trump had what several observers described as “his craziest day on Twitter”, lambasting many of his political opponents, including Mueller.
On that day alone, Trump sent out 29 tweets and retweets, including one in which he attacked late prominent Republican Senator John McCain for allegedly sending the FBI the “Steele dossier” which included allegations that the US president colluded with Russian intelligence before the 2016 election, and working with Democrats. Trump also called McCain the “last in his class” at the US Naval Academy, which turned out to be factually wrong.
The US president also asked the Federal Communications Commission or Federal Election Commission to investigate whether “Saturday Night Live” and late-night talk shows were in collusion with Democrats and/or Russia because they attack him so consistently.
Besides, Trump urged his favourite news channel and key supporter, Fox News Channel, to reinstate host Jeanine Pirro after she was suspended for questioning the patriotism of Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, after she criticised Congress's blind support of Israel.
“When you think of it that way, what we witnessed on Sunday is somewhere between concerning and absolutely terrifying. The most powerful man in the country — and maybe the world — spent his day touting unproven conspiracy theories about stolen elections, suggesting collusion between Democrats and comedians, attacking a military hero and Republican senator and trying to programme his favorite cable network's broadcasts,” said US political commentator Chris Cillizza.
“And he did all of this while failing to send even a single tweet about the tragic mass shooting in New Zealand,” he added.
Even before the controversy caused by his flood of tweets Sunday, his reaction to the New Zealand terrorist massacre had already offended many. Trump had played down any threat posed by racist white nationalism after the gunman accused of the New Zealand mosque massacre called the US president “a symbol of renewed white identity”.
Trump, whose own previous responses to the movement have drawn scrutiny, expressed sympathy for the victims who died at “places of worship turned into scenes of evil killing”. But he declined to join expressions of mounting concern about white nationalism, saying “I don't, really” when asked whether he thought it was a rising threat around the world.
“I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess,” Trump said. “If you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that's the case. I don't know enough about it yet. But it's certainly a terrible thing.”
Trump was asked about white nationalism and the shooting deaths of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch after he formally vetoed Congress' resolution to block his declaration of a national emergency at the Mexico border. His veto, aimed at freeing money to build more miles of a border wall against illegal immigration, is expected to survive any congressional effort to overturn it.
Questioned about the accused gunman's reference to him, Trump professed ignorance. “I didn't see it. I didn't see it,” he said. “But I think it's a horrible event… a horrible, disgraceful thing and a horrible act.”
The man accused of the shootings left behind a lengthy document that outlined his motivations. In a single reference, he mentioned the US president. “Were/are you a supporter of Donald Trump?” was one of the questions he posed to himself. His answer: “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policymaker and leader? Dear God no.”
The White House immediately denounced the connection. But the mention from the suspect, who embraced Nazi imagery and voiced support for fascism, nonetheless cast an uncomfortable light on the way that the president has been embraced by some on the far right.
Trump, who as a candidate proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, has drawn criticism as being slow to condemn white supremacy and related violence. After a 2017 clash between white nationalists and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one demonstrator dead, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the confrontation. He also did not immediately reject the support of David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard, during his presidential campaign.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat-Connecticut, tied Trump's inflammatory language to the violence half a world away. “Words have consequences, like saying we have an invasion on our border and talking about people as though they were different in some fatal way,” Blumenthal said on CNN. “I think that the public discourse from the president is a factor in some of these actions.”
Former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke, who declared his Democratic candidacy for president this week, said: “We must call out this hatred, this Islamophobia, this intolerance and the violence that predictably follows from the rhetoric that we use.”
The White House, in comments before those remarks, rejected any link to Trump. “It's outrageous to even make that connection between this deranged individual that committed this evil crime to the president who has repeatedly condemned bigotry, racism and made it very clear that this is a terrorist attack,” Mercedes Schlapp, the White House's director of strategic communication, told reporters. “We are there to support and stand with the people of New Zealand.”
Trump's hardline immigration rhetoric and calls to return America to its traditional past have been embraced by many on the conservative fringes, including some who troll online with racist imagery, as well as white supremacists who have looked to engage in violence.
George Conway, the husband of White House Senior Counsellor Kellyanne Conway, tweeted an image of a diagnosis of “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” and said bluntly of Trump: “His condition is getting worse.” Brian Klaas, a political scientist at UCL, was slightly more expansive, saying: “We have a seriously dangerous normalcy bias, where we move on because we desperately want to pretend it's okay. Trump's Twitter meltdown (on Sunday) — which shows a deranged and unhinged person — will just be forgotten by Monday afternoon. But the deranged man will still control the nukes.”
“No, I don't share those concerns,” Kellyanne Conway told reporters Monday of her husband's worries about Trump's mental health. Conway's assertion came less than 24 hours after acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was forced to insist that “the president is not a white supremacist”. Mulvaney also said: “I don't think anybody can say the president is anti-Muslim.”
“When, in the space of 24 hours, two of the top officials in the White House are going public to claim that the president isn't a) crazy b) a white supremacist or c) anti-Muslim, you know Trump is going through a very rough patch,” said Stephen Collinson, a political analyst.
Yet the president's boiling feuds and irresponsible remarks are just one area in which opinion about him is irrevocably polarised. In fact, the endless battles that Trump wages, while rendering him unfit for office in the eyes of critics, are exactly the kind of politically incorrect behaviour that made him so popular with his supporters in the first place.
“In many cases — I am not saying in every case — he is saying a lot of the same things that people are talking about around their neighborhoods, around their dining tables, at their watering holes,” said Marc Lotter, strategic communications director for Trump's 2020 campaign. “And that is why he is connecting with people,” he added.
A new CNN/SSRS poll released Monday showed that the president's approval rating has taken an uptick to 42 per cent.

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