Richard Heller: Why a paralysed president risks world of chaos. And, for Donald Trump's benefit, it's not fake news
Only one president in American history has suffered a swifter loss of power: William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840.
That is because he died after just a month in office, catching pleurisy after delivering a two-hour inauguration speech on a cold, wet day.
Donald Trump’s poll ratings have shrunk faster in six months than any other president since the Second World War. His approval rating even in his favourite Rasmussen poll is down by 20 per cent since he took office.
The explanation is simple: Trump’s record in six month’s is worse than any other president.
Trump lost his first big domestic battle. He failed to repeal Obamacare. Much of the blame for this falls on the Republican Congressional leadership, which offered no alternative plan for affordable healthcare.
But Trump owed them nothing, and he had no motive to accept their largely ideological opposition to Obamacare as his first domestic goal. He would have done far better to focus on his promise to renew American infrastructure (which would put a lot of Americans to work). Now this objective is threatened, so, even more, are his plans for tax reform.
Over Trump’s objections, Congress voted for a range of new sanctions against Russia. Trump was right to complain that this usurped his powers over foreign policy – but that might well encourage Congress to make more foreign policy of its own. It is also an ominous warning that Congress does not believe his denials of Russian influence over his election campaign.
On that topic, Trump has no good options for dealing with the investigation by the special counsel, former FBI director, Robert Mueller. If he has Mr Mueller fired, he echoes Nixon’s behaviour with the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, and he will follow Nixon along the road to impeachment. If he leaves Mr Mueller to his own devices, he can be certain that the investigation will get bigger and longer and more destructive.
Trump has failed to bring even basic order and dignity to the Presidency (he suffers by comparison with Obama: two terms of unbroken grace, free of personal scandal). His senior staff appointments and losses showed a pattern of chaos and disloyalty. Trump’s habit of praising his appointees to the skies and then trashing them by Twitter gave no talented or principled person any motive to serve him. His short-lived scabrous communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, was a figure beyond the power of fantasy.
Trump never realised that he actually won the presidency. He remains in campaign mode. It was a raucous, perpetually angry campaign which built a coalition of disappointed Americans with much to be disappointed about. He made them promises of restored prosperity, status and respect with no idea how to keep them.
Trump had the worst possible training for the presidency. His business empire, founded on inherited wealth, his television and radio career all relied on relentless self-promotion, refusal to accept normal standards of behaviour, the demand for obedience and deference and a willingness to browbeat and humiliate people. He learnt much from his early mentor, Roy Cohn, formerly chief counsel to Joe McCarthy and one of the most loathsome figures in American history.
There are no good prospects for Trump’s presidency. His ego will not let him resign or become a figurehead. His removal requires the painfully slow process of impeachment or use of the obscure and untested provisions on presidential incapacity of the 25th Amendment to the constitution.
Trump might try to revive his fortunes in areas where he can use executive power – trade and the armed forces. But he has no good options. He might introduce steel tariffs, but these would destroy more manufacturing jobs than they create, even if they do not provoke a full-scale trade war.
A military strike against North Korea is off limits thanks to China. He might lob more missiles and drones at supposed terrorist sites, but that would identify him with the “weak” presidencies of Clinton and Obama. In spite of America’s colossal military strength, there is almost nowhere in the world where it can be used without major risk. Trump’s defence secretary, General James Mattis, may well have issued secret orders to block any strike ordered by Trump – following the precedent of Nixon’s defence secretary, James Schlesinger, during the last phase of his presidency.
So the world may face an indefinite period without any reliable or predictable use of American power. Many on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, have wished for this for years, but they may be sorry that their wish came true.
The Putin regime may be tempted to a new adventure to “protect” Russian-speakers in Estonia, where British troops are now in the front line. A weak and divided EU would have to find a response. A lecture from Mr Juncker will not make Putin quake in his boots.
Nuclear North Korea could blackmail the South and Japan. With no faith in the American response, they would appease China in the hope of protection.
New problems may emerge from America’s supposed allies. Israel will build new settlements in Palestine and intensify its occupation, making a peace settlement still more distant, and generating more recruits to terrorism. Saudi Arabia will escalate its already vicious war in the Yemen and its attempt to throttle Qatar (a major investor in Britain). It will export even more fiercely its brand of fundamentalist, anti-Western Islam.
These are only a few of the risks as nations scramble to react to a world without American power.
Against a background of a paralysed presidency, it is deeply symbolic that later this month Americans will experience their first total solar eclipse since the Independence year of 1776.
For now, the rest of the world awaits the latest Twitter invective from President Donald J Trump as chaos engulfs the White House.
Richard Heller was born in the United States and written extensively about American politics. He was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey.