Thursday, 24 November 2016

Trump Scenario: We Need to Talk about Donald

This is the fourth in a suite of five scenarios developed by Aleph Insights, designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
More background on the scenario development process, including caveats about scenario interpretation, is here. The baseline scenario is The Great-Again Gatsby. The three other alternative scenarios are Atlas HuggedFear and Loathing in Everywhere, and Catch SSBN-22.

Scenario Narrative


This scenario varies from the Baseline in its assumption about the personality and history of Donald Trump. In this scenario, President Trump is less pragmatic and less willing to listen to his advisers than in the baseline, and more divisive and unpredictable in his behaviour. Moreover, his personal history becomes a more significant issue during his tenure. 

From the start, the signs were that the Trump engine of government was disorganised and disunited. Trump remained indecisive over some key cabinet positions until mid-January, as he battled the conflicting interests of both rewarding his campaign supporters, and satisfying the GOP seniors. In the end, Trump went with loyalty over expertise, and the 2017 cabinet was light on experienced politicians and heavy with Trump cronies. Trump’s somewhat despotic image was reinforced by the high-profile firing of Steven Mnuchin over ‘political differences’, and media reports painted a picture of strong personality clashes and bureaucratic in-fighting between cabinet members and their staffers. Widespread accusations of bullying emerged, directed at senior White House officials and including high-profile Representatives, with insiders suggesting the oppressive culture was being driven from above by a President whose temperament and managerial style was a bad fit for the compromises and frustrations of political office. In public, the GOP remained united behind their President, but behind closed doors the party has seen a serious rift open up between Trump loyalists and the senior Republicans whose worst fears seemed to be coming to pass.

Meanwhile, outside the Oval Office, the liberal knives were out for President Trump from day one. The ‘Impeach Trump’ movement became more organised and better-funded, steered by a committee that included several technology billionaires as well as populist liberals such as Michael Moore. The movement called for whistle-blowers to come forward, and continued to conduct investigations into all facets of Mr Trump's business and political life. Impeach Trump continued to amass evidence of any dubious dealings in the President’s past, based on the assumption of guilt, with the tacit support of major media organisations whose relationship with Trump was abrasive from the start. 

Organised resistance
(Photo: David Shankbone)

The most damaging allegations that emerged related to Trump’s alleged use of various illegal tax avoidance schemes over a period of decades. These schemes, involving a series of sophisticated ‘cut out’ entities, foreign tax credits, offshoring, and several other tax dodges, proved difficult to trace back to the Trump business empire, let alone the man himself. Initially, the President was able to dismiss the claims as the imaginings of his embittered opponents, and for a time was able to turn the tables on his accusers and associate them with the ‘corruption that fills Washington’s swamp’. However, in late 2017 a cache of documents released by one whistle-blower, working for a transnational accountancy firm, proved a treasure trove for investigators. Documents obliquely suggesting that Donald Trump had directly authorised the use of the schemes emerged; further, the body of material cumulatively created a lurid picture of a network of investments and work-arounds which appeared to include laundering money for drug cartels via casinos and the breaking of US sanctions imposed against pariah regimes.

While many of Trump’s supporters were prepared to ignore the story, the US Department of Justice began preparations for a criminal investigation. The scandal has been exacerbated by Trump’s response to the case against him. For a long period of time, he simply refused to engage with any of the details. As evidence mounted, he continued to attack those making the allegations, rather than deal with the substance of the accusations. Finally, President Trump was forced to claim ignorance regarding the scheme. This has had a trebly damaging effect: first, the President has by implication been compelled to acknowledge this activity may have taken place; second, it has created severe doubts about the probity of a man who made trust a linchpin of his campaign for election; and finally, he has been made to look incompetent in his business dealings. By mid-2018, the ‘Trumpgate’ scandal had been dominating the news agenda for nearly a year, and combined with Trump’s temperamental and divisive leadership style, the President’s circle of friends in the House was dwindling rapidly.

The King in his Castle
(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Although the Department of Justice investigation had barely begun, by Summer 2018 the talk on the Hill was of when, rather than if, Articles of Impeachment would be issued by Congress. A sufficient number of concerned Republicans were willing to support such a vote, the only disagreement being about whether or not the official investigation should be completed first. However, despite even his most trusted advisers urging him to step down for the good of the country and of the party, Trump’s erratic and combative behaviour only seemed to become more entrenched. Only when Vice-President Pence himself publicly called on the President to resign - following mid-term polls forecasting the worst Republican performance since 1974 - did Trump’s tactical withdrawal from office begin. Amid rumours of ill health, sparked by unexplained cancellations of public engagements, Trump stepped down in September 2018. In his final address to congress Trump talked of the progress he had achieved, how he had made America great again despite the conspiracies against him, and how he had no further work to do. Trump withdrew from public life and retreated with a small cadre of loyalists to Trump tower to reassume control of his business empire. Meanwhile, in DC, Mike Pence is limping on in 2020, immobilised by a strongly Democratic House and Senate, and the lack of a mandate. The resurgent Democratic party seem set for an easy victory in the upcoming Presidential election.

Policy Implications


The US government system has resisted a vocal and bullying President. Trump has been largely frustrated in his bids for his most extreme interventions; however, the US has been left isolated and economically weakened. During this period the administration has failed to introduce any new significant legislation, due to the strength and breadth of resistance to the President. Routine government business has carried on under the stewardship of civil servants and some of the more pragmatic political appointees. There has been a lot of brinkmanship over the passing of Federal budgets, leading to widespread uncertainty over almost everything linked to Federal funding, but budgets were eventually passed, allowing public services to be delivered. The confrontation has eased since Donald Trump stepped down, and President Pence has reverted to a pre-Trump status quo approach to government. In the wake of the Trump catastrophe, there has been a growth in calls to reform the electoral system so that college votes and popular votes align. Both parties now strike a much more sober and conventional tone in their political rhetoric.

(Read the final alternative scenario: Catch SSBN-22.)

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