Last year the American people rejected political dynasty. Farewell Clintons. Goodbye Bushes. In their stead, we have the most dynastic first family in American history.
Donald Trump’s administration is little more than the Trump family plus some disposable retainers. It is unclear where the White House ends and the Trump business empire begins. One reason Mr Trump took against Qatar may have been that an influential Qatari denied Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, a $500m loan.
The Gulf state has reportedly rejected Mr Trump’s requests in the past. What were we thinking — that Mr Trump suddenly developed strong views on Gulf Arab politics? As the saying goes: follow the money. It is a mistake to read too much into Mr Trump’s actions. They are usually hidden in plain sight.
This week’s revelations about Donald Trump Jr are a case in point. For the first time since Mr Trump took office, the word “treason” has entered the currency. But its connotations are too Machiavellian. People who commit treason against their country are usually seduced by ideology or inducement.
Either way, they are aware of the sacred boundary they crossed. What if your family is your country? What if your kin are your religion? To a neutral observer, Mr Trump Jr’s emails make clear that he solicited damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Kremlin. To his father, they show a son’s loyalty. To the Russians, they proved that the Trump family was ready to do business. To US prosecutors it is “smoking gun” evidence of collusion with a foreign power.
Had any non-blood related campaign aide met the Russian lawyer, Mr Trump could simply fire them. But Donald Trump cannot distance himself from an underling called Donald Trump. Nor can he escape from the fact that the other two people in the meeting were his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Mr Kushner, his son-in-law. The Trump campaign was a family business.
The same is true for the Trump White House. If you want the king’s ear, make friends with his offspring. That is the channel through which China, Saudi Arabia and others are conducting diplomacy with the Trump administration. That is also how Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading the Russia investigation, can strike at Mr Trump.
What does this mean for America’s engagement with the world? While Mr Trump is president, Washington is Bourbon city. For Mr Trump, no less than Louis XIV, it is “L’Etat, c’est moi”. The deeper the probes, the more the Trump family interests will infect every decision. The biggest distortion is in US-Russia relations.
Last week at the G20 summit, Mr Trump spent two hours and 15 minutes talking to Vladimir Putin. Only Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, was present. Fiona Hill, Mr Trump’s only Russia expert, was not in the meeting. Mr Trump gave Mr Putin what he wanted. The two struck a deal to set up a joint cyber-unit to stop interference in each other’s politics. That Mr Trump was rapidly forced to drop the idea is beside the point. The US and Russia now belonged on the same moral plane. No one has a clue if other bargains were struck between Mr Trump and Mr Putin.
But the family now shows up in every field of America’s global engagement. Mr Kushner is Mr Trump’s de facto chief diplomat. His wife who is also Mr Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is the face of American soft power. During the G20 summit, Mr Trump left the room for another meeting. Ms Trump took his place at the summit table between Xi Jinping, China’s president, and Theresa May, the British prime minister.
The signal to others working for the Trumps is clear. No other western democracy operates like this. Until recently, the US did not either. It will only become more pronounced as the Russia investigations gather pace. As the crisis deepens, the family will circle the wagons.
Those who are not inside the circle are doing what it takes to protect themselves. The latest leaks, like those before them, came from multiple sources in the White House. Could Stephen Bannon, Mr Trump’s chief strategist, be involved? As the chief architect of Mr Trump’s “America first” campaign, Mr Bannon is also the closest aide to the president not in the Trump family. He and Mr Kushner are rivals. As a self-professed Leninist, Mr Bannon’s chief aim is to blow up the administrative state.
If your goal is to disable the US government, now is the time to strike. Whether you are president of Russia, emir of some oil-rich kingdom or a nihilist working from the inside, Mr Trump offers an unparalleled opportunity. Trump is America and America is Trump. While he is president, the US republic is highly vulnerable.
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