Like soccer, the US presidential first term is a game of two halves. In the first two years, the president tries to leave his mark on Washington and enact his promises. In the second, re-election becomes the goal. In this respect only, Donald Trump is conforming to type. In all others, he is blazing a unique trail.
Mr Trump’s presidency has been a garish spectacle that could just as easily lead to his impeachment in the months ahead — or his resignation in exchange for immunity — as in his re-election in 2020. Much like Britain, which faces outcomes as extreme as a no-deal Brexit and a second referendum, America is in the throes of radical uncertainty. With Democrats taking over the House of Representatives, and Robert Mueller’s Russia collusion probe nearing its end game, the Trump presidency now faces far greater volatility. To paraphrase one of his predecessors: “We ain’t seen nothing yet.”
His biggest turning point was the Democratic “blue wave” in November. Having pulled out every trick in his box, including sending troops to the US-Mexico border, Mr Trump was unable to stop a Republican defeat in the House of Representatives. He blamed everyone but himself for a campaign that he had ensured was about anything but a booming economy. That defeat has sharply reduced his ability to intimidate friends and foes alike.
Fearing a bigger defeat in 2020, Republicans are beginning to stand up to Mr Trump in a way that was sorely lacking in his first two years. They have criticised his decision last week to withdraw US troops from Syria, and to wind down the US presence in Afghanistan, as well as for conducting his job in a way that prompted the resignation of Jim Mattis. The outgoing secretary of defence is one of the few figures in the administration to enjoy widespread trust among America’s partners and beyond. They have also abandoned the fight to secure funding for Mr Trump’s US-Mexico border wall.
Such is the drain on Mr Trump’s allure that he is now finding it hard to recruit anyone to join his rapidly emptying administration. The most important vacancy is for a new White House chief of staff, after the departure of John Kelly. But the president’s already weak legal team is running at a severely depleted level. Few law firms want to risk their reputations on a client who appears to be heading wilfully for the rocks.
Therein lies Mr Trump’s most ominous challenge. Democrats are about to assume the formidable power of committee chairmanships. This will allow them to subpoena documents, including Mr Trump’s tax records, offer immunity to witnesses, and stage corruption hearings in the full glare of the nation. They intend to use their powers to the full.
Mr Mueller is also closing in on his target. He looks poised to issue a flurry of new indictments, which could encompass the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. That is separate to a metastasising array of criminal inquiries by New York’s public prosecutors. In the weeks before Christmas, Mr Trump’s charitable foundation was closed down, The Trump Organization’s chief financial officer took legal immunity, and his personal lawyer pleaded guilty to having broken the law at the direction of Mr Trump.
The only parallel is Richard Nixon’s White House during the Watergate hearings. The good news is that the US constitution remains largely intact. The courts, the media, and the electorate have been doing their job. The bad news is that Mr Trump cuts an increasingly isolated and erratic figure. He is not the type to go quietly into the night.
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