The past six months have seen many indiscretions and transgressions in this country that, under normal circumstances, I’d love to write about. But I’m in the midst of a big project whose work will continue for some time yet.
However, the swirl of news from the Trump administration has put two ideas in my head that, having settled there, now refuse to leave. I’m increasingly certain that one of two things—perhaps both—will happen in this country within the next year. Either of these events would precipitate a political crisis of a scale not seen since 1974. If occurring close together, they might precipitate a social and constitutional crisis of a scale not seen in this or the last century.
1. An engineered conflict with Iran. The “Axis of Adults”—H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, and Jim Mattis—are losing their influence in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. McMaster, having thrown himself into the point of greatest institutional friction, is politically inastute, perennially embattled, and despised by Trump’s base. Tillerson is feckless, inept, and equally out of touch with Trump’s priorities. Mattis appears to exercise good control over the Pentagon and an effective veto over the NSC’s worst ideas, but his power is reliant on the position of the other two. If they leave and are replaced by alt-right crazies, Mattis will have to burn credibility and wage more battles on his own.
Meanwhile, the vultures circle. Trump and his alt-right allies have essentially delivered an ultimatum to State that the Iran deal should not be re-certified—even if Iran continues to uphold all of the deal’s stipulations. John Bolton is regularly advanced as a replacement candidate for national security adviser or Secretary of State, a man whose favorite activity is (purportedly) auto-asphyxiating while dreaming of spending thousands of young American lives in a bloody occupation of Tehran. It was absolutely bizarre when Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, emerged at a press briefing to put Iran “on notice” for unspecified crimes. I suspect that was the opening act of a march to war, interrupted by Flynn’s dismissal, that Trump now seeks to put back on track.
There are good reasons to despise Iran. But this is not the same as wanting war and it’s certainly not the same as manufacturing a conflict. A march toward war with Iran in the current context, with the current president, would constitute a violation of executive power so severe that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would scarcely register on the same scale. Yet as Trump grows more domestically embattled, this seems to be exactly the path that some of his staff are contemplating.
And that leads to the second prediction—
2. The firing of Robert Mueller. Trump continually floats the idea of firing the special prosecutor appointed to investigate him, most likely in an attempt to normalize the idea. In many ways, the strategy seems to be working. Most television media—which can never ignore a juicy showdown—has framed the decision as a dramatic “will-he-or-won’t-he.” This misses the grave context.
The last time a special prosecutor was fired, it destroyed the Justice Department and precipitated Richard Nixon’s impeachment. For decades thereafter, special prosecutors were granted special immunity by Congress from presidential dismissal. In 1999, however, these protections lapsed—due likely to a mix of exhaustion (Bill Clinton had just been badly bruised by a publicity-hungry prosecutor) and carelessness (what fool would ever dismiss a special prosecutor again?). The consequence is that Mueller is vulnerable to dismissal, even if it eviscerates the Justice Department in the process. Of course, in the regular functioning of American government, the consequence would be a no-brainer: a repeat of the Nixon fiasco and an inevitable impeachment proceeding.
But the American government is not functioning regularly. The government is in grave health, its offices headed by Trumpist toadies or (more commonly) nobody at all. The Republican Party has been similarly infiltrated by Trumpists, or legislators so scared of Trump’s base that they might as well be Trumpists. In a generous reading of the situation (and here we are in uncharted territory), the emergency might move to the Supreme Court. But here, too, the likely “conservative” swing vote would be a man who owes his seat to Trump.
The fact is that there would be no good institutional answer to this crisis because the whole idea is too absurd for previous generations to have seriously contemplated it. But this is where we may soon be. In such a situation, it is easy to see civil violence; it is much harder to see American institutions doing what they’re supposed to.
And in closing, I’ll end how I began. Either of these events will be catastrophic for the United States and (particularly for the first) the wider world. But I think at least one will happen in the next year. And I’m worried very, very deeply about how the nation will survive it.