WASHINGTON (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 29th December, 2018) The White House was plagued by a record number of scandals and an unprecedented exodus of senior administration officials throughout 2018 amid rising concerns over impeachment, yet US President Donald Trump remained defiant with a surprisingly steady approval rating and booming economy at his back.
The US president reportedly became concerned that impeachment proceedings would be launched next year after the Democrats seized the House of Representatives during the November midterm vote in conjunction with his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleading guilty to covering up hush payments on Trump's behalf during the 2016 election. Cohen claiming that Trump directed the payments during an election may implicate the president in violations of campaign finance laws.
More than a dozen Trump administration cabinet members and other senior officials stepped down or were forced to resign in 2018 over issues ranging from ethics violations to simply disagreeing with the president.
The departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis was potentially the most substantial given the impact it will have on US security strategy across the globe. On December 20, Mattis announced his retirement a day after the White House said 2,000 troops were coming home from Syria given that the Islamic State (IS, banned in Russia) terrorist group had been defeated there. Reports also surfaced that day that Trump had ordered the withdrawal of half of the 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Mattis in his resignation letter said he was stepping down at the end of February citing the fact that Trump needed to find a defense chief whose views were more aligned with his own. The letter so irked Trump that he accelerated Mattis' departure, ordering him to leave by the end of December. Trump announced that Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would become acting defense secretary starting from January 1, 2019.
Mattis' firing sparked outrage among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who accused Trump of giving Syria away to Russia and Iran. Two days after Mattis resigned reports surfaced that special envoy for the US-led anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, submitted his resignation citing Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
Trump said he had campaigned on reducing interventions abroad, that the fight against terrorists in Syria was a local problem now, and slammed the outgoing pentagon chief for not seeing how other countries were exploiting the US military.
"We are substantially subsidizing the militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the US, and our TAXPAYERS, on trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem," Trump said in a Twitter post on Christmas Eve. "I DO, and it is being fixed!"
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's departure in March was even more inglorious considering Trump effectively fired him via a tweet while announcing that former CIA Director Mike Pompeo would take over. Trump told reporters after the announcement that he and Tillerson disagreed on many things, including the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump's most controversial personnel move came one day after the Democrats won the House of Representatives in the midterm election. On November 7, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions - who had previously recused himself from the Russia probe to the president's chagrin - said he had resigned at Trump's request. Later that day Trump announced that Sessions' chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, would become the acting US Attorney General effective immediately.
The move set off fireworks among Democratic lawmakers who feared the president was taking steps ahead of the transition of power in the House to quash Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Russia's alleged ties with the Trump campaign.
US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer shortly after the news broke said in a statement that Whitaker in his new role should recuse himself from overseeing Mueller's investigation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a separate statement, said US Congress must take immediate action to protect Mueller's investigation against Trump's attempt to undermine it by firing Sessions.
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks resigned in March a month after admitting to a House panel that she had told a few "white lies" on Trump's behalf. In February, two White House staffers, Rob Portman and David Sorenson, resigned amid accusations of spousal abuse. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and UN envoy Nikki Haley also announced that they would leave their posts at the end of the year.
Trump had to replace two other cabinet members amid scandals over ethics violations, including Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt.
In March, Trump announced in a Twitter message that he planned to nominate Admiral Ronny Jackson to replace Shulkin in the wake of an inspector general's report that accused the Veterans Affairs chief of making false statements about improperly accepting Wimbledon tickets during a trip to Europe while his staff doctored expense reports. However, Jackson was forced to withdraw his resignation in July amid allegations of drinking on the job and overprescribing medications.
Pruitt resigned in July citing public attacks on his family. During his brief tenure running the EPA Pruitt was involved in more than a dozen scandals including renting from energy lobbyists a luxury condominium in Washington, DC at below market rates. Trump told reporters that the decision to resign was Pruitt's.
"The disruption is highly consequential," Stier said in an article published on December 20. "When you lose a leader, it has a cascade effect throughout the organization."
Mueller's office targeted the president both directly and indirectly throughout 2018 with indictments against former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen along with the attempted sentencing of former national security aide Michael Flynn. Although prosecutors also indicted more than 25 Russian nationals, no clear link has been established proving that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia.
Russian officials have repeatedly denied interfering in US internal affairs including the 2016 elections. Moscow has also said the false charges are being used by American politicians and the US media to demonize Russia and distract from pressing domestic issues. Both Trump and the Kremlin have rejected accusations of collusion. In addition, the US president has repeatedly referred to the probe as a "witch hunt."
On February 16, the US Justice Department revealed that the United States had indicted 13 Russian nationals and three entities, including Concord Management and Consulting LLC, for allegedly trying to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. The indictment also accused the St. Petersburg-based internet Research Agency of operating as a "troll farm" to meddle in the elections in Trump's favor. The announcement prompted lawmakers to urge Trump to implement more sanctions against Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov three days after the indictments were unveiled pointed out that there was no substance behind Washington's allegations.
"If I understand correctly, this is a list of 13 persons who are accused of actions to meddle in the interior affairs of the United States, but I did not see concrete facts, dates, and other information that could be correlated with something resembling facts," Lavrov said. "So, it turns out that the charges have been brought, but no evidence has been provided."
Just days before a major summit was scheduled to take place in Helsinki on July 16 between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Justice Department announced that a dozen Russian intelligence officers had been indicted for allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign during the 2016 election. The impeccably timed revelation sparked calls among US lawmakers to cancel the upcoming meeting between the leaders of the United States and Russia.
White House spokesperson Lindsey Walter in a statement issued after the announcement on July 13 said the charges include "no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result."
Manafort reached a plea agreement with Mueller's team in September after a Virginia jury found him guilty on eight charges of tax evasion and bank fraud. The former Trump campaign manager agreed to cooperate with the special counsel as he faced other charges in a Washington court for failing to register as a foreign lobbyist for work he did on behalf of the Ukraine government. However, in early December Mueller's office in a court document accused Manafort of breaching the deal by lying including about his interactions with Russian associate Konstantin Kilimnik.
In December, Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to act as a foreign agent without proper registration, a Sputnik correspondent reported from a US federal courthouse. Mueller's team had Butina arrested in July to charges she initially pleaded not guilty to. Butina, according to the plea agreement, had conspired to work with a former Russian central bank official to influence US politics.
The Russian embassy in the United States said Butina's detention was unacceptable and the charges groundless. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused US authorities of coercing her into the plea deal and said Butina was not in the United States to fulfill any tasks on behalf of the Russian government.
With respect to Flynn, Mueller's office on December 4 recommended no prison time for Trump's former national security adviser over lying to authorities about his ties to Turkey, citing his substantial assistance in the investigation. Flynn, according to prosecutors, provided details on communications with then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak regarding a vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity and Obama administration sanctions against Russia.
Last December, Flynn pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak during the transition period before Trump assumed power. Flynn also admitted that he misinformed Vice President Mike Pence about the communication with the Russian ambassador and decided to resign from his post at the White House in February 2017. Flynn's sentencing has been delayed until March.
The indictment, plea deal and sentencing of Trump's former personal attorney, however, appeared to be the most damaging to the president. In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws in connection with paying two women to maintain silence over their alleged extramarital affairs with Trump during the 2016 election. Cohen said in the plea deal that he made the payments "in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office."
The FBI during a raid of Cohen's home and office in April reportedly seized documents related to payments made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels who allegedly had an affair with Trump but signed an agreement to keep silent about their relationship. Trump also reportedly had a similar arrangement with former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
In a ruling on December 12, a US federal judge sentenced Cohen to 36 months in prison for involvement with the hush payments as well as for tax evasion. Cohen also admitted to lying to Congress about talks with Russian officials regarding the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to a Sputnik correspondent reporting from the court.
In a series of tweets in early December, Trump called Cohen a "weak person" who is making up stories to get less prison time. The US president also said the project in Moscow was never a secret and noted that the tower has never been built.
In early January the book, "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," written by Michael Wolff, was released that depicted the Trump administration as chaotic and unstable. The book cited former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon as saying the 2016 meeting between one of Trump's sons and a Russian lawyer was "treasonous" and "unpatriotic." The book also alleged that neither Trump nor his team expected to win the 2016 election and participated in it to strengthen the Trump brand name.
After excerpts from "Fire and Fury" were released, White House attorney Charles Harder in a letter to Wolff said the president demands that the author cease any further publication and issue a full retraction and apology related to all statements "that lack competent evidentiary support."
In September, Bob Woodward, the journalist who helped bring down President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, released a book called "Fear" that painted Trump as an incompetent and dangerous leader, describing his administration as an ongoing "nervous breakdown." Woodward said the book was based on hundreds of interviews with members of the administration and first-hand witnesses.
Several former and current senior administration officials, however, came forward to deny many of the book's allegations. Mattis in a statement rejected a claim made in the book that the Pentagon chief insulted Trump's intelligence. Haley said she never heard the president discuss the idea of assassinating Syrian President Bashar Assad as alleged in the book. The White House accused Woodward of fabricating stories.
Meanwhile, around the same time, a current senior Trump administration official in an anonymous op-ed piece admitted to being part of a resistance movement actively working to stymie the president's policy agenda. The author, in an article published in the New York Times on September 5, accused the president of being anti-trade, ineffective and reluctant to expel Russian diplomats. Later that same day, Trump called on the New York Times to turn over the anonymous administration official who wrote the op-ed, citing national security concerns.
The president and his family were embroiled in several other scandals including a congressional probe into foreign payments to the Trump Organization that the Democrats vowed to pick up again in January of 2019. In mid-September, US federal prosecutors in New York said they are looking into Trump's inaugural committee misappropriating approximately $107 million received from donors. In addition, the president's daughter Ivanka was exposed for using her private email to conduct government business.
During 2018, Trump revoked the security clearances of several former intelligence officials who have been critical of the president in the media. In addition, the White House tried to terminate press credentials of a CNN reporter who challenged Trump in a November press conference. However, a court ordered the White House to reinstate the privileges arguing that the White House violated the reporter's right to due process.
In October, the New York Times said it conducted a probe into the US president's family fortune and discovered that Trump and his father took part in questionable tax schemes during the 1990s, including some cases of outright fraud. Trump accused the New York Times of using the concept of "time value of money" and recycling old claims to write what he called a "hit piece."
The US president repeatedly slammed Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell for raising interest rates, which Trump said has caused the stock market to dive. Trump reportedly even considered firing the head of the independent central bank - a move that has no precedent.
Trump ended the year with a bang with his controversial decision to shut down the federal government unless the Democrats agree to include $5 billion in the budget to build a wall on the US southern border. Funding for key government operations expired at 11:59:59 p.m. on Friday December 21 (around 5:00 a.m. GMT on Saturday) after the Senate failed to reach a compromise over a House-passed bill.
On December 27, Trump told reporters the US federal government shutdown will last for as long as it takes to reach a deal with Democratic lawmakers on the border wall funding. Later that day the US Senate adjourned until December 31.
November's US midterm election left Congress a legislative branch divided after the Democratic Party flipped what would eventually be around 40 seats to take control of the House of Representatives while Republicans kept a majority in the Senate and even gained two seats.
The results of midterm elections are often seen as a referendum on a sitting president's performance at the midpoint of his term.
The 2018 congressional election marked the highest voter turnout for a midterm in nearly 50 years, dating back to the turbulent 1960s. Moreover, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the election was the most expensive of its kind in US history, with more than $5 billion being spent.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told a rally that the election results are about checking the Trump administration's abuse of power while Congressman Ted Lieu took to Twitter to send the Republicans and the White House an ominous message.
"You know what's super cool for @HouseJudDems on the Judiciary Committee now that Dems have won the House? No more stupid hearings in @HouseJudiciary about Hillary Clinton's emails," Lieu said on Tuesday. "Instead, we are going to conduct real oversight over @realDonaldTrump and his Administration."
"Democratic control of the House and... the special prosecutor's investigation will be a potent problem for Trump," Schultz said. "From a legislative perspective, a Democratic victory... effectively bring[s] to an end the Trump presidency."
US Congressman Adam Schiff ahead of the midterms said that if the Democrats win the House they will reopen a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Russians laundered money through the Trump organization.
According to the US Constitution the 435-member House of Representatives has sole power of impeachment, which essentially means the authority to formally submit criminal charges against high-level federal officials, based on a simple majority vote. However, the 100-member Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments and conviction requires a two-thirds majority vote (or at least 67 votes assuming all members are present). If convicted, the official is immediately removed from office.
The last president to be impeached in the House was Bill Clinton at the end of 1998 only to be acquitted in the Senate a couple months later, thereby avoiding being removed from office.
Trump by the end of the year had reportedly become increasingly concerned about the possibility of an impeachment after the Cohen plea deal and the House takeover of the Senate. The US president is fortunate, however, that the Republicans control 53 seats in the Senate. Hence, reaching the 67 votes needed to convict would require around 20 Republicans to betray their party.
On December 11, CNN, citing unnamed sources, reported that Trump believes that impeachment is a "real possibility." Earlier that same week, incoming House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler told reporters that claims about Trump tasking Cohen to make illegal hush payments during the 2016 election amounted to "impeachable offenses." The impeachment process starts in the judiciary committee which must approve charges before a full House vote.
Another source, according to the report, said Trump's aides believed that the only problem that might lead to impeachment is his alleged involvement in violating campaign finance rules. White House officials, the report added, doubt allegations regarding ties between Trump and Russia will be a factor.
Meanwhile, Mueller is expected to submit the final report on his findings in the Trump-Russia probe by mid-February, sources told NBC News in December.
Some lawmakers placed the burden on Trump as to whether or not there will be impeachment proceedings. On November 8, a day after Trump removed Sessions, Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that "any attempt by the president or the Justice Department to interfere with Mueller's probe would be an obstruction of justice and impeachable offense."
After the midterms, Eurasia Center Vice President Earl Rasmussen told Sputnik that the new Democratic majority in the House will do everything to make life difficult for Trump and could use the threat of impeachment as leverage. The expert added, however, that the move would be futile considering the Senate would need a two-thirds majority to oust the president. This would not be possible to achieve, he argued, despite internal opposition within the Republican Party.
Trump somehow has been able to prevent a complete collapse in support despite the scandal-ridden presidency and impeachment prospects, which might be attributable in part to the fact that the US unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest level in nearly half a century.
Polls revealed that the scandals and probes that plagued the White House had little impact on Trump's popularity or approval ratings. In fact, Gallup reported that the president's approval rating as of December 22 stood at 39 percent compared to 37 percent at the beginning of 2018. According to the most recent results, bipolarization with respect to assessments of Trump's performance has never been starker with 89 percent of Republicans, 39 percent of independents and only 8 percent of Democrats approving.