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Bridging The Gap
Analysis: How the growing Trump scandal could affect his presidency
  Sunday 13 May, 2018
Analysis: How the growing Trump scandal could affect his presidency

WASHINGTON – Ron Ziegler, President Richard Nixon's press secretary, famously called the Watergate break-in a "third-rate burglary attempt" — and then it exploded into a wide-ranging scandal involving political dirty tricks, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice, ultimately forcing Nixon's resignation.

The Whitewater scandal dogged Bill Clinton for most of his presidency, as an investigation into an Arkansas real estate deal spun off into inquiries into the suicide of a White House lawyer, the firings at the White House Travel Office — and finally, Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.

And now President Trump, too, finds himself in the midst of a series of controversies cascading like dominoes through the headlines.

What started as an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has morphed into an ever-expanding galaxy of scandals involving an adult-film star, influence peddling and — most recently — what the president knew about allegations of sexual abuse by the New York attorney general.

Just this past week, Trump has seen revelations that his personal attorney used his position to make more than $1 million from corporate clients trying to influence the president — and that he had funneled that money through the same account he used to pay hush money to an adult-film star alleging she had a sexual encounter with Trump.

"Yes, this has been a terrible week for him, but because it’s Trump, terrible is a relative word," said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton lawyer who now specializes in political crisis management.

Unlike previous scandals, Trump faces a different political and media environment than past presidents — differences that could either help him to weather the storm or face a crippled presidency. The cumulative effect of Trump's scandals has put him on the defensive. He's publicly decried the Russia investigation as a "witch hunt," but has been more circumspect in dealing with the allegations he paid hush money to an adult-film star.

After that actress, Stormy Daniels, gave an interview to 60 Minutes last month, Trump went 11 days without addressing the allegation, largely avoiding press encounters where it might come up.

In the short term, the headlines are distracting from the issues that Trump would prefer to talk about — including tax cuts, a recovering economy and his historic opening to North Korea. But the sheer number of scandals can have an impact on a president's approval rating, his relationship with Congress, and how he governs.

University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus has studied scandals from Nixon to George W. Bush and found patterns in the ways that presidents respond to scandals.

• They give more speeches. After a mini-hiatus following the defeat of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore last December, Trump has returned to holding monthly campaign rallies, mostly in states he won in 2016. In a rally last week, he made no mention of the controversies, but instead attacked Democrats running for Congress. "Give me some reinforcements, please," he told 7,000 people in Elkhart, Ind.

• They pick fewer fights with Congress. After successfully getting a tax cut package passed last December, Trump's legislative agenda has largely stalled. His top priorities — infrastructure and immigration — appear unlikely to pass before the midterm elections in November.

• They take fewer unilateral executive actions. After signing 101 executive orders and presidential memoranda in 2017, Trump has had just 26 appear in the Federal Register this year as of Friday.

Usually, presidents face a point where they "come clean" — or at least take some action to try to mitigate a scandal.

Trump hasn't done that.

His defiant response to scandals is informed by his decades as a target of New York tabloid media: When hit with an accusation, deny it — and then hit back harder against the accuser. And never apologize.

Trump has been able to stand his ground in part because the political situation hasn't much changed since he was elected: The GOP remains in control of Congress, and his support among his political base hasn't wavered.

"The ultimate end of a scandal is impeachment, and if the president's not afraid of that, there's no sanction that can hold him accountable," said Rottinghaus.

But also, he said, the growing complexity of the scandals can work to the president's advantage, as voters begin to be desensitized and lose the plot. To his supporters, the media coverage could look like "piling on."

In Clinton's case, that swarm of scandal hurt his approval ratings and led to the "Clinton fatigue" that ultimately hurt Vice President Al Gore's 2000 election prospects.

But it also led to a public backlash against the never-ending cycle of investigations by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose mandate grew to include matters that had little or nothing to do with the real estate deal.

As a result, Congress did not reauthorize the independent counsel statute in 1999, putting the Justice Department back in charge of appointing and supervising investigations into the president.

Indeed, the latest revelations involving Trump have come not from special counsel Robert Mueller, who's investigating the Russia connections, but from career prosecutors in New York. There, the FBI raided the home and office of Trump's personal attorney.

One tactic the White House has used is to insulate the president's past personal behavior from the presidency itself, setting up an outside team of lawyers to deal with it.

At least 27 times over the past two weeks, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and her deputies have referred questions about the controversies to the lawyers.

"As you know, due to the complications of the different components of this investigation, I would refer you to the president's outside counsel to address those concerns," Sanders said last week.

Davis, the former Clinton attorney who now specializes in crisis management for a number of political clients, said that's probably a smart strategy. But eventually, Trump needs to take some decisive action.

"Usually in crisis management, you have a terrible week, and your first rule is to get it all over with," he said. "In the case of Trump, he seems to not care.

"The reason why his crisis management strategy is not working is because his team cannot trust that he's able to focus on reality and that he's telling them the truth."

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/13/donald-trump-how-growing-scandal-may-affect-presidency/603852002/

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