DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Will Donald Trump go from West Wing to Sing Sing?

From West Wing to Sing Sing? DAVID CAY JOHNSTON says the price of defeat for Donald Trump is the loss of immunity from a criminal inquiry into tax and insurance fraud that could put him in jail

Every American president cares about their image, but Donald Trump’s instincts for self-promoting propaganda are rather more unusual than most.

So perhaps we should not be too surprised that, according to reports, the President planned to wear a Superman T-shirt under his business suit when he emerged from his three-day hospital stay earlier this month.

The pudgy 74-year-old repeatedly told aides that, like Clark Kent, he wanted to rip off his shirt and tie to display the T-shirt to mark his triumph over coronavirus, claimed the New York Times.

Trump was persuaded to abandon the idea. But the extraordinary claim shows just how desperate this beleaguered President has become to reignite the fervour that once surrounded him.

When his presidency ends, so does his automatic immunity from trial on criminal charges. A grand jury in Manhattan has already been investigating Trump on suspicion of bank, insurance and tax fraud

Four years ago, positioning himself as an outsider from the Washington Establishment, Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’. Now he is the swamp’s biggest monster.

His prospects of winning a second term are crumbling around him. In June, I wrote in these pages that, despite the multitude of challenges he then faced, it would be foolish to write off a man who has, for decades, invariably confounded his critics. Since then, however, the tide has turned.

On Thursday night’s final debate against his Democrat opponent Joe Biden, Trump was mauled over his mishandling of coronavirus.

He has presided over the deaths of 220,000 Americans, more than were killed in World War I, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined, and about a fifth of all the world’s deaths from the virus.

Any president who has overseen such a fiasco does not deserve his office, said Biden.

Trump, for his part, could insist only that the virus would ‘go away’ — just as, back in February, he claimed ‘one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear’.

Former president Barack Obama, who has kept a low profile for much of the campaign, spoke for millions this week when he emerged to scorn Trump’s ‘incompetence and misinformation’ over Covid. Many thousands, he added, ‘might not have died had we just done the basics’.

Ronald Reagan won the 1984 election with the slogan ‘Morning in America’. Now a campaign by senior Republicans working against Trump airs biting television ads warning that, under this president, it’s ‘mourning in America’.

On Thursday night’s final debate against his Democrat opponent Joe Biden, Trump was mauled over his mishandling of coronavirus

These days, Trump cuts a lonely and isolated figure. The reported mood from the West Wing is of a collapsing empire. His aides, speaking to White House reporters, say that, in private, Trump often seems to have given up, realising he will likely lose and pondering his future as an ex-President.

They note he continues to spend hours each day watching the Right-wing Fox News channel while tweeting obsessively, rarely bothering to attend his daily national security briefings. I doubt he is sleeping well.

I have followed Trump for more than 30 years, having first met him in 1988 when, as a financial journalist, I investigated his casino operations and explored his friendships with the Mafia in Atlantic City.

I have never seen him looking so desperate, from his ever-louder demands to ‘lock up’ his political opponents to his increasingly erratic and unseemly public behaviour.

With just ten days to go until the election, his former allies are deserting him. Hundreds of retired military officers, intelligence officials and prosecutors are lining up to denounce him as unfit, calling his presidency a threat to democracy and national security and pledging to vote for Biden.

Growing numbers of prominent, lifelong Republicans also say they will hold their noses and — just this once — support the Democrats’ candidate.

Donors are now shunning Trump, and he could easily run out of money before November 3, even after slashing spending on the television adverts that are so vital in reaching would-be voters. Biden, meanwhile, is flush with cash, having raised a record $748 million (£574 million) in August and September this year alone.

America’s uniquely partisan atmosphere does not make it easy, but the job of any U.S. President is to unite the nation. Instead of trying to broaden his appeal, Trump has focused on getting his ‘base’ of about 40 per cent of voters to turn out at the polls. 

He rallies supporters at events on airport Tarmacs — branding these ‘protests against masking’ — and ramps up their intensity by calling on Attorney General William Barr to find some charge to lay against Biden’s ‘criminal enterprise’ family. (Barr has yet to oblige.)

Mine is a patriotic country whose citizens rally round their troops. Disgracefully, however, Trump has taken to denigrating fallen soldiers, sailors and Marines, calling them ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’. This has repulsed ordinary Americans. 

As a candidate four years ago, Trump mocked President Obama for ‘playing more golf than people on the PGA Tour’. 

He promised he would work so hard to change America that he would never leave the White House, spurning his own golf courses for his full term.

Instead, he has spent a third of his days as President at his golf resorts and hotels, at an estimated cost to U.S. taxpayers of more than $340million (£261million) for the privilege — much of that money paid to his own private companies for rooms, meals and the use of golf carts by his Secret Service bodyguards.

All reputable polls now show Biden with a commanding lead. He is poised to win the election even without the support of southern states that have been solidly Republican for more than half a century.

Yet this year, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Texas and both North and South Carolina — all part of the slave-owning Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s — are now in play for Biden. Winning them would be truly historic: over the past 12 presidential elections, a Democrat has carried Texas and Arizona only once each.

In June, I predicted in the Mail that Biden would win the popular vote by at least 16 million ballots. Now I think I was too cautious: 20 million seems more likely.

(It’s worth remembering that, owing to the way the system works, a president can lose the popular vote but still win the election — this has happened five times over the 58 presidential elections, including, though Trump hates to be reminded of it, in 2016.)

Some 47 million Americans — perhaps a third of the total number who will vote — have already cast their ballots by post or in person. Every evening, the television news here features long queues of people voting ahead of November 3.

Your Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, beat Jeremy Corbyn to win a ‘Red Wall’ of parliamentary seats from Labour strongholds in the North of England in last December’s General Election. 

Former president Barack Obama, who has kept a low profile for much of the campaign, spoke for millions this week when he emerged to scorn Trump’s ‘incompetence and misinformation’ over Covid

In a striking parallel, many U.S. voters are telling officials that, though they are lifelong Republicans, they are switching their allegiances in disgust at their party’s candidate this year.

Meanwhile, most decent Americans are appalled at the increasing violence and coarsening of our public discourse.

This summer, hundreds of armed residents swarmed the state capitol in Michigan, holding semi-automatic rifles while standing menacingly in the gallery above the state Senate. Some carried deeply offensive slavery-era Confederate flags and even Nazi standards.

Trump, who has waged a long feud with the Democrat Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, has called on the people of that state to ‘liberate’ it from her. In total, 14 people have been arrested in plots to kidnap and assassinate this elected official. At his rallies, he continues to lead his fans in chants to ‘lock her up’.

Four years into this presidency, white supremacy is on the rise in America again. The so-called ‘Proud Boys’, a violent white supremacist movement and a kind of 21st-century Ku Klux Klan, have been urged by Trump to ‘stand back and stand by’. They have adopted his words as their slogan.

Until the pandemic struck, Trump could at least point to a booming economy, though the rate of growth in fact slowed significantly from the final six years under President Obama.

Last month, however, the New York Times published sensational revelations showing that Trump, who markets himself as a ‘genius’ billionaire, had paid no income taxes at all in ten years and a paltry $750 (£576) in 2016 and 2017.

Many voters were enraged. American police, nurses and teachers typically pay at least ten times as much in tax. All in all, it’s been an atrocious campaign for Trump — and it seems to be getting worse.

Yet could he still win in spite of everything? It’s highly unlikely — but not impossible.

Trump retains a strong instinct for playing dirty: his campaign supporters are suspected of covertly removing Biden supporters from voting rolls while challenging voting rules in court and even making Democratic ballots ‘disappear’.

Attempted election theft is in the works through intimidation campaigns and decoy ballot boxes; while, in California, a ballot box was set ablaze.

If you can’t win, cheat — and Trump has never shied away from cheating.

But my money is still on a comfortable Biden win.

Four years ago, I warned on American television that Trump’s presidency would end badly. He is not a man to acknowledge defeat or even error. He has said throughout his presidency that if he ‘loses’, it will be only because the Democrats rigged the vote. Given his fondness for whipping up groups of militarised vigilantes, this should alarm us all.

Nonetheless, barring some huge upset, Trump should be out of the White House on January 20 and Barack Obama’s former deputy will be sworn in as America’s 46th President at the age of 78. Don’t be surprised if Trump petulantly boycotts the inauguration.

On October 16, Trump mused that if he lost to Biden: ‘I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country.’

I was not surprised to hear him say that. When his presidency ends, so does his automatic immunity from trial on criminal charges. A grand jury in Manhattan has already been investigating Trump on suspicion of bank, insurance and tax fraud.

Trump has twice gone to the U.S. Supreme Court to block this grand jury from seeing his accounting and tax records, with his lawyers describing this as a political move ‘intended to harass the President’.Nonetheless, according to the New York prosecutor, the probe involves ‘possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organisation’.

The Supreme Court has firmly rejected the idea that any president is above the law. Were an indictment issued, the state could pre-emptively seize Trump’s assets. If convicted, he would face 15 years in prison: a life sentence for a man his age, not to mention the utter disgrace it would confer.

If Trump loses the election, it would also surely mean an end to his oft-stated dream of a Trump dynasty ruling America for ever. He had wanted his daughter, Ivanka, to be his 2016 running mate and he has repeatedly fantasised about Ivanka and his son Donald Jr. succeeding him in the White House.

Instead, as senior employees of the Trump Organisation, they face a strong prospect of spending the next few years in civil and criminal courts testifying on behalf of their dad — and perhaps even defending themselves.

It’s often said that all political careers end in failure. Donald Trump’s, if it comes to an end in ten days’ time, could prove to be the ultimate failing of all.

n David Cay Johnston is the author of The Making Of Donald Trump and It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What The Trump Administration Is Doing To America.

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