Surprisingly, it snowed in Washington, but the temperature rose in the White House. So far, the array of investigations centering on president Donald Trump have been prologue. Now, Chapter One is starting to be written.
The president is alarmed. He Tweets in the middle of the night. “No collusion,” is his daily favorite phrase, with “witch hunt” a close second.
He claims that all alone, free of legal advisors, he has written replies to questions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller about Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and that this ends the Mueller-Trump discourse. Nobody believes the president.
No lawyer would ever allow a client to freelance written answers to investigators. Moreover, the Mueller questions did not relate to what in time may be the central issue of impeachment hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives: Obstruction of justice.
Four distinct threats
As I have previously reported, there are multiple parallel sources of danger for Trump. Right now, he faces four distinct, yet overlapping threats to his political and business fortunes:
- More indictments of former Trump friends by Special Counsel Mueller.
- A series of high-profile court sentences of former Trump associates who have pleaded guilty to assorted crimes.
- A host of investigations to be launched by various committees of the House of Representatives, now that the Democrats have the majority there.
- The determination of New York State’s newly elected attorney-general, Letitia James, to go after Trump after she noted in her victory speech: “New Yorkers, we can spot a con man.”
Mueller takes aim
Washington is awash with rumors that Special Counsel Mueller, who has already issued over 30 indictments against individuals related to his investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, is about to bring charges against more Trump associates, including just possibly Donald Trump Jr.
Mueller has been investigating whether the Trump campaign was involved in the timing in late 2016 of the publication by Wikileaks of torrents of damaging e-mails from the Hilary Clinton campaign.
A central figure in the inquiry is Roger Stone, an old friend of Trump, and a former partner of Paul Manafort, the one-time 2016 Trump campaign manager, who now faces jail. James Corsi, an associate of Stone, has publicly stated that he expects to be indicted soon. Wikileaks is believed to have obtained the information from Russian hackers.
Related to this inquiry is the pursuit by Mueller of all the events that surrounded a meeting at Trump Tower with Russians said to have close Kremlin ties, involving Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, for the express purpose of securing damaging information on Hilary Clinton.
A volcano of bad publicity
Meanwhile, Trump cannot escape a volcano of bad publicity as his former key associates face judgement in the courts.
On December 12, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former top business lawyer will be sentenced after reaching an extensive plea agreement with prosecutors, which includes the revelation that he lied to Congress about the dealings of the Trump organization in Russia – Cohen now says he was negotiating with top Moscow officials until June 2016 about building a Trump tower building there and he continuously kept Donald Trump and his family informed. Until now, Trump has always said he had no dealings with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Cohen has also provided information to prosecutors about the hush money payments he made just before the election for Trump to cover up alleged affairs with two women.
On December 18, Michael Flynn, the former White House national security chief and former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, will face court sentencing after having pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his various dealings with Russians in 2016.
And, then on February 9, Paul Manafort, who was found guilty by a jury on various charges of fraud and tax evasion, while he also entered into a plea agreement on charges related to the presidential campaign. Now, Mueller has suddenly announced the plea deal is invalid as he claimed Manafort has consistently lied and Mueller will provide full details to support this claim in the courts before long.
Manafort’s deputy as campaign manager and his former business colleague, Rick Gates, is still cooperating with Mueller and his sentencing date has yet to be set. It seems likely that this may coincide with the conclusion of the Mueller investigation and the finalizing of a comprehensive report.
Attempts by the new acting U.S. attorney-general, Matt Whitaker, to stop the public release of the report would likely be challenged by prominent politicians in both houses of Congress and add to the sense of White House crisis.
Trump’s worst nightmare
Indeed, Congressional investigations may prove to be the worst of all of Trump’s impending nightmares. There are many targets and many members of Congress keen to take aim.
They will go after Whitaker himself, who seems to have been selected by Trump solely on the basis of his many previous public statements deriding the Mueller investigation and whose qualifications as America’s top law enforcer are questionable.
Plans are taking shape for a host of investigations led by the Democratic Party majority in the House of Representatives, including: the alleged unethical conflict-of-interest activities of several of Trump’s cabinet members.
These include the secretaries of Interior, Commerce, Environment and possibly Treasury, and the business profits made by the firms that are still controlled by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, despite both of them being on the government’s payroll as White House advisors.
There is also the issue of expenses for security that the U.S. government has as Donald Trump Jr. travels the world promoting the Trump brand – his trip to India alone is said to have involved around $100,000 in taxpayer cash.
And, of course, there will be several House investigations, including public hearings, which explicitly relate to the alleged multiple connections between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russians, including Trump business dealings.
Letitia James enters the stage
Now, as the curtain goes up on the made-for-Broadway drama, “The Decline and Fall of Donald Trump,” so Letitia James enters the stage.
The first African-American woman to be New York state’s leading prosecutor declared as her election victory was announced: “We can spot a carnival barker. I will shine a light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings, and every dealing.”
It is just plain old good politics for Ms. James to secure as much publicity as she can by targeting Trump and her sights will be on the tax returns that the president refuses to make public, the international sources of funding that the Trump organization has tapped over the years, as well as alleged fraud by the Trump foundation.
All of these events combined will dominate Washington politics for months to come. As the facts emerge and as Trump’s troubles mount, so the number of Democratic Party politicians to announce plans to run for president in the 2020 elections will multiply — but that’s another story.
Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn
US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.
So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.
Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”.
That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.
The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards.
That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.
The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.
Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer
When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?
But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.
So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point.
Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.
Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.
I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.
As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them
Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*
In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.
Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.
New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming
To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.
Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.
We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.
How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?
Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.
As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.
Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.
Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.
Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.
Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.
Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.
Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.
Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.
Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.
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