In two months’ time Americans will vote in mid-term elections for Congress, which could have a decisive effect on the final two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. With the passing of the Labour Day holiday on Monday, campaigning has moved from the background to the top of the news agenda.
As a general rule, the party of the incumbent president tends to lose seats in the mid-term elections, often harming the White House’s ability to pass legislation. But this time the stakes are higher. If the Republicans lose control of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress, it would bring impeachment of the president – currently a political impossibility – into the realm of practicality for the Democrats.
Into this fevered atmosphere Bob Woodward, the star newspaperman whose reporting brought down Richard Nixon in the 1970s, has thrust a new book, Fear, which paints an even more damning portrait of the Trump White House than earlier volumes of this uniquely Washington genre.
The White House is “crazytown” (according to Chief of Staff John Kelly), a “zoo without walls” (former chief of staff Reince Priebus) and a place where staff are conducting a permanent “administrative coup d’etat” to frustrate the president’s dangerous impulses (Mr Woodward himself).
Mr Trump has dismissed the book as fiction, while suggesting that it is timed to help the Democrats in the election campaign. Some key staffers have issued pro forma denials that they ever said what they are quoted as saying.
One can imagine that some dismissed staffers might have wanted to use Mr Woodward to get their revenge on the president. (Mr Priebus is said to have been described by Mr Trump as a “rat” scurrying around the White House.)
What emerges most clearly is Mr Trump’s contempt for the mainstream views of the military and the intelligence services. Mr Trump asks, for instance, what is the point of spending money to defend South Korea? Defence Secretary James Mattis replies, “To prevent World War Three”, later likening the president’s grasp of national security matters to that of a “fifth or sixth grader”.
True or not, Mr Trump believes he was elected to challenge and disrupt the old ways of Washington thinking. Even his predecessor, Barack Obama, railed against the bellicose, group-think instincts of the US foreign policy establishment, albeit at a rather more academic level.
Other books have presented a similarly dysfunctional portrait of an administration in crisis. The use of “deep background” interviews, of which the source can never be identified, is always open to criticism. But Mr Woodward has plenty of experience in this kind of reporting and is widely praised for playing with a straight bat, even in the past by Mr Trump himself.
It is usually said that Mr Trump's voters tune out critical news about him, dismissing it as part of a witch hunt organised by the defeated liberal establishment. But polling analyst Nate Silver cautions against believing that Republican voters are unaffected by the Robert Mueller investigation into the president's alleged collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election and the misdeeds of his inner circle, which have been brought to light as a result.
Pollsters note that Mr Trump’s approval rating has sunk to 40.1 per cent, against 54.1 percent who disapprove, following news that his lawyer, Michael Cohen, has pleaded guilty to illegal campaign finance contributions and his former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, has been convicted of tax fraud.
These numbers are not a promising springboard for the mid-term elections. In order to win the House of Representatives, the Democrats need to retain all their 194 seats and flip 24 which are Republican-held. Mr Silver argues that a Democratic lead of 5-6 per cent – which would usually be a handsome margin of victory – may not be enough to win. It might require a margin of 9-10 per cent.
A further reason for caution is that the Democratic Party, which should be in a strong position to poach the votes of anti-Trump conservatives, is moving ever farther to the left, energised by a youthful base that no longer sees socialism as a dirty word. This might make the party feel good but it is not a recipe for success in attracting voters from the right. If the Republicans can portray the Democrats as overly-focused on racial justice and gay rights, their poll numbers could be reduced.
Democrats taking the House would upend the political calculations of the Trump presidency. The House can start impeachment proceedings against the president with a simple majority. It is then up to the Senate to try the president, but that requires a two-thirds majority – a high bar to pass.
Given that the Democrats’ chances of taking control of the Senate are slim, a successful impeachment would require a large number of Republican votes, which would only be forthcoming if Mr Mueller finds indisputable evidence of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. There is no sign of that kind of proof so far.
But that does not mean that the Mueller investigation will go away. According to the Woodward book, Mr Trump's former lawyer, John Dowd, arranged a rehearsal of a meeting with Mr Mueller to test whether the president would incriminate himself. Mr Trump believed he would be a convincing witness but his lawyer later told him he would end up in an orange jumpsuit if he did.
So the President will most likely one day refuse to speak to the investigator, an act which tends to make the suspect look guilty.
In the end Mr Trump might survive the investigation. But the impact on him and his feeling of being surrounded by enemies is plain to see. Mr Woodward recounts one phone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who said: “Donald, I’m worried about this investigation. Are you going to be around?”
The question must be on the minds of many other foreign leaders, most visibly in the cautious attitude of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Suffice to say, the next two months should provide some clarity.