Barack Obama’s overseas trips as president were often notable for being ignored, because, almost like clockwork, they were overshadowed by turmoil elsewhere in the world. His historic visit to Cuba coincided with the bombing of Brussels airport. A world trade tour at the end of 2015 began hours after the the massacres of 130 people in Paris. And so on.
Donald Trump, it seems, has the same curse. He began his current swing through Asia a week ago amidst news of two dozen worshippers being gunned down in a church in Texas.
In the days since, however, a veritable pantomime of surprises has rendered the trip virtually invisible back home. Prostitutes on parade in Moscow. Underage girls and adult genitals in Alabama. Plots to smuggle a Turkish cleric out of America for millions in cash.
OK, let’s not get too crazy too quickly and consider first political panic of a more predictable nature. As always, the first Tuesday in November was election day in America. This was an off-year, true, but nonetheless millions went to the polls, choosing mayors, town supervisors, county commissioners and so forth. In two big states, governors were elected too. It wasn’t just that Republicans underperformed. They did horribly. Neither of their two key gubernatorial candidates, in Virginia and New Jersey, came anywhere close to winning their races.
After several let-downs in special congressional elections earlier this year, the Democrats broke through, inevitably boosting hopes that next year’s midterms could see the Republicans lose control of the Senate or the House of Representatives, if not both. The rubric of repudiation – of the governing party and of Trump – that they had yearned for for months at last came to be.
The joy was not just for the Democratic Party itself – Obama exalted the results on Twitter – but also the Resist movement generally, with multiple small victories with outsize significance. Virginia elected its first transgender state lawmaker. Voters in Helena, Montana, chose a former Liberian refugee as mayor. In Charlotte, North Carolina, they picked an African-American female as mayor for the first time. Hoboken, New Jersey, will have its first Sikh mayor. For minority candidates it was a bonanza night.
Perhaps no victory was sweeter than that of Ashley Bennett, who was moved to challenge a long-time Republican member of the Atlantic City local council after he used his Facebook page ahead of the Women’s March in Washington in January to ask, “Will the women’s march protest be over in time for them to come home to cook dinner?” He has paid for it now. He is off the council and Ms Bennett, a hospital administrator, is triumphantly on.
Whatever explains the shift of voter sentiment – was this finally the start of a Trump backlash? – the lesson for Republicans was clear: they had better focus like never before on passing this giant tax reform package they’ve been talking about for so long or woe betide them in the midterms next year. At least Trump was out of town. They should be spared of distractions.
Not quite. By Thursday, Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and his party were consumed by a newspaper report that Roy Moore, the already highly controversial Republican candidate in a special US Senate race in Alabama set for December, had abused teenage girls in the 1970s. The details of the story, published by the Washington Post, are lurid. Four woman accusers came forward and spoke on the record of their experiences with him. In all, 30 sources contributed to the story.
One of those to have accused Moore, who was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, spoke of him initiating sexual touching with her when she was 14. “I wasn’t ready for that — I had never put my hand on a man’s penis, much less an erect one,” the woman told the Post about one encounter with him. “I wanted it over with – I wanted out.” Moore, who is 70, has strenuously denied all the allegations. But one after another, Republican senators have made clear he must step down if there is any truth to them. Trump said the same in a tweet. John McCain demanded he step aside immediately.
The allegations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and disqualifying. He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) November 9, 2017
If Moore does withdraw, there are few options, if any, for the party to replace him. If he doesn’t, the whole country will watch to see how Alabama, with its deep ranks of conservative evangelicals, responds on polling day. The conversation is agonising for Republicans – if they lose the Alabama seat their majority in the Senate will be reduced to one – but for the country as a whole also, which is already confronting an ever-widening torrent of sexual abuse allegations that previously had mostly been confined to well-known figures in the entertainment industry.
We hardly had time to register testimony in a congressional hearing by Trump’s former director of security, Keith Schiller, never mind that it was about that one thing that has been swirling in Washington for months: what did he know about allegations made in the Russia dossier paid for by Democrats and written by a former British spy about Trump being visited by prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow in 2013, when he was running the Miss Universe contest? Quite a lot, as it happens. He had been approached by a Russian, or possibly a Ukrainian, man with an offer to deliver five women to Trump’s suite for sex. He had said no. And Trump had laughed it off.
This is no laughing matter. No one is naive enough to think this wasn’t an attempt by Russia to expose Trump, not President then but an American oligarch, to future blackmail. But beyond that, what are we to think? Sex for cash, sex with minors. What on earth is going on in America? We haven’t even got to the Turkey shenanigans yet.
If you have the energy it’s this: the Wall Street Journal alleged that Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor to Trump until he was sacked in February, is being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for an alleged plan hatched just last December to kidnap Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim cleric living in the US, and hand him over to President Tayyip Erdogan who regards him a political enemy. Flynn and his son allegedly were to be paid $15m for the operation, that would have short-circuited all the normal legal considerations of extradition.
There is a new refrain in Washington right now: you can’t make this stuff up. Meanwhile, back in Asia….