This week, 204 years ago, Napoleon, a despot to some, a savior to others, was sent to jail on the Island of Elba. Napoleon’s rise to power was propagated by the ultimate political fixer: charming, witty, self-serving and completely unprincipled. In reading this history, I found echoes in political events this week. Charming, witty, self-serving, unprincipled, could Paul Ryan, in missing the (likely) demise of Trump, aim to become a modern day Talleyrand?
The French Revolution produced more twists and turns than a modern day thriller. The revolution lurched from modest start of the Estates-General in 1789, through the liberal constitution of 1791 and the prospect of a constitutional monarchy. Following the insurrection of August 1792 it stumbled into the First Republic, Regicide and the obscene paranoid absurdity of the Reign of Terror. Then the whole edifice crashed down into Napoleon’s military dictatorship, the battles, the invasions and imprisonment followed by the Bourbon restorations.
Talleyrand, friend of Alexander Hamilton and house guest of Aaron Burr (he would have hated to be left out of the musical), wove through the heart of 18thCentury US and French Politics, always keeping above the squalor and ignominy. Keeping in favor. He was crucial in the early formative years of the revolution, then fled. Luckily for him he missed the Terror (he would have died). He missed the regicide. He kept his hand clean, and himself alive. On his return to France he was instrumental in the coup that rose Napoleon to power, became the dictator’s top diplomat then, with Napoleon’s fall, played a role in the Bourbon restoration too.
As the noose tightens around the 45th President, as the resignations and stand-downs mount, I find parallels with that history. The current squalor in Washington lacks the savage, tragic power of 18th Century France, but there are echoes in the paranoia of the mob, the demands for loyalty and the cruel bullying mentality. The threat posed by the narcissist who’s fate seems increasingly inevitable.
What is the similarity between Paul Ryan and Talleyrand? Well, apart from the unscrupulous self-interest, it is another ability Paul Ryan hopes they share: The ability to absent yourself from the regicide, the inevitable removal of Trump, only to rise again from the ashes. In Talleyrand’s case he rose as a King-Maker, in Ryan’s case he hopes to rise as a King.
Paul Ryan’s decision to “spend more time with his family” signals his own exile to K Street. I suspect that Ryan knows that Trump’s Presidency will eventually self-immolate, maybe even prior to 2020. The treatment of those GOP members seen as participants in Trump’s fall by the republican base in the 2019-2020 primaries will be irrational and merciless. Trump is a man who still carries a 40% approval ratings in the country and approvals in the GOP in the high 80s. A man Fox News loves. Venerated by certain sections of the populous despite, well, everything.
But the net is closing in and Trump knows it. Let’s review what happened this week:
The FBI stormed into the offices, the hotel room, the apartment of the personal attorney of the President of the United States, breaking down doors at 6 am, because they feared that attorney could destroy evidence.
In that raid the FBI removed personal emails between the lawyer and the President which, due the suspected nature of the crimes, are not covered under Attorney/Client privilege.
Read those last two sentences again. Now imagine them applied to any other President, even Nixon. Yet, here we are. The muted reaction to this raid, especially from the Congressional leadership, shows the level of corruption we now consider to be the new normal.
The only person screaming about the Cohen raid is Trump, and Trump is looking (and sounding) scared. Eventually he will lash out and all hell will break loose. But what, realistically, can he do? Sack Mueller or Rosenstein? If he did he risks immediate impeachment (well, okay, not quite immediate but soon after the GOP Primaries when GOP Reps may suddenly grow a backbone). Pardon the people in his inner sanctum? He can’t. If he does, whoever is pardoned will lose their Fifth Amendment rights as they can no longer incriminate themselves. They can then be compelled, under contempt of court, to testify under oath. He cannot self-pardon.
All political careers end in tears, only a very few, at least in Democracies, end in the prospect of jail.
The Scooter Libby pardon Trump enacted on Friday was a test flight, not for the pardons Trump will make, but for the pardons President Pence will likely be making in the future. The pardon that says to Trump’s cronies: Keep silent, we’ll look after you, maybe not now, but eventually, and for life.
Paul Ryan’s decision moves him away from this circus and confirms the likelihood of the House being lost in the fall. If Ryan stayed he’d lose power, influence and be placed in politically difficult circumstances. Think how Hillary Clinton’s decision on Iraq haunted her, now think about Ryan and a potential Impeachment. Support Trump, face the wrath of the general electorate. Support Impeachment, face the wrath of the base. Or, take the Talleyrand route and miss the regicide in comfort.
If you were Paul Ryan it would be safer to excuse yourself from the whole sorry mess, make some (serious) money on K Street or Wall Street, then, when President Pence pardons Trump (and the rest) and pays the inevitable electoral price (a la Gerald Ford) you can, like your 18th Century mentor, return from exile and assume your rightful position at the head of the party. Squeaky clean in 2024 at the (still young) age of 54.
Private Citizen Ryan will have been saved, to be replaced in his fever dreams by himself as the 47th President.