This Is How It Ends

It ends with President Trump leaving office before his full term, of course. I don’t know exactly how he’ll leave, or when. But the crucial question isn’t whether Trump’s departure is imminent; the question is whether his departure is inevitable.

So just ask yourself: Do you really believe this man can fulfill his full four-year term of office? Do you really believe Trump can last in the presidency for another 44 months?

And there’s your answer. He’s going to go.

From that inevitable fact, we can derive several more truths—and those truths are where the shambling mess of the Trump Administration, and the ham-fisted hand-wringing of Republicans in Congress, start to touch the world of corporate compliance officers. Your boards, CEOs, operations leaders, and rank-and-file employees are all wondering when the fabled Trump deregulatory agenda will finally arrive.

The truth is this: it will never arrive. The Trump agenda will never arrive because Trump’s agenda is the glorification of Trump; or barring that, the mere preservation of Trump. And that’s all this country and our political leaders are going to discuss, until Trump inevitably goes—because this incompetent boob can’t even glorify and preserve his own behind, much less the collective behind of this great country.

Reform of the Dodd-Frank Act? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already says that may never happen. A more thoughtful approach to prosecution of corporate misconduct? Deputy attorney general Ron Rosenstein, who normally would play a large role in that effort, already ruined his reputation by going along with Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey. Tax reform? The Trump Administration’s “plan” is a list of inchoate bullet points, none of which have enough natural political constituency to become law.

The only competent executive branch leaders we have so far, whose roles directly influence corporate ethics and compliance, are SEC chairman Jay Clayton and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. Whether they can actually push through an agenda—which might be conservative; and will have critics; but won’t be anything we didn’t see in the Bush Administration—remains to be seen.

Pulling the Levers of Power

 I raised this point last winter: that the Republicans have far less power than one would assume. Their power is a mile wide, but only an inch deep; to get anything done, everyone must agree on what to do. That’s why Republicare failed in the House the first time, and barely passed the second time—and why it won’t pass in the Senate at all. It’s not that Republicans have no healthcare reform plan, although they don’t; they have an abundance of half-plans, that nobody can cobble together into one plan.

That fractured dynamic will play out again and again, on tax reform and trade policy, and eventually on calls for Trump to leave office.

Likewise, the key to driving Trump from office isn’t to pit Democrats against Republicans—it’s to pit Congress against the White House. And with a man like Trump, one part Warren Harding and one part Fredo Corleone, Democrats can achieve that split by binding Congressional Republicans and Trump together. It forces GOP lawmakers to defend Trump, at the expense of their own reputation and agenda. It sucks all other oxygen out of the room; all that the lawmakers have time to do is defend Trump yet again.

That’s exactly what Democrats have done. They have opposed virtually every nominee, and every legislative plan. They have called (rightly) for investigations into Trump’s misconduct at every turn. They have made sure that only two groups own the Trump Administration and the Trump agenda: congressional Republicans, and Trump. Then they sat back and let Trump drive congressional Republicans crazy with his incompetence. It wasn’t hard.

You could almost describe the Democrats this spring as waging a political Tet Offensive. Are their tirades against Trump doomed to fail? For now, yes. But the result is a regime with its weakness exposed, its incompetence and moral bankruptcy naked to the world. After Tet, the government of Vietnam was doomed to fall. Does anyone now believe this regime will prevail in righteous glory?

Last week I spoke at a conference in Miami, where one compliance officer asked my thoughts about the House’s regulatory reform legislation. It’s a mess, I said, and not likely to pass in its current form. Then I asked her—what do you and your board think will happen?

“We have no idea,” she answered. “And sure, my board does want to see at least some reform—probably a lot of reform. But they also told me they don’t want to bother with lots of change now, if Washington is just going to swing back the other way again in four years.”

I feel my friend’s pain, and I’m not saying that I expect the Democrats to sweep back into Congress and the White House with even more regulatory ambitions. But I see sense in her point that the best path for a firm now is probably to do nothing.

After all, the end of this farce is inevitable, and as former SEC chairman Harvey Pitt liked to say, “Sooner or later, even the inevitable happens.”

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