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How firing James Comey could still be Donald Trump's undoing

Robert Mueller is attempting to find out if Trump tried to thwart the federal investigation into Russian meddling.

“It is almost always the cover up rather than the event that causes trouble,” once remarked the late US senator Howard Baker. Having served as a member of the US Senate's special committee investigating the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in 1972, he knew what he was talking about.

Baker had seen closely how Richard Nixon’s obstruction of the Watergate investigation had effectively ended his presidency. His words may have some resonance today, as investigators try to determine whether Donald Trump tried to hinder the federal probe into reported Russian interference during the 2016 US presidential election.

Different congressional committees are conducting their own probes, but all eyes are on the federal investigation led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the US Justice Department. Besides seeking to determine the scope of the suspected Russian interference, Mueller is trying to ascertain if individuals associated with the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government, as well as whether there are any compromising Trump business activities linked to Russia.

Mueller is also attempting to find out if Trump tried to thwart the federal investigation conducted by James Comey, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the early months of Trump's presidency. Trump fired Comey in May 2017, citing the FBI chief's decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails days before the 2016 election. Since Trump had repeatedly capitalised on Clinton's email irregularities, this explanation rang hollow. 

If Trump did try to obstruct the investigation, it should be relatively easy to prove. By contrast, pursuing the other lines of inquiry – Russian meddling, conspiracy and dubious business deals – are unlikely to be worth the effort. Mueller will not have access to some of the relevant Russian information sources and his findings will be of modest significance. 

Although any Russian involvement is particularly galling for many Americans possessing a residual Cold War mindset, it should not be surprising. Historically, a wide range of countries, from Nazi Germany to China have tried to influence US elections. Even Britain tried to nudge America into the Second World War. Although it is illegal for foreign nationals to contribute money to American political campaigns, the landmark 2010 US Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the door to foreign-controlled corporations donating to the fundraising committees known as "super-pacs". American policymakers are also not immune to the influence of foreign-funded lobbyists, advocacy groups and think tanks in Washington. Thus, Russian efforts are not exceptional.

In this permeable political environment, proving a conspiracy will be hard. Even if Mueller succeeds in uncovering a plot, it is unlikely to implicate Trump directly. Unlike his family members and campaign staff, Trump apparently did not attend any private meetings with Russian officials during the election campaign. It will be tough to prove what he knew about those meetings. 

Revelations of questionable business deals are also unlikely to affect Trump. Most people are already aware that business leaders like him seek profits amorally. And it would be surprising for the US government not to have already known about any such activities, given his pre-presidency celebrity.

However, if Mueller determines that Trump intentionally tried to obstruct the federal investigation, Trump could face impeachment, as did President Bill Clinton for lying to investigators about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Some argue that Trump’s subsequent firing of Comey even constitutes rule-breaking.

In a recent interview, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said that firing Comey was the biggest mistake in “modern political history”. Small wonder that in the last few weeks the White House has been smearing Comey publicly to undermine his credibility. A show-down may be looming. Mueller has requested White House documents relating to Comey’s firing and Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, who had Russian contacts.. His team has also started interviewing White House staff.

For now, the White House seems to have adopted as its strategy long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone’s motto: “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.” Stone was once a member of Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President, a group whose members were involved in the Watergate break-in. If Trump did not bend or break the rules, this strategy is unwarranted. If he did, it will be futile, just as it was for Nixon.

Arslan Malik teaches at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, outside Washington, D.C. Until earlier this year, he worked at the US Department of State

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How Japan is preparing for the great flood

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist