Donald Trump is flailing like never before – thanks to Robert Mueller and a coalition of angry high school students

David Usborne
Donald Trump gestures to the media as he leaves the White House: AP

To suggest that time may be up for Donald Trump will induce groans of ‘here you go again’. We have predicted his demise a hundred times before, have we not? The man is a self-healing bicycle tyre; he suffers ghastly gashes, many self-inflicted, but always re-inflates.

Yet we, at the very least, are at a moment of maximum peril for this president. Never mind the recent uptick in his approval ratings. In the space of a few days, Trump has lost control of the narrative in two vital areas: gun control and the threat posed by Russia.

The high school shooting in South Florida which left 17 students and adults dead was reportedly greeted by the White House as a handy distraction from all the messes it had been struggling to contain, ranging from claims by yet another woman that she’d had an extramarital affair with the president to the bungled firing of a top aide accused of physical abuse by two former wives.

That this White House could be grateful for the slaughter says enough all on its own. But then there was the President’s response to it. He visited survivors but we wondered if he’d have bothered had the hospital not been so close to his Mar-a-Lago weekend home. Then the next day he lambasted the FBI, saying it had dropped the ball in Florida because it spent too much time probing Russian influence in the 2016 election.

If the kids at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School weren’t livid enough, that really set them off. They saw a president caring more about his own political skin than about the deaths of so many of their friends. “Their lives were gone in an instant,” one twitter message, apparently from a survivor, said. “You are the President of the United States and you have the audacity to put this on Russia as an excuse. I guess I should expect that from you.”

Commentators at first predicted that this mass shooting would no more compel the country to take action on guns than any of those that came before it. Republicans who can’t imagine angering the National Rifle Association, would again sit on their hands. Trump would remain untroubled by his hypocrisy of having once supported an assault weapon ban only to reverse his stance once elected President. One of his first acts in office was to dilute gun restrictions.

But I wonder: the teenage survivors are already a force. It is because of them that Trump is today on the defensive, signalling a change of heart on a bill in Congress that would go some way to bolstering the flawed system for background checks before guns can be sold. But the students, who are planning a march on Washington in March, will demand much more than that.

The Parkland shooting spoiled what should have been a fun Presidents Day weekend for Trump. Aides persuaded him to stay away from the golf course on Saturday and Sunday because swinging the irons just miles from the high school in question might not have been the best optics. By Monday, he’d had enough of being respectful and dashed to the links anyway.

But as the usual cascade of weekend tweets made clear, it wasn’t the school that was on his mind in Mar-a-Lago so much as Russia and Robert Mueller. Trump’s efforts to persuade the American people that the Russian probe is a hoax was rendered incontrovertibly laughable on Friday when the Justice Department unveiled indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups for directly interfering with the 2016 elections.

Trump seized on the absence of anything in Friday’s filings proving collusion between Russia and him. Just because that was the case with these indictments it doesn’t mean the question of collusion has gone away. It is beginning to dawn on us, however, that collusion is only one part of the story. The other part - where Trump's guilt is already established - is the campaign that Russia has been waging to poison the democratic system in America.

How much more does Trump have to learn about this before he acknowledges the threat is severe and hostile? All those indicted by Mueller last week can be tied in some manner to the Kremlin and therefore Vladimir Putin. Yet the American President says nothing and does nothing. Well, that’s not quite true - he says it’s all Barack Obama’s fault because it started on his watch.

On Tuesday, Trump vented: “He thought Crooked Hillary was going to win and he didn’t want to “rock the boat.” When I easily won the Electoral College, the whole game changed and the Russian excuse became the narrative of the Dems.” In another tweet he contended: “I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!”

Tough how? This week we learned that fake social media accounts with Russian fingerprints swung into action within hours of the Florida shooting with the goal of widening the gulf that divides the different camps on gun control and making political compromise all the harder. Russia isn’t just fooling with the democratic process in America, it is fooling with what we read on our phones, with our judgment and with our brains. Yet Trump twiddles his fingers. Has there been even one National Security Council discussion about this? There has not.

Trump can no longer pretend what Mueller is doing doesn’t matter. He can afford even less to dismiss the Florida high school students as they organise statewide and soon nationally to demand radical change on gun control. This is a President who needs to keep control of the political circus lest he be exposed as a total incompetent.