There continues to be a steady drip of revelations about Russian links, unending lies surrounding them and a snowballing accumulation of lawsuits.
I’m now trying to imagine what specific revelations would have to come to light for this presidency to be fatally wounded, and which Republicans would eventually stand up to Donald Trump.
A cautionary note comes from a post last September, when I wondered what then-candidate Trump could say or do at that point that would lose him a significant fraction of supporters. I came up with few ideas. Looking back, I note that that column appeared a few weeks before the infamous, and ultimately inconsequential, groping-women revelations.
While he’s now president, his raving, hallucinatory allegations of wiretapping and plots everywhere still barely register on the collective Republican psyche. Is there anything at all he could say that would stop Republicans in their tracks?
Based on past experience, open use of racial or religious slurs wouldn’t make any difference. Similarly, on the sexual front, there seems to be little disqualifying behavior short of—perhaps—offering to “put his junk” on the presidential lectern or publicly groping his daughter. It seems likely that his most religious supporters would even forgive him if he modified John Lennon’s famous statement to proclaim that “Trump is more popular than Jesus.”
More evidence of personal or familial corruption with Trump is also unlikely to do the trick, given the amazing tolerance by Republicans to date, unless he was actually arrested. But what if it were demonstrated that the Trump organization, in its shady real estate dealings with known bad actors in Azerbaijan, was legally liable on money-laundering charges?
The Russian connections promise to be even more potent. But what, specifically, would be a game-over endpoint? If it turns out to be true that Russian operatives really do have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump? Seems dismissible as “old news.”
Or that Trump campaign officials met with Russians, and they explicitly discussed campaign strategies, including conspiring with the Russians to hack the Democratic National Committee emails? Or even that the Russians helped fund Trump’s campaign? I’m skeptical that these would be fatal in the absence of definitive evidence that Trump himself was personally involved.
What if the names of Steve Bannon or Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump appear next to those of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on hitherto secret Ukrainian ledgers, with payment amounts next to them? Still, unless Donald Trump’s name is there, I’m not sure that would be enough.
Perhaps the only sure thing would be if Trump himself were captured on video swearing allegiance to the Russian motherland.
Another scenario is that Trump completely and unequivocally mishandles some external crisis due to a purely emotional reaction—with Korea, China, Syria, or Iran—and becomes a clear and present danger to America.
But many commentators have suggested just the opposite result. The mere existence of any external crisis, no matter how manufactured or bungled, could lead to a groundswell of political and media support for Trump—perhaps similar to what we just saw with his viscerally driven Tomahawk missile strike in Syria—that would essentially wash away the other, unrelated scandals.
Based on the events following 9/11, this seems quite plausible. Any attentive reader of the news in the first several months of 2001 knew that Bush/Cheney desperately wanted to invade Iraq but lacked the requisite political support in Congress because they simply couldn’t provide a credible argument that Iraq was a serious threat to the US.
Even a few days after the planes flew into the World Trade Center, I sadly but confidently predicted to friends that the only “good” from the whole tragedy was that clearly we wouldn’t be invading Iraq now. It was obvious to anyone with any knowledge of Saddam’s secular politics that he and Osama bin Laden were enemies.
Of course, just the opposite occurred—the events of 9/11 were fraudulently twisted by Bush/Cheney as evidence of Al-Qaeda/Saddam collusion, allowing them to effectively repackage Saddam’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction” as an imminent, existential threat.
Even if any of these events come to pass, I don’t think any House Republicans have the power or interest to seriously take on Trump. As we learned during the campaign, the bar for unethical or criminal behavior will remain almost unattainably high as long as there remains a reasonable possibility that the Republicans can still enact major elements of their agenda without endangering their re-election prospects in one and a half years.
For example, one might start with the increasingly widely held assumption that the only things Speaker Paul Ryan really cares about are cutting taxes on the wealthy and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. As long as these still appear possible, why wouldn’t the Hamlet of Wisconsin continue his slavish support for Trump?
Another prominent House Republican, Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, is also clearly not up to the task. His recent midnight ride to the White House, and subsequent lies about it, made it clear that he views his primary duty as informing and protecting the subject of his committee’s investigation rather than pursuing the investigation itself.
This is reminiscent of then-U.S. Representative Gerald Ford’s behavior as a member of the Warren Commission investigating JFK’s assassination. Ford reportedly saw his primary role as being a conduit of confidential information to the FBI, even though the FBI itself was a major focus of the commission’s investigation.
Yet even in this environment, there must be some threshold of criminal or pathological behavior below which a few key Republicans would say, “Enough is enough.” Growing up with Watergate, I can recall conservative politicians such as Senator Howard Baker on the Senate Watergate Committee assuming unexpected statesman-like qualities as the presidential rot became clearer.
Given the 52-48 margin in the Senate, then, the endgame could start there; for example, whenever three Republican senators stand up at the same time and vote against something substantial. And in fact two of them, the “moderate” Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, admirably voted against a few particularly incompetent Cabinet nominees but couldn’t attract the necessary third vote.
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Furthermore, even though the national security adviser is not subject to Senate confirmation, there are multiple ways a Republican senator could have at least temporarily blocked the manifestly deranged Michael Flynn (who retweeted about Hillary Clinton being involved in child sex trafficking) from being named to that post.
Concerned senators could have threatened to withhold their vote on a different nomination, and any single committee chairman could have threatened to halt the business of that committee. None did. Fortunately, Flynn imploded only 26 days later, predeceased politically by his son a month earlier.
And then there’s the filibuster, where multiple Republicans voiced their heartfelt concerns about its impending demise but none actually stood up against their party in the vote to jettison it. There were the crocodile tears of Collins:
I don't want to change the rules of the Senate, and I hope we’re not confronted with that choice.
And the equally lofty sentiments of Senator John McCain:
Benjamin Franklin is somewhere turning over in his grave. Why have a bicameral system?
McCain, incidentally, was described in the same article by The New York Times as “a crucial player in the efforts to preserve the filibuster,” only days before voting to jettison it. He still is being lauded days afterward.
In fairness, perhaps most Republicans recognized that the principal liberal argument in favor of keeping the filibuster intact was bizarrely divorced from reality. According to a Washington Post editorial, the looming threat of a filibuster can “pressure the president to select a more reasonable nominee next time than he otherwise might.”
That’s if the president felt he wanted Democratic votes, which he clearly doesn’t. Even more absurd, if a filibuster is needed to stop him/her, this statement presupposes that a “less reasonable” nominee—David Duke? Alex Jones?—would garner at least 50 Republican votes. And that those same senators would refrain from changing the Senate rules to jettison the filibuster.
As getting three Republican senators to block anything substantive currently seems too difficult, the demise of Trump could start with a single Republican Senate committee chairman simply refusing to proceed with basic Senate business.
Recently, for example, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley would not schedule a vote on the nomination of the deputy attorney general until he received certain information about Russian involvement in the U.S. election. Some think that Senator Richard Burr, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, might end up playing a statesman-like role.
McCain is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and clearly not afraid of making bold and principled political statements. In addition, he was just re-elected to another six-year Senate term and, at the age of 80, should have no political retribution to fear.
Will he end up being the linchpin of Trump’s downfall? I can’t help but be reminded of a conversation I had with Senator Paul Wellstone in 1999. I knew Wellstone fairly well back in the late 1970s, when I was an undergraduate and he was a professor at the same liberal arts college in rural Minnesota. I therefore felt comfortable to ask him, 20 years later, how he could “stand” being in the Senate surrounded by rich businessmen and lawyers who didn’t seem at all like him.
His response surprised me. Essentially, he said that he liked it in the Senate and felt more at home with his colleagues there than he had with his academic colleagues. He then added that I would be even more surprised to learn that his best friend in the Senate, despite their major political differences, was actually John McCain.
Indeed, at that time McCain, in many people’s eyes, was the most interesting national politician around, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who seemed to be rethinking and publicly flirting with many positions at odds with what he had long espoused. He gave Bush Jr. a run for his money for the 2000 Republican nomination until Bush’s campaign ripped into him during the South Carolina primary with vicious personal and racial slurs.
After McCain’s defeat, it was very sad to watch his rapid reversion to the snarling, bellicose conservative whose answer to most foreign policy issues invariably involved brinkmanship and bombing, if not the introduction of ground troops. It is true that this reversion to form led him to become the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, though he ultimately lost to Barack Obama.
Since then, McCain has voted to confirm every one of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, no matter how unqualified or venal, and to get rid of his cherished filibuster. My impression is that McCain’s just too accustomed to being the chained-up dog in the backyard barking at the moon but not actually biting anything, and it no longer matters that the restraint—worrying about re-election—is long gone.
In summary, I wonder if the most likely scenario is not that Republicans force Trump out but that he precipitously resigns once he realizes his brand is being damaged by ethical attacks and legal investigations. It’s no longer fun, or not sufficiently profitable, to be president. He doesn’t want to look like a loser.
Until then, and I wouldn’t bet on it, I’m afraid we are all Trump’s chumps.
William P. Hausdorff works in international public health and vaccine development, initially with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control/Agency for International Development and most recently within the vaccine division of a major pharmaceutical company. He is a freelance consultant based in Brussels (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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