Jonathan Chait has made a seemingly safe bet by predicting that President Trump can commit virtually any high crime that he wants without fear of being impeached by his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives. I don’t think Chait is correct, but he’s right about one thing. He says that “the impeachment clock has not even begun to move,” and it’s true. It hasn’t.
The way Chait crafts his argument is pretty standard. The Conservative Movement is designed and culturally inclined to support anyone who fights the Democrats and doesn’t deviate from the party line. While they had some doubts about Trump’s commitment to conservatism during the primaries, they have nothing to complain about now that he’s in office and fighting trench warfare against the liberal media and the moderates in his own party. As Chait puts it, “Trump is faithfully supporting the conservative agenda, so most conservatives faithfully support him.”
As a result, the Republicans have shrugged at nepotism and Emoluments Clause violations that would have aroused them to frothing madness had the Clintons committed the same acts. They’ve been fairly muted about Trump’s firing of Comey and other indications suggestive of a clear intent to obstruct justice. A lot has already come to light and yet the impeachment train hasn’t even turned on its engine.
This is all accurate. But it fails as analysis for two reasons. The first is that he says right at the top that “there will probably be no impeachment, at least not based on the field of Trumpian misdeeds currently at play.” Yet, he immediately thereafter proceeds to argue that whatever misdeeds might come into play won’t make any material difference. One can agree wholeheartedly that the current facts won’t result in impeachment without concluding that Trump is not at any risk of being tossed out of office.
The second reason Chait’s analysis falls short is that Trump is so breathtakingly ignorant, incompetent and self-destructive that he really has no true allies in elected office. What Chait doesn’t explore is how Trump’s astonishing isolation and his weak support make him incredibly vulnerable.
We can start with the fact that even Trump’s allies in the Intelligence Community have rebuffed him. He could not convince the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to intervene with Comey despite having nominated Coats and seen him confirmed just days earlier. He couldn’t prevent his Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation and now Sessions is threatening to resign rather than continue to serve at the displeasure of the president. He put Rod Rosenstein in place at the Justice Department to kill the Russia investigation in Sessions’ stead, and Rosenstein promptly named Bob Mueller as a special counsel to broaden the investigation. He put Mike Pompeo in to head the CIA, but the CIA seems as committed to Trump’s political demise as ever.
It needs to be remembered that the FBI has been running a counterintelligence investigation against Trump and his associates for about a year now. That’s not a good place to be. There are grand juries now looking into the activities of Michael Flynn and other associates of the president. Even if the congressional Republicans wanted to sweep all of this under the rug, they don’t have the unilateral ability to do that.
Before I go any further here, I want to dwell for a moment on how Trump has performed in office and how that is going over with the national security establishment. Trump started out by going to the CIA and disrespecting their dead. He then ignored the Justice Department’s warnings that his National Security Advisor was compromised by the Russians. He tried to compromise the integrity of the FBI director and then fired him. He tried to compromise the integrity of the head of the National Security Agency and his Director of National Intelligence. He infuriated the Israelis by giving sensitive information to the Russians in the Oval Office. He refused to commit to coming to our NATO allies’ defense if they are attacked. Most recently, he put our air base in Qatar at risk by siding against them in their dispute with other Arab nations. This is really just a short list to get the point across. I could go on at great length about his refusal to staff up the State Department or all the messes he’s created for them to clean up by insulting foreign leaders. I could talk about his horrible security as he continues to use an insecure Android phone and conducts sensitive foreign policy in public areas of Mar-A-Lago. Without any real effort to be thorough here, I just want to convey how unsatisfactory he’s been as president from the point of view of anyone who works on national security, defense or intelligence matters. Even if he hadn’t compared these folks to Nazis, they’d be scared and angry.
Chait glosses over the problem this presents for the president by arguing that conservatives “have shifted the focus to nefarious ‘deep state’ bureaucrats who have found the incriminating evidence,” and that this enables them to argue that “any actions by Trump and his staff are benign by definition, and any evidence of crimes he has committed is actually evidence of crimes committed against him.” It’s no doubt true that this is how Trump has conducted his defense. He has continually tried to shift the focus from the contents of damaging leaks to the leakers themselves. And this has worked to a certain degree, at least in holding together a thin line that hasn’t yet turned and fled the battlefield. On the other hand, the strategy has utterly failed in the larger picture. His efforts to get members of the Intelligence Community to bolster the line have actually resulted in an increasingly compelling obstruction of justice case, and none of it has prevented subpoenas from being issued by grand juries and the two congressional intelligence committees, or the expansion of the FBI’s probe. The most visible results of Trump’s efforts are that Rep. Devin Nunes had to recuse himself from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation and that James Comey will be testifying against him tomorrow on national television.
Continuing my battlefield analogy here, Trump hasn’t been able to muster any reinforcements, which could be seen this week in his failure to attract top defense attorneys to represent him or to successfully build a rapid-response communications team to fight back against Comey’s coming testimony. I’m reminded of what Confederate General James Longstreet told Robert E. Lee when he was directed to order Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg:
“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”
If we can set aside the merits just for a moment, the Trump administration is simply outgunned. To predict the future, why not look at the immediate past. So far, all Trump’s efforts to outflank the Intelligence Community have resulted in nothing but a deterioration of his position and a budding case for impeachment based on his conduct of the war.
Of course the nub here is how congressional Republicans will respond. Since the House of Representatives is where impeachment occurs (the Senate only votes to acquit or convict), the House is the more immediately important of the two chambers. But the president has to be mightily disappointed by the posture of the Senate Intelligence Committee and its chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. Burr and the ranking member of the committee Mark Warner of Virginia show every sign of seriousness in pursuing the collusion case. As I’ve pointed out before, Burr has authorized subpoenas despite not really knowing what kind of damaging information those subpoenas might yield. This isn’t how you control or stifle an inquiry. The House investigation has been far less robust, but it is still proceeding in ways that have the prospect of uncovering information that will be difficult if not impossible to defend.
The House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas Wednesday for testimony, documents and business records from former national security adviser Michael Flynn and President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, as part of an investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
I guess the simplest way of understanding this is that no matter how disinclined your average conservative might be to investigate Trump or hold him to account, the conservative-controlled Congress is proceeding in ways that can lead them toward solid grounds for impeachment. They might not be as aggressive as they should be, but they can’t cover up what they don’t control. And they’ve abandoned or discarded any plan to protect the president by refusing to ask questions.
As a result, to predict that the Republicans won’t impeach Trump is to assume that they will make apologies for anything they find, no matter how outrageous or indefensible. And I won’t dispute that they are powerfully inclined in that direction for all the reasons that Chait mentions, and more.
But we should consider a few more things. Almost no members of Congress endorsed Trump in the primaries. The Speaker of the House effectively disowned Trump after the Access Hollywood tape came out in October. They tolerate him much more than they support him. And they tolerate him because they want things from him. They already got a Supreme Court Justice. They want tax cuts, too. They want to finish off the Affordable Care Act. Individual members have their own to-do lists. The problem here is that Trump is failing to deliver in rather spectacular fashion. Everything is piling up in Congress. There’s no budget, no appropriations, no tax reform plan, no infrastructure plan, no workable health care plan, and a looming debt ceiling fiasco. Congressional Republicans are publicly pessimistic about their chances of achieving anything this year and are vocal about the prospect of a looming fiscal and budgetary disaster in September. Things aren’t going to get better. They will assuredly get worse as looming catastrophes became actual real-time debacles. And that’s the context in which the #TrumpRussia investigation will unfold.
In truth, Republicans have very little use for Trump at this point. He’s given them everything he’s likely to give them. For those who are serious about foreign policy and foreign relations, Trump is an intolerably unreliable and disruptive force. Their loyalty to him is approaching absolute zero, and the only thing that keeps it alive at all is their fear of displeasing their constituents and perhaps inviting a primary challenge from their right.
I don’t discount the power of that fear, but it doesn’t count for much when compared to how Republicans felt about Nixon during Watergate of Reagan during Iran-Contra. As long as Trump is in office making indefensible statements every day and doing damage to American alliances and national security, his presence is a threat to Republican officeholders. Perhaps they won’t lose their safely red seats, but they might lose their position in the majority.
I’ve long got over the optimistic idea that Republicans will break with their president out of an instinct for self-preservation. Their behavior on Iraq in the lead-up to the 2006 midterms convinced me that countless conservatives will go down with the ship rather than give succor and support to their political enemies. But whether to surge or withdraw in Iraq was a more complicated question than whether Trump should be defended in the face of clear demonstrable evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. Should that kind of evidence emerge, it will matter that they don’t have very much of an incentive to cover for him. In truth, most will be eager to see him gone.
Still, they likely will stick with Trump for an appallingly long time in the face of evidence that should be sufficient but proves not to be. They’ll need something very egregious and very easy for the public to understand, and that will be reflected in a softening of Trump’s support even among committed Republicans.
The timeline here is uncertain. We don’t know when Bob Mueller will start producing visible results or who he might indict or who he might flip. It might be that we don’t have to answer this question because it will a Democratically controlled House of Representatives that impeaches Trump in 2019. But the question wasn’t what will happen, but what might happen under certain circumstances.
I don’t think anything James Comey says tomorrow will lead the House to start impeachment hearings even if he makes a slam-dunk case for obstruction of justice. But I also don’t think we should base our predictions on what happens this week. We should base our predictions on what we can reasonably expect to happen in the near future. And I expect that Trump will make things worse for himself every single day and the drumbeat of leaks will be amplified by televised testimony and grand jury indictments and people copping pleas with Bob Mueller. And all of it will happen in the context of a Republican Party that can’t budget or appropriate or pay our bills on time or pass bills even when they control every lever of power in Washington.
The forces that want Trump gone are simply far more powerful than the forces that want him to stay, and the balance will keep moving away from Trump until his thin line of defense breaks. He could survive for quite some time yet, but his own glaring flaws make it a decent bet that he won’t.