Every two years, pundits and politicians tell the American people the same tired refrain: “This is the most important election in our lifetimes.” This time it may actually be true–and not just in our lifetimes, but in the lifetime of the great American experiment.
That is no exaggeration.
The last 48 hours have been a dizzying whirlwind of revelations from the Trump Administration that signal nothing less than the president’s intent to operate wholly outside the rule of law.
First came Trump’s New York Times interview in which he said he would not have hired Jeff Sessions as Attorney General if he had known that Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation. By doing so, the president let slip that he views the entire country’s law enforcement apparatus as answerable not to the American people or to the rule of law, but to himself and his personal interests.
Later in the same interview, Trump indicated that if Special Counsel Robert Mueller were to begin looking into his and his family’s finances it would “cross a red line,” even as it was announced within hours that Mueller was doing just that.
Within 24 hours of that explosive interview, Trump began asking his lawyers about his options for pardoning himself, his family and his campaign associates. The Trump Administration is also setting up a political operation aimed at discrediting Mueller himself.
New dominoes keep falling almost faster than many observers can even keep up with. Just this evening came more astonishing reports that Sessions spoke with Russian ambassador Kislyak about “campaign-related matters.” Members of Trump’s immediate family and his campaign will be testifying under oath later this week on the capitol.
All speculation carries some risk with it, and on matters of this severity one must be especially careful. But it seems very likely that 1) there is material of a potentially illegal nature about Trump’s business dealing that he wishes to hide; 2) that there was illegal collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians beyond what we have already learned; and 3) that the president himself was aware of both. Trump’s actions in these matters are not those of an innocent man.
So what happens from here? Well, the president could simply resign. But nothing in his past indicates he would be willing to lose face in that manner. Further, resigning would carry enormous legal risks to himself: he would be at the mercy of President Pence to pardon him and his entourage if he failed to perform the pardons himself on his way out the door. If Trump were to sign the pardons himself, there would be no reason for him to leave office assuming Republicans in Congress refuse to impeach him.
By firing former FBI Director James Comey, Trump has already shown that he is willing to cross lines that none but Richard Nixon dared to. But that has also been the real estate magnate’s modus operandi from the beginning of his campaign, and it has worked for him so far. Trump has been able to get away with behavior that no previous presidential candidate ever has before, and so far he has not paid the price in a significant way. There is no reason to believe that he will step back from any Rubicon he encounters.
The failure of the GOP-held congress to hold the president accountable is now creating a constitutional crisis. The founders envisioned that competition between the branches of government and a respect for rule of law would lead Congress to impeach a would-be imperial scofflaw president. The president was given wide latitude in pardons, in part in order to prevent legislative overreach and unjust punishments; the Congress in turn was given charge to remove the president if he overstepped his parameters.
The framers of the Constitution did not prepare for the possibility that a political party would abdicate its responsibility to its own branch of government and to the American people by protecting a criminal president from accountability.
The most likely course seems to be as follows: ever more damaging revelations keep coming out, and Trump either blocks the investigations into him by firing all the prosecutors, and/or he pardons his family, his campaign team and possibly himself. Republicans in Congress will refuse to act, hoping to pass tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts to social services under the cover of chaos rather than deal with the anger of their extreme base for impeaching a president still supported by the party’s most ardent and activist conservative voters.
Which leaves one last remaining lever of accountability: the 2018 Congressional elections that would become almost entirely a referendum on impeachment. An election in which the president and his party would likely be colluding again with a foreign adversary to gain an advantage over his political opponents, while using all the tools of gerrymandering and voter suppression in their collective arsenal.
Remember that the American president isn’t being accused of just any crime: he is being accused of a criminal conspiracy with a hostile, kleptocratic foreign power to subvert the foundations of our democracy. He is being aided and abetted by a Republican Congress that has not only failed spectacularly to do its duty, but has actively assisted in the coverup.
If events proceed as they seem likely to, the preservation of American democracy itself will depend on the outcome of the 2018 elections. The stakes could not be higher.