Trump: The Beginning of the End

The end is near. How near will depend on how things unfold, but the pace has been quickening.

[Photo: Donald Trump stands frowning in a red tie.]
The indictments so far have had a significant impact in undermining Trump’s credibility. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Tuesday was not only the worst day for President Trump’s presidency—it was also the beginning of the end. Historians might call it the “Tuesday afternoon massacre.” Trump’s Twitter rants and his pep rallies can’t disguise the reality that the president is now drowning in his own swamp.

His cult followers still support him, and Republicans in Congress still refuse to condemn him, but Trump has become increasingly toxic to those in his current and past inner circles and politicians who have expressed unconditional love. The end is near. How near will depend on how things unfold, but the pace has been quickening.

On Tuesday, a jury found Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, guilty of numerous financial crimes. Barring a presidential pardon, Manafort is going to jail. He’ll no doubt start spilling the beans about Trump to Special Counsel Robert Mueller in exchange for a shorter prison sentence.

Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen—once an uber-loyalist—admitted in court on Tuesday that Trump coordinated the illegal payments to porn performer Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to cover up their liaisons in order to influence the election. Cohen will likely have much more to tell Mueller about Trump’s corruption.

The first two Republican members of Congress who endorsed Trump’s presidential campaign have been indicted for insider trading (Rep. Chris Collins of New York) and campaign finance violations (Rep. Duncan Hunter of California). Hunter’s indictment would have been front-page news, as Collins’ was, except it occurred on the same day as the Manafort and Cohen stories. Their legal troubles remind the public that Trump’s closest allies are swimming in his swamp.

Thanks to the New York Times, we know that White House Counsel Don McGahn—who threatened to resign last summer if Trump fired Mueller—spent 30 hours talking to Mueller’s investigators. He no doubt did so to save his own skin, concerned that Trump (whose loyalty extends only to himself) would try to blame McGahn for any findings of obstruction of justice.

Despite Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s claim that “truth isn’t truth,” the truth is coming out for all to see.

Once Robert Mueller releases his report, Trump’s goose will be cooked—or at least well-marinated. But even if he doesn’t release the report before the midterm elections in November, the indictments so far have had a significant impact in undermining Trump’s credibility.

Trump will probably resign if the Democrats take back the House in November. That was a big “if” a year ago. Now it seems more likely, although much depends on the ability of Democrats and their allies—including unions, reproductive rights groups, voting rights advocates, and others—to increase voter turnout in the 60 or so key swing districts. To take control of the House, Democrats need to win an additional 23 seats.

The burgeoning opposition to Trump has triggered a powerful “resistance” movement, most evident in the more than 4 million who participated in the Women’s March in the United States, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, in January 2017. Anger toward Trump has grown since then, and been translated into a significant bump in women and people of color running for office and an increase in support for Democratic candidates in several special elections. A Washington Post-Schar School poll showed that Democrats are more enthusiastic than Republicans about voting in the upcoming midterm elections, though the difference is less marked in swing states.  The Democrats are also hoping that this “enthusiasm gap” will result in low turnout among enough Republican voters to influence the outcome of the elections.

But the key to Democrats winning back the House, including the possibility of gaining 30 or even 40 seats, depends on appealing to and increasing turnout among young voters, low-income voters, voters of color, women, and independents—groups that the candidates and their supporters are now targeting using traditional door-knocking and phone banking as well as social media.

If Democrats gain a majority in the House, the playing field will change dramatically. If polls then show a steady decline in the president’s popularity among Republican voters, some Republicans in Congress might distance themselves from Trump, leading to a reluctance to mount a robust defense of the president during congressional hearings and impeachment proceedings.

A Democratic House could be able to obtain copies of Trump’s tax returns and hold hearings on Trump’s possible business dealings with Russian banks and oligarchs, his use of the White House to enrich himself and his family, his continued attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation, his alleged activities with regard to collusion with Russia, and his apparent violations of campaign finance laws (including pay-offs to ex-mistresses to help his election) and tax laws (including his misuse of the tax-exempt Trump Foundation for personal business purposes). Under Democrats, the hearings, broadcast on TV and spread via social media, will bust open the piñata of Trump’s corruption.

Trump has reason to worry about the Democrats taking back the House, which would make Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a former federal prosecutor, chair of the House Intelligence Committee overseeing the investigation of Trump’s abuse of intelligence agencies and his collusion with Russia. Schiff will lead a much more vigorous investigation than the current Republican chair, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who has viewed his role as protecting Trump.

The House Democrats would also be able to begin impeachment proceedings. There will be plenty of evidence against Trump. If the Republicans still control the Senate, it is unlikely that there will be enough votes to convict Trump. But it will be interesting to watch Democrats remind Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina about his argument—during the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings in 1999—that “impeaching a president and removing him from office doesn’t require a criminal conviction,” as Fortune noted this week. At the time, the young Graham said that a president can be removed “if this body [Congress] determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”

Perhaps, as the revelations about Trump’s criminal conduct make the front pages and lead the evening news, a few Republican senators will put principle over partisanship, and vote to convict the president. But don’t count on it.

Even if the Republicans fail to show integrity, courage, or patriotism, however, a Democrat-controlled House would still act as a check on Trump’s power. Although Trump will still be able to appoint federal judges and do some damage with executive orders, the president and his inner circle will be so consumed with defending themselves against impeachment and indictment that they’ll have little time, inclination, or capacity to engage in the day-to-day realities of actually governing. Trump might even have to spend more time with his lawyers and less time on the golf course.

Of course, Trump will be reluctant to resign, and the reason isn’t entirely his megalomania. Although the legal community disagrees about whether a sitting president can be indicted, Trump’s own Justice Department is unlikely to indict him. Resigning, however, exposes him to federal indictments, so he could try to stay in office as long as possible to avoid that calamity. But regardless, New York State’s attorney general (who is likely to remain a Democrat after the November elections) has the legal authority to investigate, prosecute, and convict Trump for tax fraud and other criminal business dealings in that state, even if he remains in office. So there’s really no escape hatch for the former developer who inherited his father’s real estate empire, claims he’s made it on his own, and loves to humiliate other people.

Facing an onslaught of investigations, hearings, and impeachment proceedings; unable to win any legislative victories; confronted by an increasingly hostile press and declining job approval ratings that even orchestrated rallies and Sean Hannity can’t hide; advised by lawyers that he’s run out of options; and realizing that his prospects for re-election are dim; Trump will have to confront his worst nightmare: public humiliation.

Some fear that if Trump leaves the White House, he’ll be replaced by the equally repugnant, more ideologically fervent, but somewhat less disorganized and volatile Mike Pence. A Democratic House would keep Pence at bay in similar ways, though he too could appoint right-wing federal judges who will inflict damage for the next three or four decades. If Pence seeks the GOP nomination for president in 2020, he’ll face plenty of stiff competition within his own party. And even if he wins the nomination, the charisma-challenged Pence will have a hard time defeating almost any Democrat.

Don’t expect Trump to go with grace. His farewell speech will be filled with self-pity, revenge and recriminations, attacks on the media, and claims that despite all the hostility from “losers” and “liberals,” he made America great again in just two years. Then he’ll fly back to Trump Tower to try desperately to rebuild his financially troubled businesses while facing a torrent of investigations and court battles as a private citizen. Even President Pence wouldn’t be stupid enough to commit political suicide by granting Trump a pardon.

Trump is doubtless already contemplating his exit strategy. My guess is that when the time comes, he’ll find a compliant doctor who will claim that Trump has to resign for “health” reasons. That will be bogus, but who cares? It will go a long way to restoring the health of our democracy.