At several previous points in Donald Trump’s presidency, it looked as if he could not possibly survive to the end of his four-year term. Yet Trump always managed to change the subject, his public shrugged, Republicans continued to support him, and Trump rolled merrily on.
This time could be different. The stage is now set for what appears to be an inexorable path to impeachment or resignation.
Let’s review what special counsel Robert Mueller has on Trump. Based on the most recent combined filings of the special counsel and prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, the evidence is piling up to document the following:
1. In September 2015, Trump personally approved the plan of personal lawyer and longtime fixer Michael Cohen to make high-level contacts with the Russian government to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen, according to Mueller’s seven-page memo, continued to talk with “Individual-1” ― Donald Trump ― well into the campaign. Even after Trump was nominated, these conversations continued, and with Trump’s full knowledge.
Meanwhile, the Russians were doing their level best to help Trump get elected, including serious mischief to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and Trump was publicly and privately calling for a much friendlier American foreign policy stance toward Vladimir Putin, something wildly improbable for a Republican candidate and later president.
2. Trump misrepresented the nature of key meetings with senior Kremlin-connected Russians to discuss their collaboration for mutual benefit, including dirt on Hillary Clinton. Contrary to his earlier protestations, he was fully knowledgeable about the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower, which featured Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, in close communication with Trump senior. Trump has repeatedly lied about this.
3. In another ring of the circus, Cohen confirmed to prosecutors that he advanced hush money for two women who said they had affairs with Trump, including the porn actress Stormy Daniels, and that this done at the direction of the same Individual-1 in order to protect his campaign — a felony. And evidence keeps piling up that Trump took actions as president to use his office to profit from his various hotel properties, and to win other financial favors from various foreign governments.
In Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard Nixon on three counts ― obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Trump has more than met the Nixon standard.
Still to come from Mueller could be more detail on tax evasion and possible money laundering by the Trump Organization, or bribes paid to foreigners in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And, in what may get himself even further into big trouble, Trump has publicly suggested that he might pardon former campaign manager Manafort for making a deal with the special counsel and then double-crossing Mueller.
So what does all this add up to?
We have clear obstruction of justice in Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey after unsuccessfully pressing Comey to go easy on Trump allies, plus multiple attempts, most recently via Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, to rein in Mueller, and the use of proffered pardons to tamper with witnesses.
We have an open-and-shut case of violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits an officer of the United States from profiting from public office. We have something close to treason in the 180-degree reversal of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, following negotiations with the Russians about a Moscow tower and Russian help to Trump in the campaign.
And with Cohen’s admissions, we have a criminal violation of campaign finance laws, with the added possible elements of fraud and conspiracy.
All of these are clearly impeachable offenses, and some of them create criminal liability as well. In Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard Nixon on three counts ― obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Trump has more than met the Nixon standard.
The broad outline of this story has been hidden in plain view for more than a year. Mueller’s latest memos, indictments and plea deals provide solid documentation.
There remains the question of whether Trump could be indicted while in office. That issue has never been settled constitutionally. Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski strongly implied that Nixon could be prosecuted when he named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. Mueller seems to be taking the same approach by mentioning Individual-1, who is unmistakably Trump, but leaving his options open.
Meanwhile, Democrats take charge of the House in just three weeks. So what happens next?
In effect, Mueller hands off whatever loose ends remain to the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. They will call and, if necessary, subpoena witnesses and documents.
The Democrats can’t get ahead of public opinion. They need to build a bulletproof case, step by step, and then proceed to a formal impeachment. In Watergate, that took a full two years.
There are some, such as billionaire activist and possible presidential candidate Tom Steyer, who want the House to proceed directly to impeachment. There are many others who argue that impeachment would be a distraction at a time when Trump keeps doing himself in politically.
Both of these counsels are wrong, in my view. Other investigations need to proceed first, as incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler keeps pointing out. The Democrats can’t get ahead of public opinion. They need to build a bulletproof case, step by step, and then proceed to a formal impeachment. In Watergate, that took a full two years.
In this case, because Mueller has already laid most of the groundwork, impeachment would likely come in 2019, well before the 2020 election.
Given Trump’s crimes, it would be a real shirking of constitutional duty not to impeach. And contrary to those who argue that impeachment would be a distraction, it could well be smart politics.
The case for impeaching Trump is so overwhelming that it will put the 10 Senate Republicans with vulnerable seats in 2020 or 2022 in an awkward position. And others, even relative loyalists, may decide the time has come to trade in Trump for Vice President Mike Pence. Relations between the Republican Senate and Trump are nothing if not opportunist, cynical and transactional.
You might say that trading Trump for Pence is not good for the Democrats, but think again. Pence has nothing of Trump’s feral charisma, he is a lousy politician, and he would be presiding over a fractured party.
So, my bet is that Trump will be gone by November 2020. I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you how. It could be by impeachment; it could be via resignation after Republican senators make him an offer he can’t refuse; or through a deal that spares him and his family prosecution if he leaves office. Or he might get so angry that he just turns into a puddle, like the wicked witch of the west.
With Trump, you never know. But it’s pretty clear that he’s cornered. And that’s scary all by itself. Trump cornered is capable of anything.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.