This past weekend I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a lawyer. Let’s call him Pete. Pete is as opposed to the reign of Donald Trump as any other sentient American, but rolled his eyes at the non-stop discussion of constitutional crisis that has replaced sports, the weather, and the Kardashians as Conversational Topic Number 1 among the chattering classes, of which he and I are both card-carrying members.
Pete’s argument is simply this:
Trump is not going to be impeached, indicted, or thrown out of office under the 25th Amendment. Barring an unforeseen turn of events—like the revenge of a lifetime of Big Macs and Diet Cokes— the only way we get rid of him is by voting him out in 2020.
I don’t know that Pete’s wrong. I am hopeful that extraordinary events might take place in the interim (not the Big Macs; that would be wholly unsatisfying), and I place great faith in the public servants involved in uncovering the truth that might lead to Trump’s well-deserved ejection from power. But I agree that, for most of us in the general public, our primary focus should be on an electoral solution, which is to say, the midterms and the presidential race in 2020.
So far so rational.
But in the back of mind, late at night, when I lie awake fearing for the future of the republic, I do wonder about this:
Will Donald Trump willingly leave office even if he is defeated in November 2020? And if he balks at doing so, or worse, refuses outright, will the Republican Party do anything about it?
CALL ME CRAZY
Speaking of eye-rolling, I can feel a wave of it going on right now in response to my question. Pete did the same when I posed it to him. I’ll concede that the very idea smacks of hysteria and overreaction.
But I put it to you that we are living in an era when the absolutely unthinkable has already happened over and over again. Accordingly, far from trafficking in alarmism, it would be foolish and naïve not to consider a scenario like this, however extreme or remote it might be.
So let’s begin by digging into Pete’s original theory in a little more detail.
We all expect Robert Mueller’s inquiry to—eventually—return a scathing report on Donald Trump and his associates. Even completely setting aside the issue of conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice, just lifting the lid off the Trump Organization will almost certainly expose a vast, decades-long trail of malfeasance, corruption, and rampant lawbreaking. Does anyone expect a deep dive into the Trumpian cesspool to come up squeaky clean? Just from the facts that are already public knowledge, we already know that is not the case; the only question is just how bad it will be.
So we can expect serious criminal exposure for Donald J. Trump, enough to doom any previous president dozens of times over.
But Pete’s argument—which a number of informed observers have made, repeatedly—is that it won’t really matter.
It is unlikely that Mueller will try to bring a criminal indictment against a sitting president. (Not impossible—Mueller may uncover skullduggery of such profound implications that he feels compelled to break with DOJ norms—but it is unlikely.) That means that any criminal prosecution of Trump will have to wait until he is out of office. And no matter how powerful or airtight the case Mueller presents, it is equally unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office because of it. The numbers and the politics simply militate against it.
Even if Democrats flip the House in the midterms—enabling them to impeach Trump by simple majority—they’re not likely to gain control of the Senate, let alone obtain the supermajority necessary to convict him and chuck him out of the White House. Short of those sixty-one partisan votes, it is equally implausible that they will be able to woo enough Republican Senators to vote for conviction, judging by the yellow-bellied stain of opportunism and cowardice that the GOP leadership has spread across Washington DC thus far.
So I understand the calculus underlying Pete’s contention. It’s hard to dispute.
Even so, many Americans—not just liberals and progressives but true conservatives and patriotic thinking people of all ideological stripes—are holding out hope that the evidence Mueller delivers will be so powerful that the GOP will have to act. And it might be, if we lived in a sane world. But in case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t. Not anymore.
We know that Trump’s Kool Aid-drunk based will shrug off anything and everything that Mueller delivers. They have not been bothered by Trump hiding his tax returns, or insulting Gold Star families, or making fun of the handicapped, or the vast evidence we already have of his financial crimes, wanton corruption, and collaboration with our enemies. They were not bothered by Access Hollywood, or Charlottesville, or taking babies from their mothers, or most recently, the appalling bootlicking and borderline treason of Helsinki. What could possible change their minds now?
(About all I can imagine might possibly do the trick is the emergence of something that offends their own bigoted mindset and paints Trump in an unavoidably un-macho light, such as a video of him treating Vladimir Putin to some oral attention. But he damn near did that in Finland and they were cool with it.)
We also know that the GOP “leadership” takes its lead from the base, not the other way around. (Maybe most politicians behave that way, but rarely in such a brazenly craven and conspicuous way.) Those profiles in courage Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have shown absolutely no integrity or sense of principle and no willingness to defend the rule of law against even Trump’s worst offenses, given that they and their party are benefitting from his rule—at least in the short term—beyond their wildest wet dreams. The most they ever offer by way of censure is mealy-mouthed statements of discomfort when Trump really pushes the limits—mere lip service to the principles of democracy—which is almost worse. At least Trump and his hardcore followers own their awfulness; they are monsters, but not hypocrites (except when it comes to Obama). The same can’t be said for Mitch, Paul, and the rest of the gang—and I do mean gang.
So the GOP leadership is not going to lift a finger over anything Mueller delivers, no matter how damning it is…..at least not without tens of millions of angry Americans taking to the streets. (More on that in a bit.)
COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP, DONNY
So thus far, Pete’s pessimistic theory (PPT) looks pretty solid.
But here’s where it begins to get really scary.
If Bob Mueller hands down thunderous evidence that would justify a criminal indictment of Donald Trump, but DOJ policy precludes prosecution until after he is out of office—and Republican political opportunism precludes measures like impeachment that would put him out—what possible reason would Donald Trump ever have to leave office?
On the contrary: the notion of a massive indictment hanging over his head as soon as he surrenders power will incentivize Trump to stay in office at all costs, like the cornered rat he is.
The irony is rich. In a twist worthy of Roald Dahl or O. Henry, one of the most egregiously guilty sonsabitches in US criminal history will find himself in the only position in American life in which he is protected from prosecution. So you can bet your life that he will do everything within his power to stay there. And we have all seen that the spectrum of what Donald Trump is prepared to do in his own self-interest is, uh, rather wide.
That means that even if he loses the 2020 election, he will contest the results with every fiber of his being, try to delegitimize his opponent’s victory, and mobilize his mouthbreathing hordes and his shameless accomplices in the right wing media to help him. (For that matter, he and the GOP will try to rig the election in the first place. But that’s a topic for another day.)
If he fears he might lose, he will gin up a faux national security emergency Reichstag fire-style to try to justify postponing the elections. Failing that, he will create some transparently false excuse for claiming that the election was rigged and declare the results null and void. (Hell, he was pre-emptively saying precisely that on the campaign trail in 2016. Turns out he was right, though in exactly the opposite way he claimed.).
And his followers will obediently, enthusiastically sign on.
When I floated this possibility at Pete, he was beyond skeptical. “Are you really suggesting that Donald Trump would stand in the way of a peaceful transition of power?” said he.
“Yep,” said I.
Do you doubt t? Before the election in 2016, when almost everyone—even Trump—assumed he would lose, he was asked if he would honor the results or contest them. He equivocated. “I’ll let you know,” he said, coyly, already causing damage to the fabric of American democracy. Little did we know that that scenario would soon look enviable compared to what would really transpire.
And that was when he had far far less at stake. Do we really think he will be more accommodating and respectful of the bedrock of American democracy if he is facing what amounts to life in prison, the obliteration of his family fortune, and the destruction of everything he cares about…..which is to say, himself?
A NOUS LA LIBERTE
“OK,” I hear you saying, “that’s what Donald Trump would try to do. We know he’s a lunatic. But the American people would never stand for it.”
Famously, a Washington Post poll taken last August showed that a majority of Republicans (52%) would support suspending the 2020 presidential election if Trump proposed it. A similar poll taken last October showed that that same Republican demographic wouldn’t be bothered even if collusion with the Russians were proven. (Although many media outlets reported this news, I’m referencing Newsmax here—believe it or not—because only they reported it proudly.)
And forget about “if.” We already have plenty of evidence of what is more properly described as “conspiracy with a foreign power to defraud the United States,” and Fox Nation just yawns. Thus the rationalizing of treason has evolved from “no collusion” to “it doesn”t matter if there was collusion” to, most recently, “collusion was a good thing! because Hillary was the greater threat to America.
Per above, not even the egregious, jawdropping public display of subservience to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki gave the majority of Republicans pause. As former US diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford wrote in an LA Times op-ed, “As the dust settles after Helsinki, this too has become clear: There is no line Trump can cross that will spur meaningful Republican action against him.”
Indeed, Trump’s poll numbers among self-identified GOP voters actually rose after Helsinki, with 70% of Republican respondents giving him an approving grade for his performance there. (!) This can variously be described as doubling down, the sunk cost fallacy, or simple self-deluding batshit dumbassery. But whatever you call it, it stinks like yesterday’s fish.
This man is not going to be driven from office by either Congress or the courts. He’s going to fight, and fight to the death of democracy if necessary, because he has no loyalty to the Constitution or love of democracy. All he has is love of Trump.
He’s preparing his base for the day he fires Sessions, Rosenstein and Mueller. He’ll pardon every single American who has been charged or pled guilty, and then he’ll order the entire work product of the Mueller investigation to be collected and burned. He’ll send his supporters into the streets to demonstrate in favor of firing Mueller and ending the investigation. When counter demonstrations hit the street, he’ll call them a threat to “national security” and start making arrests. He’ll begin with Antifa and Black Lives Matter, then he’ll move on to anyone found demonstrating on a street where violence or damage to property has taken place.
When the jails are loaded up, he’ll start putting arrestees in camps. They’re already practicing for this with the round-up, arrest and confinement of undocumented immigrants in concentration camps along the border. If you thought we’d never see another round-up of people alleged to be a “threat to national security” the way we did with Japanese Americans during World War II, you were wrong. Our government is doing it right now. If you thought that disgraceful chapter in our nation’s history was more than enough to stop Americans from building concentration camps again, you were wrong.
American citizens working for the government and for private companies are following orders. They’re building camps. They’re stringing barbed wire. They’re making children march in line down makeshift “streets” between tents in these camps. They’re denying access to the camps to the news media, even to members of Congress. They’re doing it willingly. They’re doing it so efficiently that major private penal corporations are making hundreds of millions of dollars building camps and imprisoning immigrants.
When demonstrations break out against the round-ups and the camps between anti-Trump protestors and Trump supporters, he’ll declare martial law. He’ll declare that the Democratic Party is the “enemy of the people” and issue an executive order to postpone elections. His base will support him all the way.
COWARDS AND OPPORTUNISTS: A FIELD GUIDE
So let’s forget about the GOP base for now. Its capacity for welcoming authoritarianism—as long as that authoritarianism is of the ideological stripe it admires—is well proven. Pete’s contention was that GOP lawmakers would not stand for Trump disrupting the peaceful transition of power; that regardless of right wing public opinion, Republican legislators would in effect be the last line of defense for democracy.
I respectfully disagree. That argument is predicated on the idea that the Republican leadership has more integrity than the party’s rank and file. I have seen no evidence that that is the case. As is none, nada, zero, zilch, bupkes. In fact, there may be a strong argument that they have shown a lot less.
I have written before that we are witnessing a slow motion coup d’etat by the Republican Party to secure permanent, anti-democratic control of the United States government. (The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup, July 12, 2017). They have suppressed the vote; engaged in outrageous gerrymandering far beyond even historical precedent; tried to skew the census; weaponized the infusion of dark money into campaign finance; spread the vile lies of voter fraud, birtherism, and beyond; marshaled a massive Orwellian propaganda machine that has done irreparable damage to public discourse; and turned a blind eye to ongoing foreign attacks on our electoral system that are tantamount to war.
As for respect for the sanctity of the electoral process and peaceful transition of power, Republican leaders uttered barely a mouse-squeak when Trump deliberately undermined those principles on the campaign trail. Since he took office, they have condoned and even abetted his attacks on the rule of law, the law enforcement and intelligence communities, a free press, and the patriotism of the loyal opposition (not to mention reliable conservative bogeymen like immigrants, minorities, and poor people). Should he be defeated, what makes anyone think that Trump questioning or even physically opposing the results of the 2020 election would be a red line for them?
Perhaps most tellingly, with their unconscionable obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination, Republicans ruthlessly subverted one of the fundamental norms of American democracy in order to keep control of the Supreme Court. Do you think they will do any less to maintain control of the Presidency?
Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News and the conservative media that exists today. I doubt Trump will be forced from office, even if Mueller has tapes of him talking with Putin about how to rig the election. While we might have a Democratic House after the 2018 elections, which could impeach Trump, I do not see the needed 67 votes in the Senate to find him guilty and remove him from office. And given the fact he is shameless, he will never resign….
(I)f Trump loses the 2020 election, his term will end, and the new president will be sworn in—and he will contest it, claim a rigged election, and make life miserable for the world. However Trump’s presidency ends, I expect it to be ugly. He has no respect for the rule of law, or historical norms, or standards of conduct. Because he is shameless, he will do it his way, which will be un-American and unprecedented.
CASSANDRA VS CHICKEN LITTLE
In closing, I realize that the right will scoff at this sort of speculation as “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” the hysterical ravings of hair-on-fire liberals who don’t know whether to shit or go blind over the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the ascent of Donald Trump. They openly delight in (what is to them) the comic spectacle of snowflakes who just can’t “get over it,” as the late, inexplicably venerated Justice Scalia flippantly said of the Supreme Court handing George W. Bush the presidency.
Of course, the right has no credibility on this point, given eight years of their own sky-is-falling rhetoric over Barack Obama on what were empirically far less persuasive grounds. (Infinitely so, in fact.) Moreover, from the moment of Trump’s rise in the GOP primaries, the right has pooh-poohed concerns of the damage he would do, how bad he would be, and how far he would go, only to be proven disastrously wrong at nearly every turn. So their scorn carries no weight.
But I know that even mainstream conservatives, independents, and even some liberals and progressives—like my friend Pete—find such scenarios alarmist and absurd. I do realize that all this talk of martial law and a president for life sounds extreme. It is.
But in case you’ve been in a coma, we are living in extreme times. Over and over again the unthinkable has happened, each time moving the Overton window of what we believe possible in this country.
No one thought Trump would get the GOP nomination or win. No one thought he would get away with not releasing his tax returns, or that he would continue to brazenly violate the emoluments clause once in office. No one—at first—thought collusion with Russia was credible, and no one foresaw that it would be revealed to be as bad as it has been (with more to come). No one thought he’d attack NATO, cozy up to dictators, insult Canada, start trade wars, risk nuclear armageddon with North Korea and then turn around and surrender to them. No one imagined we’d be building concertina-ringed camps along the southern border to hold migrants indefinitely, and no one thought we’d be ripping babies away from their mothers and marching one-year-olds before judges in immigration courts.
I could go on.
I truly hope I am wrong and Pete is right. Should Trump take things to the extremes that this essay contemplates, I fervently hope that both rank-and-file Republicans and the GOP leadership locate their principles—and their balls—and stand up and stop him for the greater good of everything this country is supposed to stand for.
Man, that would be a rather low bar, and I’m not sure they can clear even that. But I hope so.
Where does that leave our country if they don’t? Let’s save that question for another day.
But here’s a hint.