August 22, 2018 was a good day for America. For Donald Trump and company? Not so much.
In what was possibly the worst single day in an administration bursting with scandals, two of Trump’s former longtime advisers went to court to receive criminal charges or convictions. A jury in Virginia found Paul Manafort Jr., Trump’s original campaign manager, guilty on eight of eighteen total counts of tax and bank fraud that are likely to carry a prison sentence of seven to ten years.
Just hours later, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, one count of bank fraud, and, most importantly, two campaign finance violations in which Cohen arranged payments to silence two women with whom Trump had alleged affairs. In pleading guilty, Cohen explained that he made these payments “at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” There is little doubt as to the identity of that candidate.
This is a huge moment. For the first time during his presidency, Donald Trump has been directly implicated in a federal crime — a felony, to be precise. Many of us have been anticipating this moment since the beginning of Robert Mueller’s investigation last May.
According to the Justice Department’s current guidelines, which Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani says the special counsel is planning to follow, a sitting president cannot be indicted — only impeached. Setting aside the ludicrous and disturbing fact that the President is effectively above the law, let’s talk about impeachment. Even considering today’s developments, impeachment is unlikely. The GOP is already biting its nails over the midterms, with several unexpectedly close results in Trump-country special elections raising fears of a Democratic coup in the House and Senate this November (Pennsylvania’s 18th district and Ohio’s 12th are notable examples).
Trump’s perverse charisma has embedded deep in the minds of Republican voters a stubborn, disturbing adoration for their president (while his overall approval is lower than Nixon’s was at the time of the Watergate scandal, Trump’s rating among Republicans is much higher). In other words, it would be political suicide for the party to turn on him now. There is no reason to suspect that situation would change if the GOP holds on to a majority in Congress this November.
If a blue wave does come to Washington, and Trump is officially found to have conspired with Michael Cohen to violate campaign finance laws, impeachment becomes more of a possibility. But would it actually happen? According to the U.S. Constitution, House Democrats would have to introduce and pass articles of impeachment with a simple majority. In our dream scenario, that is wholly doable. Here’s where it gets tricky. In order to actually remove the President from office, two thirds of the Senate would have to vote to do so.
A Democratic sweep of Congress could happen in November. But a sweep of two thirds of the Senate? Not a chance.
Impeachment is not on the horizon. But maybe that’s a good thing.
As I mentioned earlier, Donald Trump remains wildly popular among his base and even among the fractured Republican Party as a whole. A Marist College poll in July found that 49% of Republicans rate his performance as President is “excellent” and 36% as “pretty good.”
Trump’s unfiltered, faux-grass-roots populism has led millions of people to adore him, and more importantly to believe every lie he tells — to trust without question the White House’s narrative on every aspect of his presidency. When he says his tariffs will bring back American jobs, they believe him even though their communities are the ones most adversely affected. When he blames the Democrats for his own shortcomings and policy failures, they believe him. When he brands the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt,” they believe him, and no one else, because he is the author of their new reality.
My concern is that, in the unlikely case that Donald Trump is impeached and removed from office, his supporters — millions of people — would see him as a martyr. Their savior, the valiant outsider fighting for them in Washington, would become the victim of an elaborate Deep-State conspiracy to maintain the status quo. I fear impeachment would only exacerbate the fiery discontent that characterizes his base.
Do I want Donald Trump out of the White House? Of course. But I think it would be better done democratically. Unlike the last election, the lineup of likely contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020 has no shortage of the charisma and gusto necessary to unite the fraying Democratic electorate and mount a liberal insurrection strong enough to overpower President Trump.