How did Donald Trump’s most recent week go?
Let’s see ... his recently handpicked attorney general William Barr was accused of committing a crime by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and seems on the brink of a contempt of Congress citation. A growing chorus of influential Democrats say the disclosures in the finally mostly released Mueller Report and the administration’s growing defiance of Congress may leave no other choice but impeachment. And the 2020 Democrat that Trump seems to fear most -- former vice president Joe Biden -- has emerged as his party’s clear front-runner for the nomination.
So I know what you’re thinking and you’re probably right: This was the best week, for Trump, out of his crisis-soaked 119 weeks in the White House.
Some of the reasons that Trump can light up a celebratory cigar on whatever taxpayer-reimbursed golf green he’s bilking us at as I write this are – in part – the conventional ones. By every traditional measure, the economy is booming (and we’ll defer the conversation about gig-working, rent-and-college-debt-drowning millennials for another day.) With that, and with Trump’s idiot-savant political skills in getting Barr to roll out the Mueller Report findings to deaden any blows and somehow portray himself as a victim, the president has risen to 46 percent approval in the Gallup poll. That’s highest of his presidency -- and equal to the number that got Trump elected on Nov. 8, 2016.
But the most significant development for Trump’s 2020 reelection bid is something else that came into clear focus over the course of the week: The president has a plan for survival. It involves essentially shredding the Constitution, demolishing the government of “checks and balances” that was envisioned by the Founders, and promoting a crisis that will leave Americans angry and, at least psychologically, poised for a civil war. That sounds scary but the scariest part is: It just might work: Not for the nation, of course, but for Trump, which in Trumpland is the only outcome that matters.
And somewhere in an underworld ringed by fire, Trump’s evil-genius late mentor Roy Cohn is looking upward and smiling over how well he taught his protégé.
It was Manhattan attorney and fixer Cohn who took a young developer out of Queens in the 1970s and ’80s and taught Trump the strategies that Cohn had engineered at the right hand of 1950s’ Red-baiter Sen. Joe McCarthy: Deny everything. Admit nothing. Never apologize. When challenged, unleash massive retaliation – including a barrage of lawsuits and legal challenges, no matter how frivolous –without any concern toward how bad or embarrassing that might look ... or what innocent bystander gets caught in the crossfire.
As the embattled 45th president of the United States, Trump surely heard Cohn’s voice in his head as he crafted his response to special counsel Robert Mueller and the evidence that he tried to obstruct the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Phase 1 – Barr’s slow and clearly Trump-biased rollout of Mueller’s findings like they were Russian nesting dolls, which gave the president room to claim “total exoneration” by a report that explicitly stated he was not exonerated – is over and was largely a success.
Phase 2 – that massive retaliation, doubling down on the very concept of “obstruction” – is underway. His loyal cabinet secretaries are openly defying requests for information from Congress – including Barr, who not only used a weaselly excuse not to show up at last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, but is resisting that committee’s demand for the full, unredacted Mueller report, and Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, who’s balking at a legal, albeit controversial, request from the House Ways and Means Committee to see Trump’s tax returns.
That may be the tip of the iceberg. Trump last week told all administration officials – even a key former one, the ex-White House counsel Don McGahn – to ignore all congressional subpoenas seeking their testimony and other key information. Meanwhile, Team Trump is turning to that tried-and-true tactic of obstructionist Cohnism: the lawsuit. It’s going to court in efforts to block a House committee’s subpoena of his accounting firm and with an even broader case against Deutsche Bank and Capital One that even seeks to shield the financial records of Trump’s offspring.
Does Trump really think he can get away with this? Historically, the answer would be no – dramatized most famously by the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1974 ruling to force Richard Nixon to surrender White House tapes. But that was a very different time ... and a very different Supreme Court. Unlike the Nixon case, time is on Trump’s side – the legal fights will drag on for months and go into the heart of the 2020 campaign season, and maybe beyond it, which is the whole point. What’s more, the GOP-led Senate has aided Trump, intentionally or not, by giving him two Supreme Court justices and more than 100 new right-wing judicial appointments.
There is, of course, a remedy that both avoids judicial obstruction and addresses the problem of a president abusing his constitutional powers: Impeachment. Trump’s subpoena war seems a turning point that’s convincing many Democrats so frightened by the focus-group politics of impeachment that there may now be no other options. “This is our country, and this is the one chance that we get to ensure that it remains a democracy and that no man, regardless of his position, is above the law," explained Beto O’Rourke, the ex-Texas congressman who’s now one of 117* Democratic presidential candidates.
He’s exactly right – and yet impeachment may also be exactly what Team Trump thinks it needs to reelect the president in 2020. After all, there is virtually zero chance that Trump wouldn’t get the 34 votes out of 53 Republican senators – with about 90 percent of GOP rank-and-file voters backing the president – that he would need to avoid removal from office.
And the kind of things that would weigh heavily on normal presidents won’t register with Trump. The notion that impeachment would be a black mark staining his historical legacy means nothing to a president who’s endured a tabloid divorce, business bankruptcies, et cetera. Nor will the idea that impeachment would fundamentally tear an already wrought, divided America apart – the kind of thing that convinced even the deeply unethical Nixon to finally resign – ever cross the mind of Donald Trump.
Instead, the president and his minions will be on Fox News every night waving the bloody flag of impeachment to discuss how unfairly he was treated – how he was “totally exonerated” even by Mueller’s “witch hunt,” but that partisan Democrats abused their power to impeach him anyway. If the economy stays hot and if Team Trump can avoid a new war (neither are a given), The 46 Percent will rally around that red-stained flag.
Trump has a motivation behind his burn-the-bridges-of-democracy approach that none of his 43 predecessors (Cleveland twice) fully experienced – the need to stay out of prison. The plan is to inoculate the president with a verdict of “not guilty” at impeachment, stonewall the various investigations until after November 2020 if possible, win a second term, and then insist for four more years that a sitting president cannot be criminally indicted.
It seems remarkable that the arrival of a fundamentally unfit and often unconstitutional president could be “bad news for the Democrats,” politically. But any move to counter Trump’s roadblocks – impeachment, extensive hearings, going after Trump family financial records – will be spun as overkill, and you can war-game how some of these moves might indeed backfire.
Consider the plan now wending its way through the California legislature that would ban from the 2020 ballot any presidential candidates (cough, cough ... Trump) who won’t release his or her income tax returns. Other states are weighing the same move. Brilliant, right? Except Trump won’t release his tax returns. He’ll sue, and if he loses the lawsuits, he still won’t release the returns but will allow these deep blue states like California to block him from the ballot. Then if he loses, he’ll claim the Democratic victory was illegitimate – a five-minute recipe for Civil War II.
That fear – that Trump won’t accept a 2020 defeat unless maybe if the election is a blowout – is increasingly voiced by leaders like Pelosi, and it’s a totally valid concern. But the reality is that American democracy may well be in tatters long before we reach that moment. Presidential abuses of power, the nonstop violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, Trump floating above the law as “Individual-1” in a felony that sent his lawyer to prison, the throttling of Congress’ constitutionally mandated oversight role, and packing both the Justice Department and the judiciary itself with Trump acolytes is already well underway, and is plowing through the guardrails that had kept the American Experiment on its sometimes wobbly route.
There’s no good road map for the Democrats – or for anyone who cares about the future of this country – to navigate this. But there is a moral path. That would be to defend the Constitution, and the fundamental tenets of a functioning democracy, with the same all-out, no-holds-barred intensity that Trump uses to save his own spray-tanned skin. If impeachment is the only moral course, pursue that – steadfastly, and without fear.
There are two clear advantages to doing the right thing. 1) Courage and boldness will help unite The 54 Percent, which last time I checked is greater than 46 percent if (unlike 2016) it sticks together. 2) You’ll be doing the right thing.
* Actually 24, but it feels like 117.