Buckle in, folks. This past week was an exciting one, as more evidence arose implicating Donald Trump in a conspiracy with Russian forces to steal the 2016 election. That doesn’t mean that this horrible chapter in American history is coming to an end any time soon. Things are almost certainly going to get more hairy, if that can be believed, but the grim truth of the matter is that it’s still likely that Trump’s time in office will only end if and when voters throw him out in 2020.
This article first appeared in Salon.
A recap of the past week: Professional conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort appear to have scotched their plea deals by lying to special counsel Robert Mueller. Corsi then shared documents with the media that exposed some of the extent to which he and dirty trickster Roger Stone were willing to cooperate with a criminal hacking conspiracy against Hillary Clinton. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen made even bigger headlines with his surprise court appearance, in which he pled guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s business dealings in Russia. Cohen also said he kept the Trump family fully apprised of his efforts to strike a deal for a Trump Tower development in Moscow, which directly conflicts with Donald Trump Jr.’s congressional testimony. Stay tuned on that one!
Juicy details about those business dealings, including a blockbuster report alleging that Trump planned to give a $50 million penthouse to Russian president Vladimir Putin, are coming out. Meanwhile, the incoming Democratic head of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, has signaled that he plans to start a real investigation into Trump’s Russian dealings, an investigation Republicans have been stonewalling for more than two years.
Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that doom and gloom might set in. Trump couldn’t look any guiltier, it seems, and he and his defenders are starting to shift away from claims of innocence towards more flagrantly thumbing their noses at the rule of law. It’s reasonable to worry that he really is “Teflon Don,” and that no amount of public evidence of corruption will have any meaningful impact on the current political situation.
“In any rational era, that would be earthshaking. Now it’s barely a blip,” legal expert Ken White wrote despairingly in a piece about Cohen’s revelations for the Atlantic. “We’re numb to it all. But these are the sorts of developments that would, under normal circumstances, end a presidency.”
White’s piece is insightful and worth reading in full, but I would like to take issue with this particular bit of fatalism. The public is not, in fact, numb. “Teflon Don” is a myth.
“Historically, low unemployment, modest growth, and the lack of a major, highly visible foreign entanglement has been a recipe for high presidential approval ratings,” Jamelle Bouie argued in Slate this week. Trump has all these things, but still his party took a huge bath in the midterms and three out of five Americans disapprove of the job he’s doing as president. That shows that these scandals are hurting him — and that people are paying attention.
And all that’s with the entire apparatus of the Republican Party, as well as an entire cable news network (Fox News), working night and day to hide the reality of Trump’s corruption from the American public. Now that Democrats are taking back the House and Mueller is starting to use the court systems to release information to the public, there’s a good reason to believe we’ll see more stories along the lines of “penthouse for Putin,” exposing the depth and breadth of Trump’s corruption.
White is also overstating the case when arguing that previous presidencies would immediately be ended by such revelations. That’s how it works in the movies, but in real life it takes a good long while to untangle public corruption and remove the guilty actors from power. It’s worth remembering that it was more than two years from the Watergate break-in to Richard Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974. And Nixon didn’t have nearly the same advantages Trump has: There was no massive propaganda machine backing him up, and his political party was not completely dominated by people willing and eager to cover up for criminal behavior.
That brings us to the bad news: Despite all the stunning developments of the past week, there continues to be no path that gets Trump out of office before the voters have a chance to throw him out. The same distortions in our electoral system that allowed Trump to gain the White House while getting fewer votes than Hillary Clinton have allowed Republicans to control the Senate, even expanding their majority while Democrats snag millions more votes.
And Senate Republicans, under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, have no intention of acknowledging Trump’s corruption or obstruction of justice, much less actually voting to convict him if the House of Representatives passes articles of impeachment. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is Trump’s secretary of transportation, after all. More to the point, McConnell himself is interested in seeing exactly how much power Republicans can seize even after the voters rejected them, so he has every incentive to back Trump, no matter how much of the latter’s likely criminality is exposed.
But it’s important not to confuse the fact that Trump is being protected by a corrupt system with believing that scandals simply don’t stick to “Teflon Don.” If you think things have been crazy before, know that the pace of jaw-dropping stories may very well accelerate. Trump will get angrier and more erratic. His administration will probably pour out ever more lies and more outrageous culture-war distractions. Things will get even more dizzying and upsetting.
But all that just increases the chances that the voters will be sick and tired of it in two years and throw the bums out. Things will get very bad, perhaps even worse. But after this week, the endgame is looking a whole lot better.