The president is implicated in serious crimes. Congress can’t ignore it forever.
By Jonathan Bernstein for Bloomberg News
I’ve said for months that the evidence against President Donald Trump might demand impeachment at some point, but that we weren’t there yet — we were only at an intermediate stage, where there was sufficient evidence for impeachment and removal but where other political choices were still possible and reasonable.
Well, with the new blockbuster revelation that Trump allegedly directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his business plans in Russia, that might not be true for much longer. We’ll soon be at the point where incriminating evidence starts coming through the letter slot, down the chimney and everywhere else it can find a crack to slip through. Congressional Republicans will have to decide if running away to a secluded shack in hopes that the evidence doesn’t knock down the door anyway is really a viable strategy.
I wrote about why the question of impeachment won’t go away here and here. It’s not just that there’s plenty of evidence that Trump abused his power, obstructed justice and otherwise violated his oath of office. It’s that he continuously defies the rule of law, so that it’s impossible to move on. History has shown that Congress can tolerate a president’s specific crimes up to a point. But there was really only one president, Richard Nixon, who forced the issue by making lawlessness a continuing theme.
Trump has also alienated almost everyone who is legitimately part of the U.S. government. Whether it’s Congress, the FBI or even the military, Trump treats all of them as if they exist to serve him — and then attacks them publicly when they don’t. And just as with Nixon, every time Trump makes a claim of innocence, rallies Republicans to defend him, and then backtracks when it turns out the claim wasn’t true … well, you don’t need to be a political scientist to see that the game wears thin pretty quickly. Eventually, in 1974, even Nixon’s strongest supporters weren’t willing to defend him after yet another revelation and retreat. I don’t know how close we are to that happening for Trump, but Republicans in Congress are far less committed to Trump now than they were to Nixon then.
I still have no specific predictions. Maybe nothing new comes out. Maybe the Cohen story winds up being less firm than it appears. It’s even possible that some things that look very bad for Trump now will look better once we know more. But I’ll say it one more time: A very quick collapse, with Trump suddenly losing most or all of his support in Congress, is quite possible.
In the meantime, the current stalemate can’t last for long. As Senator Chris Murphy said on Thursday: “Listen, if Mueller does have multiple sources confirming Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then we need to know this ASAP. Mueller shouldn’t end his inquiry, but it’s about time for him to show Congress his cards before it’s too late for us to act.” That’s quite right. Up until now, the correct call was for Congress to be patient with Robert Mueller’s probe. But at some point the stability of the government overrides the special counsel’s need to methodically build a case.
There’s also a political calendar to consider. It’s best for everyone for this to be resolved, one way or another, during the current calendar year, and preferably by early fall. That means the House should have the bulk of whatever evidence it will eventually get very, very soon.
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