Does the name of this day end in the letter “y”? If so, by the time the sun sets tonight President Trump will almost certainly have freshly embarrassed himself and his ancestors or helped write one of his future articles of impeachment like someone shoveling the dirt out of his own grave. The latest rolling crisis started when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last Tuesday in the midst of the bureau’s Russia investigation, a move which set off an immediate political firestorm. Trump then incomprehensibly met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office the very next day. Yes, those Russians.
This meeting — which was stunningly oblivious on its own terms — also turned into a galloping emergency when The Washington Post reported on Monday that Trump revealed highly classified information obtained from Israel to his Russian interlocutors like some hedge fund manager bragging about how he sat next to Anthony Bourdain at a steakhouse. The fragments of that exploded bombshell sat in their crater for less than 24 hours before The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump had demanded that Comey halt his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s improper contact with Russian officials just the day after Flynn resigned in February. Comey, who is nothing if not meticulous about writing things down, apparently memorialized this monumentally inappropriate conduct as part of a paper trail he clearly knew he would one day need to produce to prove that the president of the United States is an insane person.
All of these things, any one of which would have been enough to blow apart any other presidency in modern history, happened in one single week. Between brazenly violating the Emoluments Clause, unapologetically interfering with the Flynn investigation, quadrupling down on the obstruction of justice by pink-slipping Comey, and then casually coughing up state secrets to officials of a country that just gleefully hacked the 2016 election, Trump did more than enough just in the past seven days to justify his impeachment or his removal from office by way of the 25th Amendment.
Is anyone in the Republican Party actually enjoying this endless, ugly, humiliating Cirque du Scandal of criminality, venality, and dangerous incompetence? Probably not, but the GOP is playing roulette anyway, not just with all of our lives, but with its own political fortunes as well. Apart from a handful of unctuous poseurs in the Senate who enjoy tweeting big words about how “troubled” they are by each successive outrage only to quietly choose shameless capitulation, Republican officials have refused to lift a single hose to put out the landfill inferno that is the Trump presidency.
The real question is: Why? Why, why, why? What have Republicans got to lose at this point? They’ve already tossed their dignity and their principles into the nearest dumpster so that they might seize the opportunity to throw millions of downtrodden Real Americans off their health insurance and into penury. Restoring public faith in the Republican Party will be nearly impossible anyway. The only reason that Trump’s approval ratings haven’t cratered all the way into the 20s is that the economy keeps humming serenely along, largely because Republicans haven’t done anything significant to wreck it yet.
As needless chaos swirls around them, the institutional Republican Party remains steadfastly, cynically committed to the bargain they have made with perhaps the stupidest human being ever to lead a major country in modern history: If they leave Trump to lurch from one fiasco to the next, the president will sign any piece of plutocratic legislation they put in front of him. The reckless calculus is that the damage to the country’s institutions can be contained by Trump’s coterie of besieged regents and minders, all of whom must debase themselves on a daily basis just to keep the din of scandal below ear-splitting levels. Hence H.R. McMaster and his glorious Philly drawl getting force-marched to the podium on Monday to deny the Post report only to have the president himself basically confirm it all with one of his idiotic morning tweetstorms. Every day, Trump convinces another hapless supplicant to take the fall for him, only to see the president plead guilty to the crime anyway.
The GOP is going to be ultimate victim of this confidence game. Both the Republican Party and the president are already deeply unpopular, less than four months into his presidency. Those numbers aren’t coming back up with Trump in the White House. Rather than protecting him from the consequences of every indecency, crime, and provocation, the smarter play for Republicans would be to begin the process of removing the president from office immediately.
Certainly, impeaching the president would cause an ugly furor with Trump’s base, but if Vice President Pence takes over, it is unlikely that even the most deplorable among them could possibly sustain their outrage through the midterm elections or beyond. Cowed by the base’s incoherent fury against NAFTA and immigration and anyone who isn’t white, a Pence administration would be unlikely to return to the pre-Trump GOP policy positions on these issues. And unlike Trump, Pence would be a credible steward of the party’s plan to turn America into a network of soup kitchens, debtor’s prisons, coal mines, and military bases. That agenda is likely to bring ruin to the GOP no matter who is in charge, but Pence is certainly a better bet than Trump to trick America into re-electing him.
Pence would also, presumably, bring a sudden and merciful halt to the endless succession of own goals and self-inflicted crises that has characterized the Trump administration since the day he took office. While he’s no one’s idea of a deep thinker, Pence was able to turn Indiana into a gruesome experiment in strip-mining the state government and laying the foundation for Handmaid’s Tale-style theocracy without plunging himself or his constituents into perpetual scandal. The man exudes a dull, comparatively placid malevolence. At worst he could be counted on to keep his silvery visage below the fold every once in a while.
Republicans don’t need to look very far back into history if they want to understand what they are doing to themselves right now. When Senate Democrats closed ranks in February 1999 to acquit President Clinton after his impeachment, they did so for two reasons: First and most importantly, they rightly regarded the entire Lewinsky affair as the product of a partisan Easter egg hunt that Americans did not view as reason enough to remove him from office. And second, they believed that Clinton’s popularity — he ended 1998 at over 70 percent approval in Gallup’s poll — would deliver the party a third consecutive term in office in the 2000 elections and that siding with Republicans would demoralize their base.
They were wrong.
While Clinton left office quite popular, he passed the taint of his Oval Office hanky-panky and his nationally-televised lies onto poor Al Gore, who never could figure out how to distance himself from the scandal while taking credit for the economic boom. Had Clinton resigned, or had Democrats voted to convict him, Al Gore would likely have been elected as an incumbent two years later. As it stands, the party got the worst of both worlds — it looked the other way as President Clinton lied to a federal grand jury and got away with it, and then lost the 2000 election.
The Republican predicament today is much, much worse. Unlike Clinton, Trump is already radioactive and has no redeeming features as a human being or as a national leader. The scandals and crimes will get worse. His actions will destroy him, his brand, his children, his presidency, and then finally they will obliterate the Republican Party as an institutional force in American politics. Everyone who tries to help him or shield him or apologize for him or explain away his bizarre behavior will end up politically dead in a ditch. If he continues chipping away at the Constitution and the safeguards of American democracy, members of his entourage as well as Fake Media journalists trying to hold him accountable may end up actually rather than politically or metaphorically dead. And at some point the country will face a genuine crisis rather than one manufactured by the president after his two scoops of ice cream and six hours of Fox News, and he will not handle it well at all since in addition to everything else, he appears to be losing his mind in a very public way. He may very well get a lot of innocent people killed.
Remember: Republicans could put a stop to all of this tomorrow morning. They have all the evidence they will ever need. And if they knew what was good for them, they would do it.