In a 1920 study that is now regarded as a pioneering example of press criticism, Walter Lippmann and Charles Marz found that in its coverage of the Russian Revolution, The New York Times had repeatedly told its readers that the Communist government was on the verge of its demise. The Times coverage, Lippmann and Marz wrote, was “a case of seeing not what was, but what men wanted to see.”
Last week, immediately after Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, pundits on television and in print were saying that Donald Trump was on the verge of his political demise. Some future media critic will probably do a study of all the many times since the beginning of the 2016 campaign when one event or another led to claims that Trump had reached a turning point and would soon be finished. (For a partial refresher, see J.M. Rieger’s video compilation at The Washington Post.)
The Manafort verdict and Cohen plea led to some fine examples of the genre. In an essay at Slate, William Saletan said Trump’s lies were finally catching up to him and would bring him down. In The New Yorker, while recognizing that Republicans might not turn on the president, Susan Glasser made the familiar claim, “The walls are closing in on Trump.” In The Nation, Bruce Shapiro assured readers that the Manafort and Cohen convictions were a “historic turning point”: “If a pro-Trump juror can send Paul Manafort to jail, it’s a safe bet that other Trump voters will sooner or later follow the evidence too.”
If we could sit ordinary Trump voters down in a courtroom for days, many of them probably would follow the evidence and change their minds. But since public opinion and politics don’t work that way, it’s not even a good bet, much less a “safe” one, that Trump’s supporters will abandon him. Even that pro-Trump juror who voted to convict Manafort told Fox News that she still viewed the whole prosecution as a “witch hunt”: “Certainly Mr. Manafort got caught breaking the law, but he wouldn’t have gotten caught if they weren’t after President Trump.”
As the overheated reactions to the Manafort and Cohen convictions fade, the cold political realities again confront us. Even if Robert Mueller’s investigation results in a public report (which is by no means a sure thing) and that report presents evidence to Congress that Trump obstructed justice and is guilty of other crimes, the odds still favor his finishing out his four-year term. Trump’s every instinct will be to fight impeachment, and he has every reason to believe that he will prevail.
In the United States, the removal of a president is a political process, not a legal one before a judge and jury. And despite last week’s courtroom events, there has been no subsequent political response to confirm the notion that we are at a turning point. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll and other surveys, public approval of Trump has hardly budged, just as it hardly budged after other seemingly devastating disclosures about Trump or outrageous lies by him.
What isn’t budging in public opinion is the support among a base of Trump’s supporters who represent an overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters. Trump’s demonstrated ability to use that base to torpedo the campaigns and careers of Republicans who cross him reinforces the power that he has gained over the party—and therefore over the country.
Indeed, just when you might have thought congressional leaders would be moving away from Trump, Senators Chuck Grassley, who heads the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsay Graham, who may succeed Grassley, indicated they will be ready to confirm a new attorney general if Trump fires Jeff Sessions after the midterm election. Replacing Sessions would then open the way to ending Mueller’s investigation or ensuring that its results are contained.
While many people assume Mueller will issue detailed findings about Trump as Kenneth Starr did about Bill Clinton in the unfortunately named “Starr Report,” Mueller does not have that authority. Justice Department regulations call only for a summary report of his investigation to go to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or, if Sessions is removed, to the new attorney general, who will determine whether to release it and send it to Congress.
But let us assume such a public report is released, and its findings do support impeachment by the House on grounds of obstruction of justice and other crimes. Nothing will happen without Democrats’ winning the House, and even if they do, a conviction in the Senate would require a two-thirds vote and be highly unlikely.
Some analysts have suggested Trump will resign, perhaps in exchange for an agreement not to be prosecuted after leaving office. But why would Trump resign in exchange for a promise that would necessarily be limited to federal prosecution, when he could still face trial under state law in New York? Resigning also doesn’t fit his character and personality.
In fact, voluntarily giving up the powers and immunities of the presidency makes no sense for someone in Trump’s position. As president, he is protected from federal indictment (under current Justice Department interpretations) and likely from state prosecution as well (though that issue has never been tested in court), and he has a wide range of options for his political defense that he has yet to exploit to the fullest. Not only can he reward those who stick with him and try to punish those who don’t; he can also use the presidency to shape events internationally and at home in the hope of rallying support and making it difficult to remove him from office. I wouldn’t underestimate the lengths to which he could go to stay in power.
Will the truth about Trump ultimately bring him down? In the eyes of historians, probably yes—but in the meantime, his fate and the nation’s depend on politics, particularly the internal politics of the Republican Party. Until there are major Republican defections—and we have no sign of them yet—Trump will remain our president.
The recurring expectation of Trump’s imminent political demise may have its deepest roots in a certain kind of American exceptionalism—a belief that “it can’t happen here,” that Trump does not truly represent “who we are,” and that our fellow citizens will surely come to the realization that a man so manifestly dishonorable and deceitful is unfit to be president of the United States.
But it is time to give up these illusions. The truth does not always prevail, and Americans are as susceptible to demagoguery as the people of other countries. We may have thought our institutions protected us from that fate, but now we should know better. Steeled with that realism, we ought to be prepared for the difficult fight ahead.