Michael Cohen’s recent testimony about Donald Trump’s activities regarding Russia is the latest turn in the Mueller investigation that has many predicting that the end of the Trump presidency is imminent. According to this argument, Cohen’s testimony will become so damaging that Trump cannot survive it. This is an appealing argument, but while whatever Cohen reveals will be central to our understanding of Trump’s relationship with Moscow, it is unlikely to force the President out of office.
The United States is still, more or less, governed by its Constitution. One of the areas in which the Constitution is clear is that a President can only leave office due to one of five reasons: electoral defeat, resignation, the 25th Amendment, impeachment or death. One of these, electoral defeat, will not be possible for another 23 months. Another, death, is unpredictable. That leaves the 25th Amendment, impeachment or resignation as the only ways to have Donald Trump removed from office before his term expires.
The 25th Amendment, which allows for a President to be removed if he is mentally incapacitated, has long been a scenario for which many have hoped. The President, despite his assertion that he is a “very stable genius,” clearly wrestles with one or more psychological disorders that should render him unfit for office. However, per the Constitution, the keen psychiatric minds that will be called upon to make this decision should it come to pass will be the vice-president and members of Trump’s cabinet. The chances of cabinet members who all owe their jobs and status to Trump, and who all willingly joined his administration, knowing precisely who Trump is, deciding to oust the President on the grounds that he is mentally ill are minute.
This leaves impeachment and resignation as possible ways for the Trump presidency to end prematurely. Every major turn in the Mueller investigation and some of the worst decisions Trump has made in the White House leads some pundits to assert that Trump will resign rather than face his accusers or that he will be impeached before his term is out. Unfortunately, this is more accurately understood as political fantasy rather than astute analysis. Trump will never resign because leaving the presidency will actually increase the legal hassles he and his family will confront. Attorney general like New York’s newly elected Tish James, who takes office in 2021, will be waiting with indictments and criminal charges before the ink is dry on Trump’s resignation letter. Significantly, Presidents cannot pardon state crimes so even if Mike Pence were President, he could not help Trump in that scenario.
As most people know by now, impeachment requires a majority vote in the House of Representatives, something that is easily imaginable, and a two thirds majority in the Senate, something that is much less likely. There are 47 Senate held by Democrats or anti-Trump independents like Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. That means that fully twenty Republican Senators would have to vote to remove Trump from office. Even as more information is revealed by the Mueller investigation emerges, that will be a very difficult number to reach. The next time somebody says the Trump will be impeached, ask her which twenty Republican Senators would possibly vote to remove Trump from office. I follow the Senate closely and am hard pressed to come up with one, let alone twenty.
The impeachment hope rests on the belief that Mueller will find something out that is so extraordinarily bad about the President that almost half of the Republicans in the Senate will vote to remove Trump from office. To hold out hope that will happen is to believe that Republicans in positions of leadership do not already know about Trump’s involvement in Russia and will be shocked when they find out, but given the last two years that is not plausible. The only way Republican senators will vote to remove Trump is if their constituents demand it, but many Republican senators come from strongly red states where Trump is still quite popular.
The Trump presidency will not last forever, but the end is not going to be for at least another two years, by then the damage to American politics and society will be profound. Instead of simply hoping that Trump will be impeached or resign, those concerned about the future of American democracy should turn their attention to how to defeat Trump in 2020, how to ensure that victory is recognized by both parties and the transitional justice issues which will arise when Trump is finally out of office.