We’re only a little more than 1/3 of the way through the first term of the Trump presidency and it already bids fair to end the tenure of the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower.
Until recently, it felt to me like we might be in for a full four years of Donald Trump but just lately things seem to be coming to a head.
Accordingly, I want to get my predictions into print now so that some day in the near future I will be able to either (a) crow insufferably about how prescient I was or (b) laugh ruefully about how the very worst we could imagine in those days was nothing compared to how it ultimately turned out.
I write this at the end of the week following the disastrous Helsinki Summit in which Putin publicly and ostentatiously treated the President of the United States like the help. The embarrassment started even before Putin arrived, because he showed up half an hour late for the meeting. Understand that world leaders don’t get caught in traffic jams—keeping Trump waiting for half an hour is the diplomatic equivalent of slapping him on the ass and telling him to fetch you a latte.
I won’t bore you with too much detail, but Helsinki, as you may remember, came on the heels of a detailed second round of indictments of Russian operatives, this time of twelve, for cyber-crimes connected to interfering with the US 2016 elections. Ominously, the indictment strongly hinted that Roger Stone, the president’s close advisor during the election, was actively working with the Russians at the peak of it.
It would take several pages to fully outline the Helsinki debacle, but suffice it to say that despite the indictments that were otherwise dominating the news, at the post-meeting news conference Trump gassed on about how US intelligence and law-enforcement are falsely accusing the Russians and that Putin had “strongly and powerfully assured him” that it wasn’t the Russians who did it. Trump’s submissiveness to Putin bordered on homoerotic and the popular press was filled with cartoons to that effect.
The jaw-dropping spectacle of a US President being treated like he was some tough old con’s new twink cellmate was too much for even the feckless and supine Republican party. It’s not easy to exaggerate the shamelessness of the Republican performance this year and last, but at Helsinki, for the first time, Trump finally pushed the envelope. The words “disgusting” and “treasonous” were spoken by Republicans in public and he was threatened in print by a party member with “rapidly becoming an ex-president” if he exposed any federal employee to Russian questioning (which is one of several other sub-scandals we won’t go into here.)
You Have To Hand It To Putin
Let’s be clear about Putin. He may be a murderer and a thug, but were he to retire tomorrow, he would have already pulled off the greatest intelligence coupe in history. The only thing I can think of that comes even close is the CIA’s 1974 Project Azorian, in which the deep-sea research vessel Glomar Challenger was used to secretly recover a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine that had been presumed by the Russians to be irretrievable.
It’s hardly fair to bring up Project Azorian though, because Azorian cost the equivalent of four billion 2018 dollars for benefits that were largely theoretical in the absence of nuclear war. Moreover, the whole thing wasn’t publicly exposed until it was ancient history, with every leader affected long out of office or dead. In contrast, Putin’s exploits cost peanuts, and constitute an ongoing, very public, slow-motion political disaster for the US, both domestically and globally. What Putin has accomplished will be spoken of in hushed and reverent tones by generations of Russian agents yet unborn.
It’s beyond a KGB agent’s delirious crack dream and it’s not over yet. Without a drop of blood shed, Putin’s team severely eroded the confidence that Americans have in their democratic processes, tipped the balance in a presidential election, and saddled the US with a buffoon whose erratic policies and crass behavior have made the US a global laughing stock. Putin’s man severely weakened confidence in the Northern Alliance, launched what could be a ruinous trade war with our biggest trading partners, and normalized a level of corruption and vulgarity that would embarrass a banana republic.
Putin didn’t just turn Mickey Mouse loose in the White House with a magic wand; Trump’s oft-expressed admiration of Putin and his bizarrely sycophantic behavior have convinced many around the world that the ex-KGB man is personally handling him and was able to veto Trump’s choice of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State. Widespread suspicion about this is almost as big a victory as the proven fact of it would be—there’s a limit to what the president can get away with on Putin’s behalf, but there is no limit to public imagination.
Trump is a fool, but he’s a proud fool. If he’s allowing himself to be publicly disrespected by Putin and privately told what to do, then you can bet there’s a good reason. Even if Putin didn’t appear to be publicly humiliating him with impunity there would be plenty of reason to assume that he’s got Donald Trump over a barrel. Smoke has been pouring out of every window of Trump Tower and the White House for more than a year—it simply isn’t plausible that there is no fire.
Putin’s former job wasn’t Brownie Scout Troop Leader. He was a top KGB agent who was smart enough to seize control of Russia and make himself one of the richest men in the history of the world. Can anyone seriously think that such a man would not have bothered to have everything recorded? We’ll come back to this.
It obviously can’t go on like this forever. Republican support is already starting to fray and once it’s clear that Donald Trump going down, there will be a stampede for the exit worthy of soccer match. Nobody will want to be remembered as the last poor schween who stuck by him, not with the T word being spoken aloud.
So I’m going to go out on a limb now and call how it will go down.
The rush for the door will start shortly after Mueller holds Roger Stone’s and/or Michael Cohen’s and/or Paul Manafort’s feet to the fire and they tell all. Maybe somewhere in the hoarder’s pile that the FBI seized from Cohen there’s a 2016 tape of the President talking about a deal with Putin, or maybe Stone, who Mueller has all but announced was colluding, will opt for 150 years off his jail sentence in exchange for his 2016 contemporaneous notes.
Not without reason, many have suspected that Mueller is on a fool’s errand because (they believe) the Republicans will suppress any report he comes up with. The 2018 elections might turn out to make that impossible anyway, but by way of insurance, the special prosecutor’s indictments of the president’s men will lay it all out in such gruesome detail that attempting to suppress the final report would be counter-productive. The next big indictment will be the starting gun.
The trouble is, no matter how weak Trump’s support gets, even if his own party starts credibly threatening impeachment, there is no reason for Donald Trump to go peacefully without a deal in place that protects him, his kids, and Jared Kushner. Say what you will about Trump, he loves his family. He’ll see no point in getting off the hook himself if it means leaving his kids twirling in the breeze.
No such deal is possible, of course. Presidential pardons apply only to federal crimes and New York is has been busy cooking up their own batch of state charges. Even if he could get around this, a pardon for the lot of them would be political suicide his successor. Pardoning Nixon for infinitely less very nearly sank Gerald Ford’s presidency, and Ford came into the situation squeaky-clean.
For those and other reasons, gentle into that good night is simply not an option for the President. In every scenario that I can imagine, he does better to brass it out for as long as possible because the minute he leaves office, he’s a sitting duck.
Actually impeaching their own man would destroy the Republican Party; the leadership simply cannot countenance it. Trump was right when he said he could shoot someone and the base wouldn’t desert him. Nothing could make the base flip to the Democrats, but if the Republicans went along with impeachment, huge numbers would defect to crackpot fringe candidates or walk away from participation altogether.
Together, these dynamics leave the Republicans only one way to cut Trump loose: a quasi coupe d’etat via the 25th Amendment. It shouldn’t be too hard. The President is old enough and his behavior erratic enough to make an accusation of incapacity plausible. There need not be lot of second guessing if it’s handled gracefully.
This solution has advantages all around, not least of which is that what formerly looked like corruption and possibly even treason can be plausibly chalked up to incipient senile dementia and the gullibility that goes with it. It won’t get the kids off the hook, but it spares the Republican Party the disaster of impeaching him for what will sound a lot like treason. Senility saves face for everyone.
One morning this Fall, or maybe early this Winter, several Republican top-dogs will call a meeting with Mike Pence and a few reliable cabinet members. Most will have been quietly sounded out already. All present will realize that it is an historic occasion, so there will be much thoughtful chin-stroking and the regretful expression of men doing their painful duty will be worn by all as they discuss “The President’s increasingly erratic behavior.“
Pence will do his best to look puzzled, quizzical, and in the dark about where it’s all going but presently, someone highly respected— Lindsay Graham, perhaps—will turn to him and say “Mike, this is a sad day, and we’re sorry we have to ask this of you, but today, your country needs you. The President is unaware of his own deteriorating condition so we’re going to have to ask you to step up.“
Pence won’t take a lot of convincing. He’ll affect a suitably grave and troubled demeanor but he will accept with alacrity because duty compels him (and not at all because OMG I’m going to be President of the United States of America and I’ll get the bed on Air Force One.)
Notes will be taken and it will all be recorded for posterity, but on the way to the White House, far from stenographers or tape recorders, the key people will respectfully lay out the details to Mike. Foremost in their minds will be the awareness that although they call him Mike Dense behind his back today, in a couple of hours it will be Mr. President.
The chat will go something like this. “Mike, the President will be given thirty minutes to prepare a speech explaining that he’s stepping down due to a health emergency. He’ll be on TV within the hour. We’ll be ready with assurances that his dignity and his family will be paramount and we’ve got a sample speech prepared for him in advance should he find himself at a loss for words. The thing is, Mike, if he declines or kicks up a fuss, we, that is, you, have to be prepared to invoke the 25th Amendment then and there. If it comes to that, we’ll swear you in on the spot. Don’t worry, Mike, because it won’t come to that. He’s too proud to let himself be seen as senile—he’ll go along with presenting it as a matter of his health. This has to be clean, Mike. Actually, even if agrees, we’re going to swear you in then and there to seal the deal, but assuming that he goes along, and I expect he will, then the two of you will give a joint press conference this afternoon after which the former President will go into seclusion for ‘rest and recovery.’ As we said, we’d like to avoid actually invoking the 25th if we can, Mike, but if it comes down to that, John Q. Smith, who’s heading up the Secret Service detail today, has been made aware of the potential for it and briefed by counsel, so there won’t be a problem there. We also have a line open to Chief Justice Roberts, who will be standing by to bless this legally should anyone get cold feet. We have a car waiting to bring him over to do the actual swearing in. Legally, as you know, even a justice of the peace could do it, but we want the gravitas of the Chief Justice. Don’t worry about a thing, Mike, we’ve got it all covered.”
And that will be that. Two and a half years of Mike Pence coming up.
The Wild Card
The wildcard is Vladimir Putin. He’s had a great run but once the stampede for the door begins, the countdown clock starts ticking on whatever Putin has on The Donald; it’s use it or lose it, and Putin is not a wasteful guy.
As soon as Mueller’s big round of indictments are handed up, Putin will know that the end is nigh and it’s time for his pièce de résistance.
Putin’s “internal investigation that his intelligence services have been pursuing” will suddenly have borne fruit, and “after much deliberation” he will decide to make the results available to the United States in the form of a banker’s box of recordings, documents, and videos covering everything from the pee-pee incident to recordings of the conversations Donald Jr., Roger Stone, and a dozen other people had with Putin’s agents, to full details each post-election quid-pro-quo and god knows what all else.
There will be some kind of fig leaf cover story: it was all the work of rogue agents, or Bulgarians, or Christopher Steele’s henchmen, or tiny little elves but exactly who gets blamed won’t matter. Whoever it was, the malefactors will have done it to poison relations between the United States and Russia, and they will be hunted down and punished for their treachery to Russia, blah, blah, blah.
Putin will regret that it took so long for his people to uncover the truth, but at last this criminal conspiracy against our two countries has been exposed and he is pleased to be able offer the fruits of their investigation to America in a spirit of friendship, in hope that this gesture will help to repair the damage that these criminals have done to US/Russian relations.
The Republican Party will already have so much egg on it’s collective face that the last thing they’ll want to risk is looking like they’re trying to suppress evidence again, so with a weak and watery smile, they will thank Putin and accept the box.
And with that, Putin will bow deeply, drop the mike, and ascend bodily into secret agent heaven riding bare-chested on a golden cloud.