Can he survive?
This became the central issue in American politics late Tuesday afternoon. It’s also the only subject President Trump cares about.
With Michael Cohen implicating his former client in a potential felony, the president’s strategy of diversion and evasion collapsed. Compounding his troubles was the nearly simultaneous conviction on eight charges of Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager.
Trump will continue to bask in the faithful’s chants of “Lock her up,” as he did at a West Virginia rally Tuesday night, but Hillary Clinton is no longer his adversary. His enemies now are the facts and the truth. They cannot be jailed and have no personal shortcomings to exploit. Trump and his defenders are reduced to arguing that truth doesn’t exist.
There has been a habit since Election Night of 2016 to assume that revelations that would destroy any other politician will never touch Trump. The fealty of his base became a journalistic totem.
The manifest corruption of his associates and his administration won modest notice as Trump jammed the system with incendiary public comments and frightening tales of immigrants as “vicious predators and violent criminals,” his formulation on Tuesday.
Trump’s speech was a catalogue of antipathies and a gauge of his fight-back plan: He will make his survival synonymous with the aspirations of voters who despise liberals, fear cultural change and see Trump as their last-ditch defender in a hostile world.
“The Democrat Party is held hostage by the so-called resistance: left-wing haters and angry mobs,” he declared. “They’re trying to tear down our institutions, disrespect our flag, demean our law enforcement, denigrate our history and disparage our great country—and we’re not going to let it happen.”
Through the sheer force of his malevolence, Trump hopes to bait his foes into engaging on matters far more favorable to him than a discussion of the payoffs he ordered to women who said they had affairs with him, in violation of campaign finance laws (not to mention the morals and sensibilities of many who are the president’s most loyal champions).
Yet Trump’s usual approach will be difficult to execute now. He’s aimed most of his fire at Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This effort took a major hit with the success of Mueller’s team in convicting Manafort. But Cohen’s plea inflicted damage of a higher order because it tied Trump to a crime. This was not a bank shot. It was a direct hit.
The limp and tone-deaf response to Cohen from Trump and his lieutenants suggested they are floundering.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer,” Trump tweeted at 8:44 a.m. on Wednesday, “I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Weak stand-up humor belied the seriousness of what Trump is accused of and the threat he faces.
He dug the hole even deeper with another tweet 37 minutes later. He channeled the ethics of a Mob boss, praising Manafort for refusing to “break” and being “brave,” and trashing Cohen for taking a different path.
Those seeking to hold Trump accountable will need to combine relentlessness with discipline. Democratic candidates are coming to see an attack on corruption as the theme that will unite their party, appeal to less partisan voters—including at least some in Trump’s 2016 “drain the swamp” constituency—and highlight the broad range of misdeeds by the president, his advisors, and his administration.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was the latest Democrat to put forward an anti-corruption program with an announcement Tuesday that was well-timed in light of the news. The timidity of congressional Republicans in responding to the twin blows to Trump’s integrity will strengthen the Democrats’ case.
The argument for impeaching Trump suddenly became very strong, but this does not mean that turning 2018 into an impeachment election is prudent. Most voters see impeachment as a last resort, and it is not a battle cry that will play well in every state or congressional district.
The adage that one should not interfere with an enemy who is destroying himself certainly applies here. Insisting on accountability and letting the ongoing probes go forward unobstructed by a lawless president are, for now, enough.
As the peril to Trump grows, the danger that he will behave ever more recklessly increases. Might Republicans in Congress and at least some members of his administration try to contain him? It is a measure of our dysfunction that there is little reason to be confident that they will.