Though a reminder was hardly needed, occurring as it did against a backdrop of reckless nuclear threats against North Korea and a campaign of intimidation directed at Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, Donald Trump’s ignominious response to the deadly white-supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, served as a fresh testament to the fact that the president is unfit for office and deserves to be removed.
It is possible to imagine circumstances under which a Republican Congress would impeach a Republican president, but not for conduct they have already decided to look past—including conduct reported to be in Mueller’s files. So, as welcome as it would be for Mueller to issue a withering indictment of the president and to present evidence of conduct worthy of impeachment, Trump’s detractors should prepare themselves for the possibility that Mueller makes the case of the century and Republicans in Congress respond by doing nothing.
Though it didn’t end his presidency as it rightly should have, Charlottesville did expose and deepen Trump’s real political vulnerabilities. Only a few dead-ender loyalists and paid employees defended Trump after he essentially sided with racists over counter-protesters. Most leading Republicans issued statements, in implicit contrast to Trump, against white supremacy. Some condemned the president directly.
Others insisted Trump’s Justice Department launch a federal civil rights investigation of the murder of Heather Heyer, who was run down by a Nazi sympathizer behind the wheel of a speeding car. The Justice Department announced late Saturday that it was doing just that.
By Monday, Trump’s daily Gallup job approval numbers had reached an all-time low, and he was forced to issue a less ambiguous (though by no means unambiguous) statement condemning hate groups. “Racism is evil,” he said. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Though better concealed, the coded language embedded in this statement was apparent to white supremacists, too. “Donald Trump’s most recent condemnation of racism was also good and was appropriate as the head of our entire country,” American Freedom Party leader William Johnson told TPM. “I note that he condemned all racism INCLUDING that coming from the KKK and neo-nazis. The use of the word ‘including’ indicates that he believes there is a larger, over-arching source of racism besides those groups named.”
Incidents like these trace the path to a near-term future in which Trump’s approval ratings slide below 30 percent and elected Republicans finally see their way clear to letting Trump go. But by then, they will have already made their peace with a stunning quantity of misconduct. Even in breaking with Trump this weekend, most congressional Republicans chose not to see his actions as disqualifying, and aimed instead to pressure him into making a better statement, so they could put Charlottesville behind them.
In the course of Trump’s short presidency, these same Republicans have already looked past his self-enrichment; his potentate-like deputization of his children as U.S. emissaries; his firing of FBI Director James Comey, along with other extraordinary efforts to quash or interfere with the federal investigation of his campaign’s involvement in Russian efforts to subvert the election on his behalf; evidence that his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager were eager to collude with the Russian government to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign; and an impulsive threat to preemptively nuke North Korea. That is just a partial list.
It will be very difficult for Republicans, if they ultimately decide Trump should be removed from office, to cite any of these offenses as grounds for impeachment proceedings months after they decided they were merely worthy of statements of “concern.” Mueller could send Congress a report concluding that Trump engaged in a lengthy and barely-concealed effort to obstruct justice, and Republicans might still find it easier to chalk it all up to Trump’s imagined inexperience, and move on, than to explain why Mueller’s formal statement of the blindingly obvious changed their minds about the consequences Trump should face.
In a perverse way, Republicans’ early reluctance to impeach Trump for the impeachable things he did in plain sight could transform into the reason they won’t impeach him for that same conduct once his political collapse is complete. Their willingness to enable him when they thought he might be useful would inhibit them from holding him accountable once they’ve concluded he’s not, creating a self-fulfilling kind of impunity.
Of course, Trump makes even the unthinkable possible. He could commit a brand new raft of offenses severe enough to give Republicans an offramp if they’re looking for one. Alternatively, Mueller could uncover a level of wrongdoing none could have predicted and nobody can defend. But ending the Trump presidency speedily is by and large a political project, and a daunting one. The serene faith that Mueller can make Republicans do what Trump’s naked unfitness hasn’t done already is a blind and self-defeating one.