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We Are (Probably) Not in the “End Stages” of Trump’s Presidency

He's in more legal trouble than ever, but political trouble? Less so.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The media has been imagining Donald Trump’s downfall since the moment he announced his candidacy in 2015. During the 2016 campaign, these daydreams and predictions took many forms: Trump would be undone by his racism, or his sexism, or his political inexperience, or his policy ignorance, or the Access Hollywood tape. After Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the media spun scenarios in which state-level recounts overturned the result, or the Electoral College revolted against him. And if Trump somehow survived until Inauguration Day? Then perhaps the 25th Amendment would topple him.

For more than a year now, though, the expectation of a foreshortened presidency has been driven largely by special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Every new development is treated like a bombshell, collapsing the distinction between routine investigative procedure and legitimate revelations. The public could not be faulted for assuming that Mueller’s conclusions, whenever he comes to them and releases them to the public, will mark the beginning of the end for Trump—that it’s only a matter of when, not if, he leaves the White House prematurely.

And yet, there remains no publicly available evidence that Trump colluded with Russia to defeat Clinton in 2016. Mueller may have such evidence, but it’s just as likely—if not more so—that he does not. His investigation could yield other conclusions, such as Trump’s obstruction of justice in firing FBI Director James Comey, but it’s not clear that Congress would find them sufficient to warrant removing Trump from office. In other words, Mueller may well not be Trump’s downfall, either.

Perhaps that’s why some journalists are reading so deeply into the news last week that the FBI had raided the office and hotel room of Michael Cohen, a longtime Trump attorney and fixer, seizing documents, emails, and even audio recordings. (Federal prosecutors obtained the warrant after a referral from Mueller, but the raid is not part of his investigation.) “This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency,” The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson wrote in a widely praised column on Saturday. “This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth.”

Davidson sees reason for skepticism about the Russian collusion narrative. “It seems not at all Trumpian to participate in a complex plan with a long-term, uncertain payoff,” he wrote. “We may have a hard time finding out what President Trump himself knew and approved.” But he is much more bullish on investigations into the Trump Organization. “I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality.

Davidson lists myriad examples of Trump’s shady business deals and depicts his company as a giant public relations scam. Because Cohen is so close to Trump, the argument goes, the raid will reveal the truth about the Trump Organization to the public.

“The narrative that will become widely understood is that Donald Trump did not sit atop a global empire,” Davidson wrote. “He was not an intuitive genius and tough guy who created billions of dollars of wealth through fearlessness. He had a small, sad global operation, mostly run by his two oldest children and Michael Cohen, a lousy lawyer who barely keeps up the pretenses of lawyering and who now faces an avalanche of charges, from taxicab-backed bank fraud to money laundering and campaign-finance violations.”

Davidson’s case rests on a premise that’s hard to dispute: Trump’s finances, by all serious reports, are already shown to be suspicious and are likely to look much worse as they come under legal scrutiny. And Davidson convincingly shows that Trump is in much more legal jeopardy now than he was even a week ago. No wonder his article won many plaudits from liberals:

But Davidson is premature in arguing that, as he put it, “We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency.” For one thing, Davidson overstates Cohen’s role in the Trump Organization. As Bloomberg’s Timothy L. O’Brien points out, “Cohen has never run the company in a significant way.” Other figures, notably former Trump lawyer Jason Greenblatt and Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, are far more important in the Trump Organization chain of command.

“Cohen certainly remains a vulnerability for Trump, especially in the context of Mueller’s investigation of quid pro quos between the Trump team and the Kremlin,” O’Brien wrote. “But Cohen still isn’t the biggest catch from within the Trump Organization, and Trump’s international deals may wind up being less threatening, legally, than some of his domestic transactions. All of which means that the investigation may require far more time to progress and reveal itself than the media and other observers think—even if recent events make it feel like the end is near.”

Moreover, Trump’s legal troubles won’t necessarily translate into political setbacks. The House of Representatives has the power to impeach the president, by a simple majority vote, and that’s highly unlikely as long as Republicans control it. If Democrats retake the chamber in the fall midterm elections, they may well vote to impeach Trump. But the trial to remove the president occurs in the Senate, and requires a two-thirds majority. Even if the Republicans lose the Senate this fall—and they’re not expected to—the Democrats will not have the enough votes among themselves to convict Trump.

The many scandals surrounding Trump don’t seem to be shaking his support with the GOP base. Trump’s approval ratings remains remarkably steady, with the vast majority of Republicans still on his side: According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Trump has the approval of 79 percent of Republicans. And as long as he has such popularity among Republican voters, GOP politicians are unlikely to hold Trump accountable no matter what Mueller or other law enforcement officials find.

Indeed, as Brian Beutler argues in Crooked Media, Trump’s worsening legal situation may lead him to act like a mob boss, drawing Republican officials and his supporters closer to him.

“He will extort support from the ranks of Republican officialdom, which may already be too tainted by allegiance to Trump to credibly sever ties with its criminal leader,” Beutler wrote. “Most corrosively, he will conscript more and more of his supporters into the ethical netherworld of Trumpism, convincing millions of Americans to scoff at ethics and law, and serve instead as a human-political shield around him, so that he can’t be removed from office. This process would serve to normalize his gangster ethic across large swaths of the country, among a radicalized pro-Trump cohort that will be around to poison civic life in America long after Trump has exited the stage.”

One of the key lessons of the Trump era is that partisan loyalty and personality cults can convince so many Americans—politicians and voters alike—to accept racism, misogyny, and corruption. The legal system has instruments to wound Trump, but the deeper crisis is a political system that empowered Trump in the first place. The only solution to that problem is political: defeating Trump and the Republicans at the ballot box.

Even Davidson, in tweets after his piece was published, allowed that Trump might win re-election. “I feel highly confident that more people will be indicted, prosecuted, and more fairly irrefutable evidence will emerge. It will also reframe the things we already have reported. I have no idea if this process takes 3 months or 3 years,” he wrote. “I don’t know if Trump will be impeached. I find it highly unlikely he’d win reelection but he might. That being said, I think that he is already in something of a lame duck phase. His presidency is, already, in some ways, over.”

It’s hard to see how we are at the end stages of the Trump presidency if, as Davidson allows, he could be in office for another three or even six years.