As Donald Trump traverses the Middle East and Europe on his first international trip, there is considerable discussion domestically concerning the possibility that he might be removed from office, either involuntarily through impeachment, or through voluntary resignation. I am not, however, convinced that he will soon depart office. I hold to the view, rather, that when he returns from his overseas travels he will embark on a vigorous defense of his position.
Here is what I suspect his game plan will be. First, he will massively reorganize the executive levels of his Administration. He must know that his continued tenure in office is being placed in jeopardy by highly-placed leaks. Consider the recent leaks surrounding Trump’s meeting on May 10 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. How many officials would know that Trump shared with Lavrov highly sensitive intelligence provided by a foreign government? How many would have access to the transcript of this meeting, at which Trump also apparently called former FBI Director James Comey a “nutjob” and hinted that relations with Russia might improve with Comey out of the way? I am guessing that the number is minuscule and that they are all well-placed.
The leakers may have the best of intentions. They may see the security of the United States as being placed at undue risk by Trump’s ill-considered statements and gestures. They may feel themselves duty-bound to act. Certainly, large portions of the American public might well agree with such an assessment. But it is safe to say that Donald Trump views matters differently. And he surely believes himself entitled to the loyalty of his senior staff. And my guess is that upon returning from his international meetings, he will fire those he suspects of leaking.
Who then will Trump select to succeed his fired staff? My guess is that he will draw from three pools. First, he will likely seek talent from among the true believers. Expect therefore to see some unknown figures elevated to senior positions, drawn from Breitbart News, perhaps, or the American Conservative, or a faculty like Liberty University. Pat Buchanan might even enjoy a last hurrah as a senior advisor. And Steve Bannon will be rehabilitated.
Trump will also draw from family. Look to Jared Kushner to assume even greater responsibility. Perhaps he will succeed Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff. Trump will also recruit talent from the New York business community that he knows so well. Carl Icahn likely will not join the Administration, but don’t be surprised if he recommends some names to Trump.
Next, I foresee civil war breaking out between Trump and the Republican establishment. Republican establishment types are already beginning to talk openly about what they might accomplish with a President Mike Pence and a Republican Congress. Trump surely hears these conversations.
This is not wise. I expect Trump to launch a scorched-earth response if he comes to feel threatened by the Republican Party leadership. Trump does not owe the Republican Party establishment in the way a more normal politician might. He did not rise through the ranks. Rather, he outflanked the Party leadership by force of personality and the adept use of social media. Are there any skeletons in Paul Ryan’s closet? Or anyone else’s? Trump will surely investigate carefully to learn what is there. Maybe he has already.
Furthermore, I shall surmise that Donald Trump will return to doing what he does best: Campaign. I expect him to hit the campaign trail and to remain on it for much of the summer. He is at bottom an entertainer, and he will gift middle America with an old-fashioned barnstorming tour. I can easily envision him rallying support in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and all the states and places that have been the hardest hit by trade deals.
In the process, he will build a mass movement. The movement will stand in parallel with the Republican Party. Trump will ensure, however, that their primary loyalty remains with him. it will be the “do-nothing” Congress that has failed to take effective action on his agenda. It will the “Swamp” that is lashing out him through the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia.
And regarding that special counsel, I am sure that Trump will mount a vigorous defense. He will challenge the investigation on the merits. What precisely is being investigated anyway? He will raise doubts about the substance of the investigation. He will assert that he himself is blameless. He will talk about how it is the right of a candidate for president to speak forcefully on the stump and that his call to Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s emails was just a figure of speech.
But I suspect he will contest the investigation in other ways also. For instance, he has already raised ethical concerns about Robert Mueller, the special counsel named to lead the investigation. Mueller worked for the law firm Wilmer Hale, which also represented Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, in some business dealings. Can Mueller treat Kushner fairly? Trump has already asked that question. Expect Trump’s resistance to the investigation to grow a level of magnitude greater. He will surely contest every request for information, every subpoena, every deposition. And the lawyers Mueller hires to assist in the investigation should be squeaky clean. Trump would not be above investigating them for embarrassing details about their personal lives.
If the investigation begins to draw blood, look for Trump to wield the pardon power. Jared Kushner is especially indispensable to Donald Trump. If investigators determine that Kushner might be implicated in serious wrong-doing, I would expect that Trump will pardon him. Michael Flynn knows a great deal. A pardon might also gain his silence.
Trump, furthermore, will not step down, at least not without first waging a hell of a fight. It is not in his character. Furthermore, it is not in his interest to do so. A presidential resignation will not make the investigations go away. Indeed, a resignation exposes Trump to even greater risk of prosecution in the event some alleged misdeeds are detected. Trump will not want to feel vulnerable in this way.
I anticipate, therefore, that we may be standing on the cusp of a constitutional crisis that could be worse than Watergate. I write as a Democrat. I caucused for Bernie Sanders and voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. But I would counsel my fellow Democrats to temper their calls for impeachment. Yes, at some point, it may become necessary to travel down that path. But we should bear in the mind that to journey will be hard, even traumatic. And I tremble at the prospect.
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