Late on Thursday night, BuzzFeed News dropped a bombshell report alleging that, finally, there’s documentary evidence of Donald Trump committing a crime.
“President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter,” reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier write.
They also claim that Trump worked with Cohen to set up a personal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to make the Moscow Trump Tower deal happen.
Perhaps most important, Leopold and Cormier report that there are text messages, internal memos and emails to prove this — throwing a wrench in Trump’s legal strategy of writing Cohen off as a liar and turning the issue into a “he said/he said” standoff.
Talk of impeaching Trump has already been on the rise in the past month, as Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives and now have the ability to file articles of impeachment. A new cover story in The Atlantic, published before the latest revelation, features senior editor Yoni Appelbaum arguing that the Democratic House majority “must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump.”
Thursday night’s revelations increased the pressure, with Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., tweeting “it is time for the House Judiciary Committee to start holding hearings to establish a record of whether @POTUS committed high crimes” and Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, even tweeting the I-word: “If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.” Joel Mathis at The Week argues that if the latest Cohen allegations are true, “Congress will have no choice but to commence impeachment proceedings, and soon.” Slate revived its Impeach-O-Meter feature, arguing: “You’ve got to believe that some Republican senators are at least thinking about” dumping Trump at last.
I’m on the record as bearish on impeachment. I believe there’s no chance that the Republican-controlled Senate will convict Trump. (Even if every member of the Democratic caucus votes to convict, it would take at least 20 Republican senators to remove Trump from office.) With no real prospect of conviction, I worry that an impeachment trial could backfire and allow Trump to claim he had been exonerated.
Does this new story change the equation? Does written evidence that Trump committed crimes — and there’s little doubt that instructing your lawyer to lie to Congress is a crime — somehow change the willingness of Senate Republicans to back Trump no matter what?
I’m skeptical. The assumption that this might change Republican minds assumes that there are any Republicans on Capitol Hill still clinging to the hope or belief that Trump is actually innocent of conspiring with the Russians, as well as many other offenses, and that they could be persuaded otherwise with solid evidence. I think the opposite is true. I doubt there’s anyone in Congress, Democrat or Republican, who believes Trump is innocent, if they ever really did. The likelier story is that most Republicans, probably all of them, already believe Trump is guilty and are simply committed to shielding him from justice, regardless of the cost.
In the churn of the daily news cycle, it can sometimes be hard to remember the overwhelming weight of circumstantial evidence against Trump, going back to the campaign. Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being Putin’s “puppet” during a presidential debate, a word the normally cautious Clinton likely wouldn’t have used unless she were sure of it — something that even her Republican detractors on the Hill likely understand. In June of 2016, Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, now House minority leader, was recorded saying he believes that “Putin pays” Trump, a remark he tried to pass off as a joke when it was later revealed. Everyone in politics knew in 2016 that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, had unsavory Russian ties and was working for free while injecting the policy preferences of his Russian-backed benefactors into the Republican Party platform.
Since then, Trump has not been shy about showing his strings, as evidenced by his extremely public bootlicking of Putin at their infamous press conference in Helsinki last year, following a private meeting that Trump showily made sure was as secretive as possible. Trump has resisted the same Russian sanctions that Putin has been fighting against for years, and uses the same coded language about “adoptions” that Putin uses to talk about the sanctions issue. And then there’s Trump’s weird habit of spooling out elaborate conspiracy theories about Russian politics that have no apparent U.S. sources — but are heavily promoted by Putin’s government.
All the obstruction of justice hasn’t been particularly well concealed, either. Trump basically admitted to NBC News reporter Lester Holt that he fired FBI director James Comey because of “this Russia thing with Trump.” He has also admitted to dictating the letter supposedly written by his son, Donald Trump Jr., in which the latter tried to minimize the purpose of the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with Russian operatives who promised “dirt” on Clinton. Trump has pressured officials for loyalty in private, fired people he clearly fears might turn up dirt on him, and used public channels to intimidate witnesses.
There’s plenty more evidence, carefully compiled in New York magazine and the Washington Post. While it’s true that plenty of Republican politicians are white-dude doofuses who failed upwards into positions of power, it’s impossible to believe that anyone could be stupid enough or blind enough at this point to believe Trump is actually innocent in the face of all that evidence.
Instead, what’s almost certainly going on is that Republicans on the Hill simply don’t care whether Trump is being controlled by Putin and, beyond that, are eager to help him in the cover-up. In fact, the majority of Republican senators, just this week, voted to lift some Russian sanctions, which goes beyond just a cover-up and edges into complicity territory.
The reason is simple enough, and dovetails with the likely reason that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is actively backing Trump’s government shutdown, even though he clearly knows that a border wall is a stupid idea. Republicans are terrified to cross Trump because he remains wildly popular with the Republican base. They’re afraid of being primaried from the right and afraid of losing elections in red states, so they will go along with Trump on anything, even betraying the country, to pander to the red hat brigade.
There’s always the hope, of course, that having secret documentary evidence evidence of Trump committing crimes revealed will change the equation. The blatant and public nature of Trump’s corruption, the argument goes, has worked as something of a shield. It can be hard for people to imagine that what he’s doing could be all that bad when it’s right out in the open. Secret communications instructing his lawyer to lie to Congress more closely resembles what people expect crimes to look like. That might just move the needle of public opinion — and with it, change the political equation for Republican politicians.
Maybe. Let’s hope so! But I remain extremely skeptical that the all-important “base” — the only voters Trump and his fellow Republicans care about — will be moved by secret emails and text messages. They have shown an endless capacity to forgive any Trump transgression, as long as he keeps delivering racist policies meant to prop up white Christian nationalism. I worry that even if Russia invaded the U.S., 35 percent of Americans would cheer their new overlord in Moscow, as long as he empowered Trump to keep building a wall against an imaginary “invasion” of Latino immigrants.
Trump is certainly betting that’s the case. He reacted to the story that Cohen has receipts to back up his story of criminal corruption by going on a racist Twitter rampage, declaring “Another big Caravan heading our way” and spreading a right-wing urban legend about “prayer rugs” being found on the “Southern Border.”
To be certain, Democrats need to move quickly to open up their own investigations regarding the Trump-Russia conspiracy concerns. Waiting on Robert Mueller to finish his report is increasingly looking like a bad idea, especially as Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, has strongly hinted that he intends to keep Mueller’s findings confidential. But those investigations can be conducted without moving immediately to impeachment.
In time, those investigations may churn up enough substantial evidence to change the equation. Perhaps we will get to the point where Republicans start flipping on Trump. Or maybe it will simply become necessary to force Republicans into a formal vote to save Trump in the face of overwhelming evidence of his guilt. At that point, it will be time for impeachment.
I’m just not sure we’re there yet, and I continue to be wary of getting the public’s hopes up that there’s some way to save ourselves from Trump that doesn’t go through the ballot box in November of 2020. The possibility of impeachment just got a little closer, but right now, the fundamentals haven’t changed: Republicans are still corrupt and don’t care about the evidence against Trump, and still have the power to shield him from justice. If that doesn’t change, then 2020 remains our surest and best hope for bringing the Trump era to an end.