I’ve been writing about US presidential politics for roughly 10 years, so it’s one subject that comes up as reliably as the weather from friends and family during the holiday season. Of course, this is especially true of the Trump era, during which even Kiwis with little interest usually have become obsessed about what the hell’s going on America today. So I thought I’d summarise the questions that cropped up this time, and do my best to provide some answers, as well as some low-stakes prognostication.
1. Will Trump be impeached?
It’s hard to imagine how Democrats in the House of Representatives can resist efforts to initiate impeachment proceedings against the President. There are certainly more grounds for doing so than in the case of Bill Clinton, whose conduct, unseemly though it was, barely reached the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanours as laid out in the constitution. In Trump’s case, acts of apparent collusion, self-dealing, and obstruction of justice all point to a level of malfeasance far greater than Clinton ever managed. Unlike the Lewinsky affair, Trump’s crimes directly relate to his duties as President, not least to preserve and protect the constitution. Take the case of Stormy Daniels and the payment to the National Enquirer to “catch and kill” hers and other stories of marital indiscretion. These payoffs have already been deemed campaign finance violations; in other words, a court has decided the payments were designed to suppress damaging news stories to directly assist Trump’s election prospects. These were crimes against democracy itself, far more egregious in nature than anything the ill-disciplined Clinton did.
Add to that the likely findings of the Mueller investigation, which will include elements of obstruction, collusion, money laundering, illegal computer hacking, pay-for-play policy trade-offs, adding up to conspiracy against the United States. Mix in offences against the emoluments clause of the constitution, which prohibits presidents from enriching themselves in office, and the case to commence impeachment will be unavoidable for Democrats even if the political advantage of doing so is dubious.
Does that mean he leaves office?
To be impeached, 67 US senators – a two-thirds supermajority – would need to vote to convict the President based on the articles of impeachment passed by the lower chamber. As with previously scandal-plagued predecessors Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, this bar may prove simply too high for Democrats. They would need the support of more than a dozen Republican senators, a next to impossible ask when you consider that Trump retains overwhelming support among their voters.
In summary: yes, Trump will be convicted by the House, but, no, he is unlikely to be convicted by the Senate.
3. Why won’t Republicans stand up to him?
This is an easy one. In order to win reelection, Senators must first keep their name on the ballot. To do so, they must prevent, or prevail in, primary challenges from fellow Republicans to their right. This forces them into an invidious corner. Even if the general voting public despair at the state of affairs, these politicians have little choice but to pander to Trump’s supporters since doing otherwise will likely spell the end of their careers before they even face a General Election. All it would take is one sharply-worded tweet from the President, and most Republican senators would lose a primary challenge to a more Trump-friendly contender. In essence, cowardice and ambition explain the deafening silence from Republican elected officials. Don’t expect that to change barring a cataclysmically bad Mueller Report.
4. When will Robert Mueller issue his report?
NBC News reports with growing confidence that the Special Counsel’s office will issue findings as early as next month. But there are plenty of Trump-Russia experts who express scepticism that such a wide-ranging, multi-pronged investigation will wind up quite so soon. They point, for example, to the recent extension by six months of the Mueller Grand Jury, as well as the many loose ends that seem months away from being tidied up. I tend towards the sceptical view, but second guessing the famously leak-proof Special Counsel has proven time and again a fool’s errand.
5. Will we see the Mueller Report, and how bad will it be?
With Democrats in the House majority, it’s tough to see how the White House could successfully bury the report. That said, the public version (via Congress) may be heavily redacted, and court action over questions of executive privilege and national security could hold it up for months. In any event, we shouldn’t have to wait long: while Mueller himself never leaks, the same cannot be said of the Justice Department, let alone Congress.
As to how bad the report’s findings will be, I will resort to pure conjecture: it will be very, very, very bad.