Are Trump’s Mounting Legal Problems Making It Impossible for Him to Be President?
Imagine if a CEO of a publicly traded company, or a university president, or the principal of your local high school, or even a Congressman or Governor, did half of what Donald Trump has done. Would they still have their jobs? The obvious answer is no, and in fact in just the last few months many chief executives and elected officials have had to resign or have been fired due to unethical or criminal behavior.
What is true of our democracy, and most institutions in the United States, is that no one person is bigger than the institution they serve. There are mechanisms in place to ensure the executive performs and behaves with honor. Boards can remove a CEO or university Presidents. Congress can expel corrupt Members. Governors can be recalled, and in parliamentary democracies, governments can fall and new elections called. In our system, there are two “boards” that oversee the President: 1) voters, in midterm and Presidential elections 2) Congress, both in its oversight and impeachment/removal authorities. Voters may act this fall, or in 2020; and of course Congress has done virtually nothing to reign in Trump even though the case for doing so is long and serious. Let’s review some of the reasons other boards would have acted against a chief executive like Trump by now:
1) epic levels of personnel turnover, difficulty finding qualified help, repeated promotional of unqualified candidates, nepotism, verbal abuse of staff in public and private 2) daily instances of lying, attempts to mislead the public 3) intemperate public remarks, erosion of common civility, attacks of perceived opponents some of which could quality as defamation and slander 4) serial adultery and extraordinary efforts to conceal the affairs 5) exploding outside legal problems, involving a wide array of potential charges including treason, tax fraud, public corruption, campaign finance violations, money laundering, sexual harassment, incitement to riot 6) an unprecedented number of high level public scandals with senior officials in the government, suggesting deeply lax internal ethical controls 7) indictment of core staff close to the leader, including top political and policy staff, and now his own personal attorney and longtime business partner has had his records seized and is facing imminent criminal charges 8) clear abuse of the power of his office through his attempts to discredit an investigation into his team, the firing of prominent officials including the acting Attorney General and Director of the FBI and intimidation of those opposing him 9) appeasement of a hostile foreign power in ways inconsistent with the American national interest, including a refusal to condemn them for unprecedented attacks on the homeland of the United States.
Okay, okay some Republicans say. Not a perfect guy, but he is doing a good job as President and deserves a pass. Really? America’s standing in the world has taken an historic hit. There is far more chaos on the global stage today than before, and no clear progress of any of our most vexing problems. The economy is no better than when Trump took office and is by many measures worse — job growth is slower this year, inflation fears are rising, the deficit is exploding, and the Dow is trailing similar marks in both the Obama and Clinton Presidencies. The opioid crisis continues to worsen, health care premiums are rising as is the uninsured rate, and energy prices seem to be on an upward slope. I’m sorry, the country is not demonstrably better off today due to Trump’s Presidency — so no Mad Men like performance exemption for the legal and ethical rot we’ve had to endure.
So while I don’t have hope Congress will take meaningful action against Trump due to his outrageous behavior, there is another reason Congress may be forced to act this year — Trump’s mounting legal problems are making it hard for him to do the already impossible job of President. Just look at the last week. Despite all that is going on in the world, the overwhelming majority of Trump’s tweets have been about Mueller, Comey and Stormy. The RNC’s big new initiative is to attack Comey, not sell the President’s agenda. The President took the time to pardon Scooter Libby last Friday, an event the Administration made front and center in the hours leading up to their late Friday strike on Syria. There has been public confusion and mixed signals about critical issues facing the nation — stay/go in Syria, implementation of new Russian sanctions and whether to rejoin TPP. He cancelled his participation in a really important regional gathering of leaders in Latin America at the last minute. The President’s choice for Secretary of State, after firing the previous one on Twitter, doesn’t have the votes to get confirmed in the Senate. A new story out this morning has Republicans blaming the President’s erratic behavior in recent weeks for a steep decline in the standing of their signature 2018 issue, their tax cut. And the resignations in the Administration and retirements in Congress continue at rates perhaps never seen before in all of US history. He may be an ethical nightmare, but in recent weeks his government has also become a dangerously dysfunctional mess.
Yesterday the Washington Post reported on the President’s response to the latest grave new legal challenge, the raid on his consigliere’s home and office: “Trump was so upset, in fact, that he had trouble concentrating on plans that were laid out for him that day by his national security team about potential options for targeted missile strikes on Syria.” And, as the story reports, the President is spending a great deal of time just trying to find legal counsel to represent him in all these matters as the lawyers he had quit, or in the case of Cohen, are themselves facing imminent criminal charges. One of the reasons Trump is so overwhelmed right now is no lawyer will actually go work for him — a shocking turn of events.
Any other executive of any other American venture, facing the same set of serious legal challenges, would be forced to either take a leave of absence to deal with the matters or would be forced to resign or be fired. For the reality is that any leader facing the kind of serious legal problems Trump is facing now would have a hard time finding time to do their normal job. Trump is no different. His performance these last few weeks makes it clear that the government of the United States is suffering, and that is something that Congress cannot ignore much longer.
Of course there is another way for the President to remove the legal pressure on him right now — he can move aggressively to shut it all down. Which is why Mitch McConnell needs to get behind the new bi-partisan bill that would wall off the Mueller investigation from any future Trump interference. It is my own sense from watching Trump these last few weeks that he is at a breaking point, and can no longer both be President and defend himself. So something has to give. And of course what would be best is for Trump to give, and not our democracy.
If the President’s legal problems continue to mount, and his performance continues to degrade, it will be time for his “board” to get off their rear ends and put the interests of nation and its 330 million people over the interests of this one terribly flawed man. It is how our democracy and broader civil society has been designed and functioned for many years now, and what has made us perhaps the most successful political project in the history of the world. Absent any significant change in coming weeks, it is time to start talking publicly about whether our President, for the good of the nation, needs to resign in order to allow him to spend the time required to address the grave legal matters facing him and his family.