Monday, May 22, 2017

The Clock Just Started, and This May All Go Down Faster Than We Think

Though many are claiming that it is "too soon to be using the 'I' word," Steve sees the unraveling of the Trump presidency to be a rapidly accelerating snowball that may be resolved far more quickly than think.

It sure seemed odd that Rod Rosenstein’s letter supposedly justifying the firing of James Comey focused exclusively on the FBI Director’s actions regarding Hillary Clinton. Why would Trump’s newly appointed Deputy Attorney General write a memo that could be interpreted to be a validation of the theory that the election had been inappropriately tilted toward Donald Trump?

Now that we have gotten to know the surprising Mr. Rosenstein a bit better, a new theory is worth considering.

Brand new in his role, and immediately put under intense pressure by Trump to cook up a justification for a firing that he may not have felt ready to endorse, Rosenstein may have intentionally authored the one argument that he was sure the boss would refuse to air publicly.  Trump will never release this letter, Rosenstein probably thought. He’d be shooting himself in the foot!

Rosenstein, however, failed to grasp the depth of Donald Trump’s ham-fisted clumsiness and utter lack of nuance.  We now know Trump was itching to fire Comey as quickly as possible, so he took Rosenstein’s letter and instantly released it, pasting the firing on Rosenstein. Then Trump hung Rosenstein out to dry two days later when he told Lester Holt that he would have fired Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s opinion.

When you’ve been hired, manipulated, used, spun, spit out, and thrown under the bus in the amount of time it takes most new employees to sign all the HR forms, your nerves might be a bit frayed, and you might be really pissed off.

Or maybe – just maybe -- you are a lifetime officer of the law who happens to be a patriot first and a partisan second.

If our country survives Donald Trump, Rosenstein may go down in history as one of the people on whom the fate of the Republic turned. Rosenstein’s leather-balls decision to name Robert Mueller as Special Prosecutor without even telling his boss Jeff Sessions or Trump himself was a great act of political courage. In his swift and confident exercise of appropriate authority, his timing, and his personnel selection, Rod Rosenstein may as well have been galloping at midnight and shouting “One if by land, and two if by sea!” He seized his moment in history to do the right thing for his country.

There is now a palpable feeling that with the appointment of the formidable, righteous, and determined Mueller, the timer on Trump’s day with destiny has begun ticking. While the Congressional committees seemed moribund, mired in the molasses of partisan gamesmanship, Mueller now has the institutional authority and personal charisma to take the FBI investigation the full distance.  And what all lefties must deal with is the simple fact that if Robert Mueller concludes that there is no case against Trump, then it is time to nod, accept, and move on.

But let’s interpret the widespread, bipartisan endorsement of Mueller’s appointment as an indication that there are very serious allegations on the table, and it is time to learn the truth.  Mueller’s appointment has set the endgame – one way or another – in motion, and a key question is how long it the process will take.

There has been no shortage of posts, articles, and televised opinion pieces that scold pundits and politicians for invoking the “I” word, and for doing so at what is somehow perceived to be at an inappropriately early stage. It is as if Letitia Baldridge had written a lesser-known book on the etiquette of removing a sitting president, with an entire chapter devoted to when it is appropriate for the socially graceful host or hostess to serve the Commander-in-Chief a soupรงon of articles of impeachment.

Many of these articles sagaciously count the number of steps and likely pace that would make any such proceeding arduous and protracted. Others point out that it will take an extraordinarily painstaking investigative process for new Special Prosecutor Mueller to unravel the mystery of what really happened between the Trump Campaign and Russian intelligence operatives.  Some rightly point out that Trump’s latest defiant tweets indicate an intention to stonewall, which could trigger long pauses as subpoenas (think Trump’s taxes) are issued, ignored, and then contested in court. Some remind us of the more than two year interval between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation.  And then there are the bend-over-backward liberals who insist that due process will take a long time, as if a slow pace is the only sure proof that the investigation and trial has been deliberate, sober, thorough, and responsible.

Maybe.  But 2017 is not 1867 or even 1974. In a world that runs on :60/:60/24/7/365 internet speed, there is an argument to be made that the fate of Donald Trump will play out on Instagram timing, with the entire spectacle unfolding in the roughly the amount of time it took Donald Trump to hire an apprentice. Welcome to Law and Order: Presidential High Crimes and Misdemeanors Unit, Season One. Just sixteen episodes with the must-see-tv finale timed to air in the next Nielsen rating sweeps.

Why might this unfold at heretofore unheard of speed? The answer lies in the reality that the impeachment and conviction of a president is one part legal, one part shamelessly political, and one part purely personal.  The outcome will involve as many off-camera human judgments, opinions, and political calculations as it will smoking gun evidence and courtroom drama.  But the most important point is this: once it is clear to Republicans in contested districts and states that an impeachable offense has been committed and perceive Donald Trump to be radioactive waste, it will be in the interest of all parties – even Donald Trump – to get this all behind us. Fast.

If that is the case, Donald Trump’s presidency may soon resemble one of Kim Jong-un’s errant missile tests: never successfully off the ground, never achieving sufficient velocity, pulled back to earth by an overpowering gravity, burning and exploding on re-entry.  At just about that speed.

There are a number of reasons to believe this is true.

The first – and most important -- is that there are not simply one but two impeachment-grade acts that seem to be in advanced stages of investigation.  

The first is the possibility that Trump was aware of and approved of collusion between his campaign and the Russian government to influence the outcome of the election. For months, senior Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn appear to have been under intense scrutiny for possible collusion with the Russians, and that the critical question would be whether the FBI could ever prove that Trump was aware of and approving their activities. But a bombshell landed this past Friday with the revelation that the FBI is actively investigating an individual who is currently serving – right this minute --as a “senior advisor to the President of the United States” for possible collusion.  The puzzle here is that there simply are not that many people in Trump’s inner circle now who were also there then. This has led to the buzz that the “senior advisor” under scrutiny could well be Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law.  If that is the case, we are no longer operating in a scenario where  Manafort or Flynn were talking freelance trash with the Russkies at a distance from which Trump could maintain plausible deniability. Kushner has been handed responsibility for almost every major initiative in the Trump White House, and is considered Trump’s closest and most trusted advisor. If he is implicated in the collusion, it appears unimaginable that Trump was unaware.

The second impeachable offense has been played out so openly and transparently that most people seem to fail to grasp its implications. Donald Trump has essentially admitted – repeatedly, once on national television, and once to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office – that he fired FBI Director Comey as a way of slowing the pace of the FBI investigation into collusion. Donald Trump said as much to Lester Holt in a televised interview, and told the Russians that firing Comey “took pressure off him” about the Russian investigation. Firing Comey in order to slow down, side-track, inhibit, or in any way impede this investigation is obstruction of justice.  Case closed.

As if Trump’s own words to NBC or the Russians were not enough, we have the amazing claim from James Comey that Trump attempted to personally strong-arm him in private, closed-door meetings, pointedly asking for commitments of Comey’s personal “loyalty” in one instance and for Comey to “let go” of the investigation of Flynn in another. Trump has already denied making the latter request. What is delicious about this situation is that if it comes down to one man’s word against another, Trump will finally – perhaps for the first time – understand the cost of having been a serial, projectile, incessant, and unrepentant liar for his entire adult life.  No doubt someone is doing the polling about whether Americans believe Comey or Trump, and the President of the United States is not going to like that answer one bit.

With the case for two impeachable offenses appearing to be far along, there is a second factor that argues for a very rapid unfolding of events. Woodward and Bernstein were patiently and periodically guided by “Deep Throat,” an extremely high-ranking government officer who steered their path toward the truth about Nixon. Today, however, we have a veritable army of informants inside the Trump White House and our intelligence agencies, and each appears to have a favorite New York Times or Washington Post reporter on speed dial. Information about Trump’s bumbling is pouring out of the government from patriots who know that the Times and the Post will do what  Republican government officials – largely Trump supplicants and enablers -- will not: publicize the shocking ignorance, incompetence, and disregard for law of the Trump administration.

What this means is that breaking news about both Trump’s ongoing misjudgments as well as Mueller’s investigation are going to fly directly to the front page of the Times, the Post, and on the news channels in real time. If the FBI discovers a smoking gun establishing that Trump was aware of collusion by Manafort, Flynn, or the “current senior advisor,” Mueller will be unable to hide it as he attempts to build a comprehensive case.  The Times will print it, Anderson Cooper broadcast it, and Stephen Colbert will have delivered a scathing monologue about it that will go viral before America goes to bed.

Should damning allegations or incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing come to light, Mueller will have a very tough time resisting public pressure to bring whatever charges he may have as soon as is possible.  At that point, there will be a growing sense of urgency to extract Trump from power before he attempts to use that power to lash out at those who he perceives to be unfairly attacking him.   

Which brings us to the real game of politics, human judgments, and calculations.

Right now the Republicans hold all the cards on any impeachment proceedings. They have a commanding hold in the House, where a simple majority vote is necessary to ratify articles of impeachment. And while the Senate is evenly split, a conviction on impeachment charges requires a two-thirds majority. Right now, if Donald Trump did go out and, as he once mused, shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, the Republicans control the process and would not have to impeach him or remove him if they did not feel inclined. The Republican Party appears to have long since lost its soul and moral compass, somehow clinging to a hollow belief that retaining its control of Congress is more important than having a philosophy of governance.  Republicans will not turn on Donald Trump for mere crimes and misdemeanors if they believe he is a help rather than a hindrance in holding Congress.

However, they will turn on Trump if they fear that he is imperiling that hold. It will be a practical motivation – not ideological, moral, or patriotic -- that brings Republicans around on the matter of impeachment.

Right now, right this minute, Republicans who compete in contested electoral offices are beginning to weigh the consequences of unquestioned fealty to this train wreck of a presidency.

Indeed, some might argue that the worst possible scenario is that Mueller takes a year to mount an unquestionable, comprehensive, open-and-shut case for impeachment, and then announces his findings a week before the 2018 mid-term elections.  Uh, that would be, right about that same time in 2016 that one James Comey pulled out his Weiner emails and crushed Hillary Clinton’s chance for the presidency.  Instant Karma’s gonna get you.

Every Republican has to be gaming how this ends, when it ends, and how long to let Trump drive the car in this game of chicken before bailing out.

And everyone also remembers the scene in Titanic when the captain turns to the ship’s architect and pouts, “But this ship can’t sink!” The architect’s chilling reply: “She’s made of iron sir. I assure you, she can, and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” 

What is less likely to be remembered is the captain’s next question: “How much time?”

Four months into this presidency, there are already four full-on investigations into presidential malfeasance, a seemingly bottomless well of new revelations about prior questionable activities, and a fresh dose of constitutionally questionable behavior with each unforgiving news cycle.

Republicans in swing districts and states have to be searching the tea leaves, Ouija Boards, and palm readers for some indication about how much time they have before their blind allegiance to Trump costs them re-election.

Perhaps they are just waiting to see if any party leader has the courage to be the first to break ranks. Morally bankrupt, Republicans need a note from their parents to do the right thing.

When the Republican dam breaks, it does not have to be a flood of Biblical proportions. Gerrymandered districts will leave many Republicans thoroughly insulated from public outcry.  But there will be many who are terrified of a Trump stain in the 2018 mid-terms, and who were never terribly crazy about him as the candidate to begin with. Those Republicans could actually race out in front of Mueller and out in front of the Democrats in their eagerness to distance themselves from Trump’s toxic orange half-life.  

But that is only the second component that could accelerate the trajectory.

We noted that there were three acts in the impeachment play: One part law, one part politics, and then there’s that one part personal.  How does the human being react?

The most interesting question will be to see what Donald Trump will do if the investigation reveals smoking machine guns and Republicans begin to abandon ship.

It will place him in a position where the warring armies in his psyche finally come face-to-face in battle. 

On one side of the brain, Donald Trump is a fighter who kicks and scratches and will do anything to survive, as his greatest mortal fear is being revealed -- and permanently branded -- as a “loser.” That side of Donald Trump would insist on a full trial, and would spend his time alone in the oval office creating diversions and terrifying the nation that he would risk World War III rather than become the first and only president ever removed from office through the impeachment process.

On the other side of his cerebrum is the Donald Trump who is lightning fast to figure out why his every failure is someone else’s fault, and that even Donald Trump – the greatest human being who has ever walked the face of the earth – could not be expected to surmount the obstacles that all the haters have thrown in his way. That Donald Trump gets bored, frustrated, and tells America to screw off. He quits, returns to Mar-a-Lago, and spends the rest of his life humiliating the Republican Party with endless invective about how unfairly he has been tweeted.

He has, after all, already said that the investigation commissioned by his own Deputy Attorney General and to be run by the former head of the FBI is a “witch hunt.” Rod Rosenstein is going to get a chuckle if Donald Trump floats.

Trump would quit rather than subject himself to a trial. In his every decision, his need to convey that he is in control of his own destiny is paramount. Quitting gives him the satisfaction of saying it was his decision.

Equally important to Trump: his brand. He simply would not be able to deal with being the first and only president to be removed from office through impeachment. 

And let us not forget: at a certain point, the issue of criminal liability comes into the picture. Donald Trump would not dare an impeachment trial if a criminal trial loomed beyond. He would not risk jail time for something as trivial as, say, leading the United States of America. He would cut a deal.

All of which brings us to our final comment on the speed of this process. If Trump indeed were to resign, that alone would cut months and months out of the resolution.

Rod Rosenstein’s decision to hire Robert Mueller has started the clock ticking. In the ever-accelerating pace of our no-secrets, :60/:60/24/7/365-paced-world, this game of chess will be played with a ten-second timer.

Now it’s Mueller time in America. For the first time since that dark day in November, we can sense the resurgence of truth and the rule of law.

Thank you Rod Rosenstein, for your midnight ride. It may turn out to be a lot shorter than everyone expects.

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