Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the fallout for Trump from Michael Cohen’s guilty plea and Paul Manafort’s conviction on multiple felonies.
When you looked back on Watergate last summer, you found that the scandal unraveled incredibly slowly until, in August 1974, Nixon’s presidency collapsed all at once. This week, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted on multiple counts of fraud and Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations he says he committed “at the direction of the candidate.” Have we reached the August 1974 of the Trump presidency?
There have been so many times when Trump was doomed, dating at least as far back as his denigration of John McCain’s war heroism three summers ago, that it would be foolish to declare any new horror the final blow. But I do believe, as I wrote last summer, that Trump’s path to “a premature exit from the White House in disgrace” is “on a comparable timeline” to Nixon’s. The tumult of August 2018 hasn’t finished off his presidency, but the endgame looks closer by the day. We know we’ve reached a nadir when the president’s lawyer is reduced to claiming that “truth isn’t truth” and even a lowlife crook like Michael Cohen can take the moral high road by professing he’d rather go to prison than be “dirtied” by a Trump pardon.
It is important to remember that the unrelenting lockstep loyalty of the feckless GOP leadership and the party’s base to Trump are not indicators of his fate. An occasional outlier in the Jeff Flake vein aside, Nixon’s party was wholly loyal to him too. Like today’s Vichy Republicans, they remained loyal despite the indictments of Cabinet members and aides as close to Nixon as Manafort, Cohen, and Michael Flynn have been to Trump. They remained loyal after the nation was riveted by the devastating Watergate hearings of the summer of 1973, which portrayed all the president’s men as counterparts to the mobsters seen in the previous year’s Hollywood hit The Godfather. They remained loyal even that fall, when Nixon’s firing of the special prosecutor in the “Saturday Night Massacre” attempted to blowtorch the Constitution and the rule of law.
As a counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the 1974 impeachment inquiry pointed out in a Times op-ed piece ten days ago, Nixon’s defenders routinely dismissed Watergate investigations as a political “witch hunt” intended to reverse the Democrats’ 1972 electoral defeat. As late as the end of July 1974 — less than two weeks before Nixon’s August 9 helicopter departure from the White House lawn — most Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted against all articles of impeachment. Many Republicans on the committee continued to support him even after the August 5 release of the “smoking gun” tape revealing that Nixon had ordered a cover up of the Watergate crimes. Had the Democrats not controlled both houses of Congress — and had the era’s Nixon-sympathizing conservative Southern Democrats not finally turned on him — Nixon might have held on until a few months more, until November 1974. But no longer than that. The Democrats gained 49 additional House seats and four Senate seats in the midterms. His doom was assured.
With all the debate about whether Trump could or should be impeached this very minute — a wholly theoretical debate as long as the GOP controls Congress — we tend to forget that Nixon was never tried for impeachment. He quit once he realized he didn’t have the votes to survive such a trial and when he no doubt realized that he was in criminal jeopardy. (A fear that would only be alleviated when his successor, Gerald Ford, granted him a pardon.) Trump, unlike Nixon, is out of touch with reality. He doesn’t know how to count votes, and he believes he can defy the law with impunity. (Nixon, a lawyer, could only lie to himself about his criminal exposure up to a point.) But, whether Trump recognizes it or not, the fact remains that his main and perhaps only hope for clinging to office is that Republicans hold the House in November. Polls — and the history of midterm elections inflicting damage against the party occupying the White House even during non-criminal presidencies — tell us that a blue wave is more likely.
What would happen then could be any combination of developments including impeachment. Nonstop congressional investigations will attempt to illuminate every dark corner of an administration in which the kleptocracy extends from the Trump family to most Cabinet departments. Those close to Trump, both in his family and in his immediate circle, will fear for their futures, both legally and financially. The GOP and the Trump Organization alike will be on the ropes, and in full panic. This is evident from the wrongdoing already apparent — indeed, already the subject of indictments and guilty pleas. Yet to be factored in, of course, are the unknown findings of the Robert Mueller investigation, which could include not only treasonous conspiracies with the Russians to steal an election but additional crimes that beggar the imagination.
If there is a shocking upset GOP victory in November, then all bets are off: America is in worse trouble than we already think and possibly in an existential fight for survival.
But the more plausible scenario is that Trump, even if he has to be pushed kicking-and-screaming by Ivanka and the possible jailbirds Donald Jr. and Jared, gets out of Dodge. As with Nixon, his administration is most likely not to end with impeachment but with a self-pitying and self-justifying resignation in which Trump lashes out against both Republicans and Democrats, declares another ersatz “win,” and flees.
Up until the ship of state hits the iceberg, the Vichy Republicans will not hit the lifeboats. Trump’s loyal supporters will remain loyal even then, still chanting, as they did during the president’s West VIrginia rally this week, “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!” (Polls found that a quarter of the country still supported Nixon even when he resigned.) The exact timing remains unknown, and a little more perseverance and patience in the face of the torrent of Trump indignities will be required. But when this White House collapses, it will happen fast. As the Washington reporter Elizabeth Drew, who covered Watergate for The New Yorker, would conclude, “In retrospect, the denouement appeared inevitable, but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time.”