This post originally appeared at Project Syndicate.
The American people can escape from the ordeal of Donald Trump’s presidency in one of three ways. But if and when they do is an irreducibly political question, not one that hinges on legal possibilities.
First, there’s the Nixonian method, in which the president, worn down by the fight, simply resigns, scared and unwilling to submit to the proceedings that he sees mounting around him. But could that really be the exit taken by Trump? Does he share with his distant Republican predecessor a strong enough predisposition to melancholy? Can one picture a childish man, compulsive and narcissistic, surrendering without a fight the larger-than-life toy that is the top job in the most powerful country on the planet? I doubt it.
Second, there is Article 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967, which spells out a process by which the vice president and Cabinet can act to replace a president who has died or is prevented by reasons of health from governing. Such might have been the case, four years earlier, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, had Kennedy not died from his wounds. The possibility briefly resurfaced when President Ronald Reagan began to show the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
But the current situation does not resemble those cases. Trump may be unstable and unfit to govern, as his detractors claim. But is he any more so now than he was when the American people elected him? Probably not.
Finally, there remains the remedy of impeachment, which is being discussed more and more openly in Washington these days, accompanied (in a sign of the times) by a book, The Case for Impeachment, by Allan J. Lichtman. (A political historian, Lichtman is famous for having devised a model that has enabled him to predict the election of every American president from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.)
Impeachment, set out in Article 2 of the Constitution, is a procedure for the removal from office of a president, vice president or other top executive official (or judge) suspected of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” It is a complex process that unfolds in two phases: first, the House of Representatives must decide, by a simple majority, that the charges are serious enough to be tried; second, a full-fledged trial is conducted in the Senate, which must reach a two-thirds majority to convict the official and trigger immediate removal from office.
There are two main reasons to doubt that impeachment would rid the world of Trump. First, there is the balance of power in the Senate. At least 19 Republican senators would have to join the Democrats to convict Trump. At the moment, at most five can be counted on to do so. The only two presidential precedents (Andrew Johnson, impeached in 1868 for abuse of power, and Bill Clinton, impeached in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice) are hardly encouraging: both ended in acquittal by the Senate.
Second, there is the reluctance of Democratic Party bosses to see ultraconservative Vice President Mike Pence assume the place vacated by a fallen Trump. Wouldn’t he enjoy the same state of grace enjoyed by recent vice presidents who entered the Oval Office under exceptional circumstances (Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy; Gerald Ford after Nixon)? And what if he remained in office, not only for the remainder of Trump’s term, but for two four-year terms of his own?
All of this is logical enough. But times have changed since Johnson, Ford and even Clinton.
In post-modern democracies, there is one and only one boss: public opinion. And public opinion operates according to its own logic. How long will the American public tolerate the almost-daily doses of new evidence of conflicts of interest, starting with the licensing to Chinese investors, at the height of the presidential primary, of the Trump brand for use on spas, luxury hotels and other real-estate projects?
What about Trump’s financial ties with Russia, and those of his associates, including his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort? What leverage can be wielded by the Russian oligarchs who, in 2004, when Trump was mired in one of his bankruptcies, stepped in for the American banks that had blacklisted him to recapitalize his companies and bought — sight unseen and at premium prices — luxury apartments in Trump Tower? Won’t all of this eventually take its toll?
And, finally, there is the gross obstruction of justice represented by the firing of FBI Director James Comey, whose main offense seems to have been his refusal to exclude Trump from his investigation of the Kremlin’s criminal interference in the 2016 campaign. What will voters make of the damning revelations that are sure to come to light, now that Comey’s predecessor, Robert Mueller, has been appointed as special counsel to investigate the ties between Russia and Trump’s election campaign?
The signs of public disgust are mounting. A petition drive to impeach Trump, organized by Massachusetts lawyer John Bonifaz, has gathered more than a million signatures. Polls indicate that a majority of the electorate would favor Trump’s resignation if it were proved that his campaign colluded with Russia to sway the election. And growing numbers of voters are now saying as much to their representatives, who, sooner or later, will have to start listening if they want to avoid imperiling their own electoral chances.
For Trump, the real danger will come as the crowd he captivated and captured during the campaign begins to turn on him. That crowd, as astute political observers from Plato to de Tocqueville amply demonstrated, becomes harder to evade the more you make it master.
The worst case is never inevitable. May the mob of the populist tide become once again the great American people, a people of citizens. When that happens, Trump will be history.