As President Trump spent the week flailing in a web of his own contradictions and half-hearted retractions in his handling of the deaths in Charlottesville, the question of his survival in office inevitably began creeping into the political dialogue. Official betting odds that the president would be gone from the White House before the end of his first term spiked on Monday when he memorably blamed the deadly violence on “many sides,” and by Thursday had settled at near even money. That same day, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said he planned to introduce articles of impeachment, an idea that has also been floated by some high-profile Democratic legislators including Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But Cohen’s justification — “President Trump has failed the presidential test of moral leadership. No moral president would ever shy away from outright condemning hatred, intolerance and bigotry” — suggests that his effort is, at best, premature. There is no “test of moral leadership” in the Constitution, and failure to condemn bigotry, however reprehensible, wouldn’t seem to rise to the level of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Founding Fathers set as the bar for removal from office.
Impeachment (in the House of Representatives) and conviction (in the Senate) require a legal basis, and it’s not clear that one exists yet; it is most likely to arise out of the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Trump’s business dealings or his handling of the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election. But it is also a political process, and the political climate is moving in that direction. Political not just in the narrow sense of which party controls Congress, but in a broad sense that embraces the media, public opinion and the much-reviled (by Trump) “establishment.” It goes sometimes by the term “body politic” — and like the human body, it has a mechanism for protecting itself by rejecting what it perceives as alien or harmful. And that, clearly, is what is happening to Trump.
To be sure, Trump’s background in real estate and entertainment made him less than a natural fit for the presidency from the outset, and it was only to be expected that the inhabitants of what he likes to call the “swamp” would regard him with suspicion. But the past several weeks have seen an extraordinary effort from many sides to marginalize and isolate the president, to seal him off where he can do the least damage to the institutions of American democracy. Trump calls for one last effort to pass a health care bill, and the Republican-led Congress ignores him, with a pointed observation from Mitch McConnell that the president doesn’t understand the legislative process. Trump equivocates on denouncing neo-Nazi and white supremacist marchers, and senators, including many from his own party, do it instead, in some cases specifically and personally calling him to task. Trump tweets out a policy change to dismiss transgender servicemen and -women; the Pentagon says it doesn’t know anything about it, and weeks later the military brass have taken no action to implement it.
The nation’s most prominent corporate executives, bankers and labor leaders resign their prestigious seats on Trump’s advisory councils, leading him to disband the organizations altogether. Most of the media long ago crossed the red line of labeling Trump a liar, but Thursday even the reliably Trump-boosting New York Post, owned by his ally Rupert Murdoch, called him out for promulgating the “fake story” of Gen. John Pershing executing Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.
Every president faces opposition, of course, and rumors about various Cabinet members on the verge of quitting are nothing new in Washington. But what is so unusual about Trump’s position is that the opposition he faces isn’t just political; it is coming from Democrats, obviously, but also from members of his own party (earlier this week, Chuck Todd invited all 52 GOP senators to discuss Trump on his weekday show “MTP Daily”; not one accepted). And it’s coming from outsiders whose interests and positions are actually aligned with his. The body politic is rejecting not Trump’s policies but Trump himself, for qualities and behavior so aberrant in a president that they seem to threaten the whole organism — his reckless swagger in foreign affairs, his blindness toward bigotry and violence, his utter disregard for civic norms and for the truth. The country is in a fever over Donald Trump; the immune system is on high alert; but as always in politics, the prognosis is anything but clear.
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