When the news broke about the firing of James Comey as FBI Director, I began to think about Donald Trump's impeachment or resignation. Although both possibilities continued to be unlikely, I certainly thought that such questions would still be relevant—even pressing—by the time I wrote this column only three days later.
Indeed, it finally seemed possible to hold out real hope that Trump's unfortunate presidency might soon see its final days.
When the faux-centrist trio of John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins finally did something laudable and meaningful on Tuesday (voting with Senate Democrats to uphold one of President Obama's climate change regulations), one report referred to that surprising vote as evidence of "the Trump administration’s problems on Capitol Hill, where there are signs the president’s grip on his party is loosening."
So much for that. There has been barely a peep of protest about the Comey firing from those three senators or from most of their party colleagues.
Republicans, with very few exceptions, have made it completely clear that they have no interest whatsoever in following in the patriotic footsteps of their Watergate-era predecessors. Within less than a day, it was obvious that even this bombshell was not enough to cause mass defections among Republicans.
This is tragic, and it is also a notable moment in the radical transformation of the Republican Party. Roughly a year ago, when Donald Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel for being biased because "he happens to be, we believe, Mexican," the immediate reaction was revulsion by many Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan's observation that this was "the textbook definition of a racist comment."
Of course, Ryan never revoked his backing of Trump, but his party at least spent a few days wrestling with the issue.
Later, when the Access Hollywood tape was released, many Republicans ran for the exits, saying that they had finally reached the breaking point on Trump. Again, most of them returned not long afterward with transparently nonsensical excuses for folding, but at least it took a few days or weeks to do so.
Now, however, the Republicans are skipping the middle steps and going straight to capitulation. It seems that they are too scared or too craven — or perhaps simply too beaten down — even to bother pretending to have principles.
Because of that rather stunning acceleration of the political digestive cycle among Republicans, my discussion here of Trump's possible departure from office is already much more hypothetical than I might have expected it to be by now.
Even so, something worse could break at any minute of any day, so it is worth asking whether Democrats might actually want Trump to stay in office in the face of a major scandal, rather than being run out of town. The answer is not at all obvious.
The case for wanting Trump to stay is actually rather straightforward. He has already inspired more activism on the left than anyone thought possible, and he is committing a series of errors that have turned the once-unimaginable goal of retaking a majority in the House of Representatives into a tantalizingly real possibility for Democrats in 2018.
Moreover, any post-Trump political environment would be especially challenging for Democrats. Mainstream pundits would surely default to a consensus that "we must give President Pence our support, because now is not the time for partisanship."
Similarly, many voters in 2018 and 2020 would probably mutter things about giving post-Trump Republicans a chance to lead. Pence would run for election as a healer, notwithstanding his extremism in every area of actual public policy.
This assumes, of course, that Trump's departure was caused by circumstances so extreme that Republicans would not face a backlash from Trump's current supporters.
That assumption, however, is necessary to make this entire scenario work, because Republicans would never impeach him or pressure him to resign if they thought that they would lose Trump's base. This in turn helps to explain the Republicans' current spinelessness.
For the Democrats to have any serious chance of competing in 2018 and 2020, therefore, it would seem that Trump would need to remain in the picture. Even if Trump was so badly wounded that he could not win reelection, his presence as the titular head of his party would have to be good for the Democrats and bad for the Republicans (including the two or three dozen Republicans who would run to replace Trump).
As a matter of pure electoral advantage, therefore, a wounded President Trump is the Democrats' best hope, whereas turning a badly injured Trump into a former president would give Republicans a chance to turn things around.
The case against hoping for Trump to limp along in that manner is both a matter of principle and cold political calculation. The best articulation of the principled argument that I have seen comes from the Washington Post 's Tom Toles, who points out that
we know beyond a reasonable doubt, that Trump will do whatever it is possible to do to protect himself, his power and his prerogatives at the expense of his office, America’s governing norms, the public trust or any other consideration relating to limits on him.
His central trait is this: He will do whatever he can.
This is in the first instance a matter of patriotism. Electoral considerations aside, it is essential simply to stop an autocrat from becoming a more powerful autocrat, because he will do what is good for himself rather than what is good for the country.
I have written many times over the past year or so about the existential threat to constitutional democracy that Trump represents. (See, for example, this column from December 2016.) Most chillingly, it remains an open question whether Trump would attempt a coup to stay in office if he were to run for reelection and lose in 2020.
As I put it in another recent column:
Imagine that President Pence ... loses in a close but clear election in 2020. What would he do?
Now imagine that Trump does not resign and loses by a landslide in 2020. What would he do?
As obsessed with power as the non-Trump Republicans have been, I find it nearly impossible to imagine them simply refusing to accept the results of an election. ...
With Trump, it is far easier to imagine him hunkering down in his office, surrounded by loyalists who tell him that he really won, and staging a coup to remain in office.
There are many ways to stage a coup, and it is also possible that Trump would simply never let himself lose. As Toles points out, Trump would have no hesitation to abuse the powers of his office to keep himself in power. Does he have limits?
Even without Trump's influence, Republicans have spent the last few decades figuring out a million ways to suppress non-Republican votes. Why would Trump and his party not try to change every voting law — reducing or eliminating early voting, requiring burdensome identification checks, and so on — to secure their power?
Would the courts stop him? With more than one hundred new Trump-appointed federal judges coming into office soon, there is no guarantee that the courts would even want to try. And Trump has shown that he is willing to use chaos to his advantage.
He could, for example, issue orders for the FBI or other federal agencies to engage in voter suppression efforts. (And let us not forget that he could do even more extreme things, such as deliberately take us to war in order to create a rally-round-the-flag effect.)
And even if the courts might try to stop him, the Trump cabal could simply overwhelm the courts with so many illegal acts — and time them so close to the election — that there would be nothing anyone could do to stop them. Republicans would have no reason not to go along (other than conscience, but they have long since put that on the shelf).
Toles is right to conclude that "every day he stays in power, the problem will be harder to undo." Trump has become famous for his incompetence, and his White House team is notably incapable of carrying out their worst ideas.
But just as they ultimately figured out how to push a bad health care bill through the House of Representatives, the passage of time gives Trump and his Republican allies the ability to figure out how to do more damage elsewhere.
Ultimately, Democrats probably will have no say in how this plays out. If something happens that is so bad that Republicans abandon Trump in large numbers, Democrats would never be able to refuse to vote for his impeachment, even if they were inclined to do so for partisan reasons.
If things do not become that extreme, then Democrats will run in 2018 and 2020 against an unpopular president.
All of which means that Democrats will not have to make a choice about Trump. Their best hope, it appears, is for Trump not to become removable from office but that he and the Republicans fail to completely shut down the possibility of being rejected by the voters.
With more than seventeen months to go until the midterm elections, however, there is still plenty of time for democracy to die without ever having another chance to save itself.
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.