“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” said Donald Trump to James Comey on February 14, a day after General Flynn was fired as national security special assistant. With those words, which Comey is said to have dutifully recorded in a memo, Trump may have put himself on the path to political oblivion. For the first time we have proof that the president directly interfered in a federal investigation, a criminal offense. To his credit, Comey did not “let it go.”
Every day brings bad news for Trump’s presidency. Every day is a reminder that this man is mentally, temperamentally, and politically unfit for the highest office. Every day also brings new risks to national security, which is in the hands of a commander in chief who is impulsive, uninformed, impervious to expert advice, and given to sudden movements that could mean war. Donald Trump must go, but how?
Up until now I thought our and the nation’s best hope was that somehow, some way, the Republican leadership in Congress would feel compelled by Trump’s outrageous behavior to start the ball rolling toward impeachment. Trump’s bald-faced interference on Flynn’s behalf leads me to a different denouement: his resignation, forced by the same Republicans who would otherwise never be persuaded to start impeachment proceedings.
What is the decisive factor now? Trump’s clear obstruction of justice may be the tipping point for Republican leaders who see no way that a conservative social and economic agenda can be achieved with Trump in office. Trump’s criminal interference shortens the timeline, and feeds their well-reported impatience with him. The Republicans knew all along that Trump was a wild card; but they had no idea how extraordinarily difficult his conduct would make their job. Now they surely must see that their preferred road ahead is going to be eternally blocked by Russiagate investigations. Immigration, taxes, health care, infrastructure jobs, environmental protection laws, abortion, border security—dramatic legislative changes the Republican leadership had planned in all these areas simply cannot move forward with Trump at the helm.
In short, I believe the Republicans are going to decide that they cannot keep sitting on their hands, making up excuses for Trump while watching their moment for remaking America slip by.
The other side of the coin for Republican leaders is a Pence presidency: Would it make their life easier? From their perspective, I believe they would think so. To be sure, Pence would lose a fair number of Trump working-class supporters as well as the Breitbart-Bannon wing of the conservative elite. But Pence would be much more ideologically in tune with Ryan and McConnell, and far more devoted to pushing their legislative agenda. The Republicans would still have the edge in Congress, and under Pence would have a better chance than under Trump to keep that edge in 2018. Maybe they would have to bend a little when dealing with the Democrats, but bending might now look much better than breaking.
So at the risk of engaging in wishful thinking, I am going to predict a Republican turnabout on Trump. Its leaders are going to push Trump to resign “for the good of the country and the party.” And Trump will decide that resignation—“I never liked the job anyway, and running my empire in more fun”—is a better way out than suffering the prolonged indignity of the impeachment process. To which the Republicans will say, amen.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.