Tuesday was an historic day for the American presidency. The president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of eight felonies. The president’s personal lawyer implicated the president in the commission of campaign finance violations, which if found to be intentional, can be charged as criminal offenses.
Neither one of these events required the completion of the special counsel’s investigation or the issuance of his report. That investigation is ongoing. In addition to Manafort and Cohen, the investigators have already obtained plea deals from Donald Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, a campaign foreign policy adviser and his former national security adviser.
Not since Watergate have so many senior White House and campaign advisers been implicated in criminal wrongdoing. It certainly is possible that Manafort or Trump confidante Roger Stone will “flip” and begin cooperating. Other pleas and indictments may follow. With all that in mind let me take the opportunity to suggest to Republican House and Senate members that they have a short window to save themselves and their party, and to do the country some good.
For the past eighteen months, many of you have chosen to ignore the president’s attacks on the courts, on the FBI, on the Justice Department, on the First Amendment and on standards of decorum observed by every other president. You have ignored his alleged receipt of foreign emoluments in violation of the Constitution. By and large, most of you have refused to confront his racist outbursts and his serial lies. Some have even joined in attempts to smear the FBI and DOJ. Your leadership has refused to take action to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein despite the real risk the president intends to fire them or, perhaps in the case of Mueller, impair his work by revoking his security clearance.
Now the president’s lawyer Michael Cohen has implicated him in the commission of a crime as part of a plea deal. With that development and the conviction or pleas of other top associates the president can no longer claim the investigation is a “witch hunt” or does not concern him.
The Justice Department under unprecedented pressure and abuse from the White House has done its job, as have federal courts. Congress, however, has not. With a little over 2 months before all House members, a batch of incumbent GOP senators, numerous GOP gubernatorial and state legislative candidates face the voters, you have several options, which I’ll now describe.
The first option is to do nothing, to continue excusing and rationalizing the president’s behavior. After Cohen’s plea and Manafort’s conviction, not to mention the indictment of two of Trump’s earliest House Republican supporters (Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter) the voters may come to view the GOP as a hotbed of corruption. Voters have good reason to conclude you will never hold the president accountable for any of his actions, and that therefore, to preserve our constitutional system, Republicans up and down the ballot must lose in convincing fashion. History will regard those who were inert during this time as political cowards and fools.
The second option is to prevent the runaway train. Protections for both Mueller and Rosenstein can be concretized in law. A select, bipartisan committee can be formed to review actions to date and determine the scope of possible illegality in the administration. It could also make recommendations, which may include statutory anti-corruption measures and initiation of impeachment proceedings. The Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh must be held in abeyance. Should the president be found to have committed crimes in pursuit of the presidency, Kavanaugh’s position on the high court would be tainted. (Even if Trump leaves the presidency, Vice President Pence would ascend to the presidency and could at that point renominate Kavanaugh.) If the special counsel exonerates the presidency, Kavanaugh’s confirmation could proceed forthwith. These actions would demonstrate to voters that you have some appreciation for your oaths of office and constitutional duties.
The last option is to tear the bandage off now. Trump is a menace to the country and threatens to destroy the GOP as currently constituted. Disown Trump and repudiate his actions. Call for his resignation and embrace Pence as the leader of your party. Reject Trump’s receipt of emoluments and demand he sever ownership of his many business enterprises which pose an ongoing conflict of interest. Subpoena his tax returns and/or pass legislation requiring they be disclosed. In taking these moves you would disable Democrats’ campaign built around the need for a check on the presidency; you might even hold the House. In any event, your conscience would be clear and the party would have the opportunity to pick a new nominee for 2020.
I am under no illusion as to your preferred route. You then should be under no illusions as to the electoral fate that awaits you and the legacy you will leave. Choose wisely.