The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What will Congress realistically do now that Trump has been implicated in a crime?

Politicians on both sides of the aisle commented Aug. 22 on the convictions of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort the day before. (Video: Lee Powell, Joyce Koh, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

One big question after the stunning dual convictions of President Trump’s former campaign boss and former attorney — the latter of whom said Trump directed him to do something illegal — is whether Trump himself will face consequences.

Legally, the answer is: Probably not. There’s a decades-old Justice Department guideline saying sitting presidents can’t be indicted, and there’s no indication that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wants to challenge that.

That leaves the option that Trump will face political consequences after his former attorney alleged that Trump broke the law. Voters will get a chance to weigh in on all of this in November’s midterm elections, which will determine control of Congress, but for now any action or lack thereof is up to the current Republican-controlled Congress to decide.

It’s a Congress that has been reluctant to use the tools it has to their fullest extent to confront Trump, even when he has done things that angered members of his own party. On everything from Trump’s deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin on election interference, to his threats to fire key players in the Russia investigation, to implementing tariffs across the globe, the Senate has passed only one meaningful piece of legislation in the past year and a half to stand up to him.

All the times the Senate has actually stood up to Trump

So, no, the “i” word is not in play right now. Even Democratic leaders are trying to avoid talking about impeachment in the event that they take back control of the House of Representatives next year.

Given that context, here's what Congress could do with regard to Trump's escalating legal drama, ranked from least to most likely:

4. Congress could hold hearings to investigate Trump’s connection to these illegal payments

For the first time since the Nixon administration, the sitting president has been alleged to be a co-conspirator in a crime. Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen swore under oath that he paid or orchestrated illegal campaign contributions to keep women alleging affairs with Trump quiet before the election. And he swore under oath that he did it at Trump’s direction.

Trump denies telling Cohen to do this, but finding out what the president knew about these payments and when could determine whether he did commit a crime. This investigation is not in the purview of the special counsel. So one possibility is that Congress picks this question up.

Why it probably won’t do this: Launching an investigation into alleged criminal wrongdoing by the president seems far-fetched for this Congress. The Senate is already investigating Russian election interference and whether the Trump campaign helped with that, but the House investigation wrapped up months ago and devolved into partisan drama. Plus, lawmakers can duck this possibility by saying they’d rather let allegations of criminal wrongdoing play out in court.

3. Congress could stay silent

This seems to be what Republican leaders would prefer to do. In the days after Cohen’s and Paul Manafort’s indictments, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had nothing to say, declining to comment when asked directly by reporters.

Why this isn’t very likely to continue: As much as GOP leaders would like to keep out of Trump’s legal drama, they will be forced to comment on it sooner or later. The Senate is in session, meaning reporters can track senators down day after day, and the House comes back in September.

Of course, GOP lawmakers can always say something without saying much at all, like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) did in an initial statement: “We are aware of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea to these serious charges. We will need more information than is currently available at this point.”

2. Congress could warn Trump by drawing lines on what it will tolerate

Not even 24 hours after Manafort’s convictions, a number of Republican senators were on the record warning Trump that pardoning him would be a bad idea. The warnings came with good reason: Trump has tossed the idea of a pardon around with his attorneys.

It “would be a mistake,” the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn (Tex.), told reporters.

“Pardons should be used sparingly, and you have to have some awfully compelling circumstances, I would think, and I certainly don’t know what those are in this case,” the Senate’s No. 3, John Thune (R-S.D.), told reporters.

Why this strategy may not continue: Another previous red line Congress has drawn — whether Trump should fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he blames for much of his legal troubles — seems suddenly fuzzy.

As Trump and Sessions exchanged barbs in the wake of the Cohen-Manafort convictions, a prominent senator said he could see an avenue to replacing Sessions with a new attorney general after the midterm elections. That’s a total 180 for Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who had previously warned Trump against firing Sessions.

Some of Trump's most loyal allies seem to have finally had it with him

1. The Republican leadership can urge vulnerable lawmakers to run from Trump ahead of the midterms

The New York Times reports that some leaders are doing just that.

“Where there’s smoke, and there’s a lot of smoke, there may well be fire,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former party campaign leader, told the Times after the Cohen conviction. He added: “Anybody who says this is not disturbing is not being honest.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), one of the House’s most vulnerable Republicans, called this week a “sad chapter in our country’s politics.”

This has the feel of the 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape showing Trump bragging about groping women. Republican lawmakers facing tough reelections were given cover by their leaders to criticize Trump, or go so far as to say that they wouldn’t vote for him. A number of them did, though the Republican Party is well aware that a number have faced electoral consequences two years later for it.

But Trump isn’t technically on the ballot this time, and in 2016 he wasn’t implicated in a crime like he has been this week. So if Republicans in Congress aren’t willing to confront him with investigations, letting some of their most vulnerable lawmakers at least express their concerns about the president seems like the likeliest option.