The next time you walk out to your car, or head down the street to the subway, or cross the parking lot on your way to the grocery store, look up and squint your eyes, and you’ll be able to see the end of the Trump presidency. It’s still a moving target, kept out of reach and out of focus by Trump’s chaotic daily delivery of distractions and dissembling, but it’s out there, and at this point it’s coming toward us, rather than headed in the other direction.
The impending doom is all Trump’s fault, of course. The first mistake he made was running for the office. The second was winning. The third was thinking that being president would be just like running his business in New York. (“I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There's never been a case like this,” Trump told The New York Times soon after he won the election.) The fourth was believing he could protect himself from the law because he thought as president, he would control the FBI and the Department of Justice.
If Trump had not ridden that escalator down to the lobby of Trump Tower and announced that he would seek the highest office in the land, if he had stayed up there on the 26th floor and continued to run the Trump Organization, none of this would be happening.
Trump himself would not be under criminal investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to steal the election of 2016.
His campaign would not be under a counterintelligence investigation by the FBI for conspiring with elements of Russian intelligence to subvert and violate the laws of the United States.
His former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, would not be under indictment for money laundering, bank fraud, and other crimes and be facing a sentence that would send him to federal prison for the rest of his life.
His former deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates, would not have pleaded guilty to perjury and conspiracy to defraud the United States and be looking at jail time.
His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, would not have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Russia's then-ambassador to the United States.
His former campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, would not have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians in London and be facing jail time. Alex van der Zwann, a London-based lawyer for the Skadden, Arps, Meagher and Flom law firm, would not have pleaded guilty to lying about his meetings with Rick Gates and an email exchange with a Russian national by the name of Konstantin Kilimnik.
A citizen of California named Richard Pinedo would not have pleaded guilty to identity theft in a scheme to aid the Russians under indictment for engaging in a campaign of propaganda designed to interfere with and influence the 2016 election for president.
Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, would not be under a months-long investigation by the the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and his office and hotel room would not have been broken into and all of the papers and electronic records of Cohen’s representation of Donald Trump would not have been seized by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney.
None of the people who have worked for Donald Trump on his campaign or in the White House, from Jared Kushner, to Donald Trump Jr., to Sean Spicer, to Reince Priebus, to Rob Porter, to Steve Bannon, to Hope Hicks, would have had to lawyer-up and be interrogated by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and by agents for Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
None of that would have happened had not Donald J. Trump descended the escalator and ran for president and won. Now his White House is surrounded by criminal and counter-intelligence investigations and prosecutions, and increasingly, those investigations have focused on Trump himself.
Last week, McClatchy reported that Mueller investigators have evidence that Michael Cohen traveled to Prague in 2016 in the late stages of the campaign, confirming one of the most explosive parts of the so-called Steele dossier, something that Cohen has repeatedly denied for months. () Mueller’s team is looking into reports that Cohen met with Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the Czech capital. The Steele dossier alleged that Cohen and the Russians and others discussed “how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers in Europe who had worked under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.”
It has been reported that Mueller’s prosecutors are working on indictments of the Russian intelligence agents who hacked into the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair Leon Podesta. At the time he allegedly traveled to Prague, Cohen had only one client: Donald Trump. So Mueller is investigating a direct connection during the campaign between Trump, through his lawyer, with Russians close to Putin. The evidence he is gathering is evidence of collusion, and the evidence leads straight to Trump.
So how might the end game play itself out? There are at least four possible scenarios.
The first scenario is that Mueller will come up with enough evidence that Trump has committed crimes, whether obstruction of justice or conspiracy with the Russians to steal the election, and will indict the president in office. This would lead to a constitutional showdown at the Supreme Court between Mueller and Trump. While a previous Supreme Court decision, Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997) found unanimously that a president does not have immunity from a civil lawsuit, the court has not faced a decision as to whether a sitting president can be criminally indicted.
If the court took up the case, and found against Trump, Mueller’s charges against him would be in force, and Trump would face arrest and prosecution. It’s possible that the court could find that Trump can be indicted but not face trial until after he leaves office. In that case, Trump would be facing charges that could put him in prison sometime after he left office. The only way he could leave office and not face such criminal charges would be if he resigned and made a deal with the man who succeeds him for a pardon, similar to the way that Nixon resigned in 1974 and was pardoned by Gerald Ford for any and all crimes he committed against the United States while president.
The second scenario is that Mueller could issue a finding that Trump had committed crimes while in office without indicting him. In this case, Mueller’s report would be forwarded to the United States Congress and the House of Representatives would be faced with the decision whether or not to impeach him. In this scenario, much would depend on the 2018 elections. Democrats may retake the House, and many are predicting they will. In that case, a vote to impeach Trump would seem assured, although conviction in the Senate would be less than a sure thing. Trump could tough it out and win his trial in the Senate, like Clinton did in 1998 and 1999. He would then be able to run for re-election in 2020. A win by Trump would seem to be improbable, but then, strange things have happened before.
The third scenario is that Mueller’s investigation would lead to indictments of people close to Trump, such as Michael Cohen, or even Jared Kushner and/or Donald Trump Jr. Trump could preemptively pardon these individuals (or anyone else charged, for that matter) similar to the way President George H.W. Bush pardoned is former Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, days before he was to stand trial for charges brought against him by an independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal. The president’s pardon power is broad. The Constitution grants to the president, in Article II, Section 2, "Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”
A pardon of a man like Michael Cohen might save Trump from the possibility that Cohen would flip and testify against him rather than face trial. But an argument could be made that having been granted a pardon would relieve Cohen of his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, and he could still be compelled to testify against Trump. So Trump may not be able to pardon his way out of trouble in a showdown with Mueller after all.
The president’s pardon power is for “Offences against the United States,” which is to say in the cases of federal crimes. If charges were brought by the State of New York against Trump’s lawyer, or his son, or son-in-law, for example, Trump would not have the power to grant them pardons. The only way he could possibly save them would be to make a deal with the State of New York, which is unlikely, especially if he had already pardoned them on federal charges.
Which brings us to scenario number four. This one is based on the belief among many long-time Trump watchers that the only thing that really matters to Trump is his personal fortune. In this scenario, Trump will do anything to protect his business and his lifestyle once he leaves office. He may yet face charges that would follow him after he leaves the presidency. Federal and state charges could threaten not only to send him to prison, but lay siege to his empire.
His son and close associates may face state charges he can’t protect them from. If this were to come to pass, the only way out for Trump would be the Nixon way: make a deal to resign and be pardoned on the federal charges, and have the deal be contingent on the state charges being dropped against himself or those close to him as well. Nixon resigned from office with his fortune intact, including his homes in Key Biscayne and San Clemente. Trump may have to do the same if he wants to keep living at Trump Tower and visiting Mar-a-Lago.
This is what Trump faces every single day he remains in office. The Mueller investigation isn’t going away. Even if he fires Mueller, the convictions and indictments handed down already will stand, and Trump will be unable to end FBI investigations and pending prosecutions by U.S. Attorneys by executive fiat. The control over the FBI and the Justice Department he lusts for just isn’t there. Nor does he have control over courts and judges for whom he has often expressed contempt.
History books have always talked about men being “elevated” to the presidency, but when descended that escalator in Trump Tower in 2015, he dragged us into his pit of scandal, disgrace and criminality when he assumed office. But the end game is coming. Squint your eyes and tell me if you don’t see an escalator out there ahead of us. It’s going up.