Trump's in trouble, but he's not going anywhere

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

There’s a solid tradition in modern American politics of presidents hoping to shore themselves up with matters of war and diplomacy across the ocean, while back home their presidencies bob and sink beneath the waves.

Jimmy Carter held talks in Japan while Americans rioted over gas lines (and disco, which, to be fair, was more of a national emergency). Bill Clinton bombed Iraq while Congress debated his impeachment.

Most relevant to this moment, perhaps, Richard Nixon held a summit in Moscow and signed a nuclear arms treaty with Leonid Brezhnev in July 1974, a month before resigning the office and narrowly escaping prosecution.

So now comes Donald Trump, hollowly reenacting some stale scene from the Cold War, facing down the wannabe tyrant Kim Jong Un and then stalking away like he was Reagan at Reykjavik.

In his desperate quest to distract us from sordid revelations about his campaign and his private behavior, Trump, elected leader of the most powerful country on earth, single-handedly elevates to near-equal status a country with fewer square miles than Mississippi and a smaller economy than Rhode Island. Bravo.

It’s all in vain, though, because the most powerful footage of the week wasn’t Trump and Kim posing on the red carpet before talks abruptly collapsed in Hanoi. It was Michael Cohen, the president’s onetime confidant and protector, trashing his old boss in front of a House committee yesterday (including a timely allegation that Trump, referring to his war deferral for supposed bone spurs, once told Cohen: “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam”).

Investigators may care a whole lot about the specific crimes for which the thuggish and slippery witness, after previously lying outright to another congressional committee, now claims to have evidence — the president’s paying of hush money to a porn star, his advance knowledge of Democratic emails hacked by Russia.

But probably the more enduring takeaway from Cohen’s testimony, the revelation that will poison Trump politically no matter what the special counsel ultimately concludes about his legal culpability, had to do with the essential smallness of the would-be wizard hiding behind the White House curtain.

What people will remember was Cohen’s intimate and believable portrait of a syndicate-style boss who routinely lied to make himself seem richer and smarter than he was, who used money from a charity to buy a portrait of himself at inflated value, who ran down America because it — like other “shithole countries” — was being run by a black man.

For me, the most resonant and thoroughly depressing line of Cohen’s opening statement was this one: “The sad fact is that I never heard Mr. Trump say anything in private that led me to believe he loved our nation or wanted to make it better.”

The hard, cold nugget of the Trump presidency, laid bare by one of the men he trusted most.

The question critics in both parties are asking now, as they have for months, is whether Trump’s presidency will soon be brought to an abrupt and premature end, the way Nixon’s was when he returned from Moscow to face the sound of his own voice on White House tapes, conspiring to cover up crimes like some small-time hood.

The answer is very likely not, and I’ll tell you why.

We’ll know soon enough what the special counsel’s office has uncovered in its long and meandering investigation. It’s possible that Trump could face an indictment for obstruction of justice after he leaves office. It’s also possible he’ll be impeached, if unlikely that the Republican Senate would vote to convict.

Nixon faced both possibilities in 1974, and he was persuaded to resign rather than risk a humiliating defeat in Congress.

But Trump isn’t Nixon. If Cohen’s characterizations confirm anything for us, it’s that Trump can’t be shamed into doing the right thing. He’s not going anywhere.

We have plenty of political models for a guy like Trump, but they’re not Nixon — or even his indicted vice president, Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973.

They’re urban folk heroes like Marion Barry, the Washington, D.C., mayor who continued to serve after his arrest for smoking crack, then went to prison, and then promptly returned to serve another term once he was out.

Or Buddy Cianci, the onetime mayor of Providence, R.I., who went back and forth between City Hall and prison for 30 years. (The first time Cianci went to jail, it was for beating up and urinating on his estranged wife’s ex-lover; the second time, he went down in a federal anti-corruption sting known as Operation Plunder Dome.)

Think of Trump as the presidential version of Jim Traficant, the congressman who continued to serve in Washington after he was indicted and, once forcibly expelled from Congress, launched his next campaign from a cellblock.

These weren’t shameable men. They weren’t looking to edify a majority of anything. They were crowd-pleasers playing to narrow constituencies — avatars for the alienated, driven by self-regard and determined to cast themselves as victims of a self-satisfied establishment.

If you want to dislodge a guy like that from office, absent an election, you’d best bring the handcuffs. Because he doesn’t care about your legal niceties, or the fate of your party, or the republic itself. The more indictments you throw at him, the more defiant he gets.

Every president is something essential at his core — an activist, a wonk, a dealmaker. Trump is an entertainer. He could happily do any of a million things in life, as long as he could do it in front of an audience and walk away feeling like he’d played the audience.

And if there’s one thing Trump the entertainer knows, it’s that nothing holds the crowd like a little drama. He might even warm to an indictment or an impeachment trial. It makes for a lot better TV than, say, trade negotiations with China.

I’m not saying Trump will ultimately get himself another term; I’m pretty dubious about that. A year from now, when Iowa and New Hampshire are casting ballots, he could well find himself beating back challengers in his own party, let alone an eventual Democratic nominee.

As Cohen made clear in his testimony, and as many of us have said all along, Trump never really intended to become president anyway, and it wouldn’t shock me if he found a way not to run again, if he could somehow withdraw on his own terms.

But unless both houses of Congress are willing to impeach and convict him, I wouldn’t bet on Trump serving anything less than a full term, no matter what Mueller has to say, no matter how many lawyers converge on the White House, no matter how many of his former aides go to jail or testify against him.

“Trump vs. the System: The Final Showdown.” That’s where the ratings are, and you don’t have to go to Vietnam to get them.

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