How Does This End?

Four alternatives for the scandal-plagued presidency of Donald Trump

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The rise and reign of Donald Trump has already earned its place as one of the most dramatic political stories in modern American history. The question now: How will it end?

After a dizzying 10 days of bombshell revelations in the press and multiplying scandals at the White House, the Justice Department announced Wednesday night that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, including its alleged ties to the Trump campaign. This latest development all but ensures that Washington will remain in the grips of crisis and controversy for the foreseeable future—but what happens next is an open question.

In a range of interviews with Capitol Hill Republicans, Trump allies, and veterans of past presidential scandals, there was broad consensus on only one point: The fate of the Trump presidency has never been more uncertain.

But past presidencies, and Trump’s own record in public life, suggest four dramatically different alternatives that may play out in the months and years to come.

Trump Is Impeached

Impeachment has been a Democratic fantasy since before Trump even took office, and most serious political observers have dismissed it as a daydream—at least as long as Congress is controlled by Republicans. There is good reason for skepticism. The last (and only) president to be impeached by lawmakers of his own party was Andrew Johnson, in 1867. A century and a half later, the Republican caucus has become generally quite adept at partisan water-carrying.

But while it remains unlikely that congressional Republicans would kick Trump out of the Oval Office, the notion isn’t as far-fetched as it seemed just a couple of weeks ago. Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey—and the rapidly escalating scandal that followed—has not only opened him up to potential obstruction of justice charges, it has left the lawmakers in his party feeling besieged. After months of being forced to comment on the near-daily controversies brought on by the president, they are fatigued, exasperated, bitter.

“Can we have a crisis-free day?” Senator Susan Collins complained to reporters earlier this week. “That’s all I’m asking.”

“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly grumbled.

If the current controversy surrounding Trump ends up derailing this year’s legislative agenda (as many are now predicting it will), some Republicans may begin to wonder why exactly they’re still putting up with this president—especially when they view virtually every other person in the line of succession as an improvement. One senior GOP congressional aide told me it’s “still too early to tell” whether impeachment is a viable option in this Congress, saying that much of it would depend on what kind of dirt emerges from the Russia investigation. He added, though, that reelection fears could also shift the dynamic quickly. “If the GOP loses the Montana and Georgia special elections, then that would make people more open to [impeachment].”

Another Republican, meanwhile, floated the idea that if Democrats take back the House  in 2018, GOP leadership could bring articles of impeachment during the lame-duck session—giving the proceedings an air of bipartisanship (and perhaps redeeming their own reputations along the way). Ultimately, though, the prospects of impeachment largely depend on Democrats successfully taking back the House next year.

Trump Resigns

In an unusually candid interview with Reuters last month, Trump celebrated his first 100 days in office by indulging in a moment of wistfulness. “I loved my previous life,” he said. “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”

The quote seemed to confirm what every other pathos-laden inside-the-White-House dispatch has suggested: Trump is having a miserable time as president.

His unhappiness would make sense. Trump is, in some ways, an accidental president. For decades he flirted with a presidential bid, but never intended to pull the trigger; then he did launch a campaign, but planned to drop out after a few months; then he ended up winning the Republican nomination, but expected to lose the general election; then the returns started coming in on election night, and before he knew it he was delivering a surprise victory speech in the New York Hilton ballroom. And it’s been all downhill from there.

As president, he seethes over media coverage, gets bored during briefings, and flees the claustrophobic confines of the White House at every opportunity. Even his staunchest allies in the media have noticed. In a recent column, Fox News executive editor John Moody wrote, “President Trump’s eccentric behavior, especially in the past week, raises a serious question: Does he want to be president?”

Given all this, it might stand to reason that Trump would seek an early exit on his own terms—resigning rather than face impeachment proceedings, or even just a messy, years-long investigation. But people close to him say resignation is probably a nonstarter, especially if he thinks it will look like he’s being chased out of office.

John Dean, the former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, observed to me that Trump seems to share Nixon’s sense of victimization and “desire for revenge,” but not his rationality—a combination of traits that could make him resistant to any kind of surrender, even if it’s in his own self-interest. Trump may hate his job, but he hates his haters more.

Trump Rebounds

No, he is probably not going to make that long-awaited “pivot” that certain pundits have been predicting for the past two years. At 70 years old, his personality is most likely cemented in place. But that doesn’t necessarily mean his presidency is unsalvageable.

Serving as leader of the free world comes with a pretty steep learning curve. And as David Graham wrote back in March, Bill Clinton offers an example of someone who regrouped and rallied after a disastrous start to his presidency (though his early mistakes did come back to haunt him later). He empowered his aides to give more structure to his schedule, and more discipline to his White House. His chief-of-staff prevailed upon him to stop obsessing over leaks to the press, and instead focus on proactively building cohesion and unity on his staff. With his house in order, he was able to achieve a series of policy victories. Could Trump do this, too? Maybe! Those of us who have been wrong about Trump before know the perils of underestimating him.

In reality, though, Trump may have already done too much damage for him to fully recover. The FBI director has been fired. The memos have begun to leak. A special prosecutor has been appointed. The president could serve out the rest of his term with the rectitude of a monk, and still be undone by his past sins.

Trump Trudges On

For all the recent invocations of Watergate, there’s a reasonable chance that the scandals surrounding Trump will end up playing out in a more pedestrian way than Nixon’s explosive, era-defining resignation. As The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel recently noted, a more apt comparison for Trump might be the Iran-Contra affair—a long-running, low-grade drama that involves years of probes and a few plea deals for the president’s associates, but that does not ultimately sink his presidency.

In this scenario, Trump’s agenda would likely stall out and his approval rating might sink a bit, but his base would stick by him. He would muddle through the rest of his term, ranting on Twitter about “FAKE NEWS!” and griping about the “unfair” leaks from the intelligence community. Maybe he would run for reelection; more likely, he would bow out.

What makes this outcome seem plausible is that, judging by how things are shaping up, it will be the newly appointed special prosecutor—and not Congress—that’s the driving force behind the Russia investigation. As my colleague David Frum recently wrote, special prosecutors tend to “move with all the familiar slowness of the law. Their investigations typically take years, not months. Their notes are consigned to the archives. Worst of all, the risk is real that a special prosecutor will chase off in exactly the opposite direction from that most urgently required by the public interest.”

“The criminal path is long and complicated and unpredictable,” said John Q. Barrett, a St. Johns University law professor who worked for the independent counsel’s office during Iran-Contra. “If you’re a kind of ‘end Trump as soon as possible’ person, I think the primary tool is impeachment, and that’s a congressional tool.”

Of course, it’s possible that congressional Republicans will get serious about their oversight role, and transform themselves into Rottweilerian watchdogs. But it seems more likely that they will simply use the presence of a special prosecutor to avoid policing the president too aggressively themselves. If that’s the case, survival seems within reach for Trump—but perhaps not much more than that.

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Trump takes great pride in the world-stunning story of his political rise. But whether it ends with a bang or a whimper now depends largely on forces beyond his control.