With the news that Paul Manafort had a longstanding campaign to advance Russia’s position, it is worth stopping to ask what the endgame looks like. The crass partisanship in parsing the evidence is to be expected, and, I think this is definitely a case where both sides are jumping to conclusions.(“Calm down” is something I am writing a lot in the Trump era.) The fact is that there is a lot we don’t know. So what are the three paths this scandal can take?
- Unwitting Agents: The most favorable outcome for the GOP at this point is that the Kremlin manipulated a number of people close to Trump (and perhaps Trump himself) into believing that Russian and American interests aligned. Being duped is not criminal, though it would not be a small scandal either. People posting #ImpeachTrump should square themselves with the fact that a coordinated campaign by the Russians to soften up people around Trump looks an awful lot like a more sinister example of espionage. This will likely be the line of anyone facing legal repercussions from this, but because it is a plausible one. It is hard to imagine that there was no collaboration from Manafort, but that is not the legal standard here.
- The Cabinet Goes: One thing that is not getting considered as thoroughly as I think it should is that some fraction of Trump’s White House committed crimes related to Espionage during the campaign, but not Trump himself. The reason its being under-considered is because it is an unsatisfying resolution for both sides; it would be a major, party damaging scandal for the GOP, but short of getting the President. But being politically inconvenient is not the same as being unlikely. I think based on the evidence available today, this is the most likely truth, never mind that it will be easier to prove. Its worth noting this is almost how Watergate turned out before the Smoking Gun tapes were released and that President Park Geun-hye of South Korea tried for this outcome by firing her cabinet. Iran-Contra and the Scooter Libby Scandals both took out a large fraction of their President’s cabinet, but their respective Presidents were never directly implicated. Because of the way power flows through the Executive Branch, it is fairly common for the President to survive scandals that it seems he or she ought to have known about by claiming ignorance.
- The President is Impeached and Removed: The evidence here is a lot thinner than a lot of liberals seem to think. It is definitely eyebrow raising that the President is surrounded by people who are on the payroll of Putin and his oligarch buddies. It is definitely eyebrow raising that Trump has some shady financial ties to them. But half the House would be wrong to impeach Trump on such shady evidence, and it would be a scandal in its own right if the Senate found 67 votes to convict on such flimsy grounds.
As we learn more, these options will narrow. Looking at the range here, we have “major scandal borne of gross incompetence” to “Largest scandal in US history”. While there is a lot we don’t know, the fact is that the White House is in a lot of trouble.