Wednesday, November 21, 2018


The New York Times reported yesterday that President Trump tried to do something everyone on the planet knows he wanted (and still wants) to do:
President Trump told the White House counsel in the spring that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute two of his political adversaries: his 2016 challenger, Hillary Clinton, and the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, rebuffed the president, saying that he had no authority to order a prosecution. Mr. McGahn said that while he could request an investigation, that too could prompt accusations of abuse of power. To underscore his point, Mr. McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump warning that if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment.
Obviously this would have been a flagrant abuse of power -- but I wonder if much of America truly understands that. I don't mean MAGA voters, who obviously believe that Trump can do whatever he pleases -- I mean Americans across the political spectrum who are only moderately well informed. Do they understand that a president really, really isn't supposed to use federal law enforcement in the service of his own grudges? If he'd done what this story says he wanted to do, would most Americans have been seriously upset? Would they have accepted that this was a major politcal crisis?

I have strong doubts. I seriously believe Trump could have brazened this out. Maybe he would have been impeached, though that was never going to happen with a Republican House even in response to something this flagrant, and if impeachment happened, a conviction requires 67 votes in the Senate, which has 49 Democrats now and will soon have 47. I think nearly all Republicans would have fallen in lockstep and voted to acquit.

I don't believe the public has a firm conviction that the Justice Department should remain above politics. I think Americans might have found the score-settling distasteful or beneath a president's dignity, but remember, they're not wild about either Hillary Clinton or James Comey. Clinton has a 41%/57% favorable/unfavorable rating in the latest Gallup poll, and in 2016, 56% of respondents to a CNN poll disapproved of the decision not to recommend criminal charges against her, while only 35% approved. In an April 2018 Axios/Survey Monkey poll, 35% of respondents said they believe Comey over Trump, 32% believed Trump over Comey, and 25% didn't believe either man. Republican propaganda has successfully besmirched the Russia investigation -- in a new CBS poll, 51% of respondents see the investigation as politcally motivated, while only 46% see it as justified (although clear majorities want the investigation to continue and to be protected by Congress).

Trump won't be indicted while he's in office. He may well be impeached, but if it's on obstruction charges, I don't think there'll be enough of a shift in public opinion to persuade Republican senators that they should vote to convict. I think the public split on Trump will be basically unchanged after an obstruction case is laid out. I believe Trump could have gotten away with even more, because most Americans don't care enough about abuses of this kind.

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