Presidents can withstand pressures that others can’t — as long as their party is behind them.
We are witnessing a weird timescale phenomenon in terms of comeuppances. For garden-variety racists and sexists of a certain profile, the temporal gap between revelations of wrongdoing and consequences is growing shorter. Former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned within hours of allegations of physical assault against women. Roseanne Barr lost her television show less than a day after her racist tweet about former presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett.
But for Donald Trump, the possibilities of repercussions seem further away than ever. In principle, the news that he tried to convince Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself should raise expectations of impeachment. After all, this fact, if true and testified to by Sessions, makes the firing of FBI Director James Comey look much more like part of a pattern of obstruction of justice — the same violation cited in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Yet it doesn’t feel like this piece of key evidence will have much of an effect on the real world. Everyone understands that only the midterm elections can impact Trump’s presidency – and only if it leads to a Democratic House of Representatives. And without the addition of truly shocking information, who really believes that two thirds of the Senate would remove Trump even if he were impeached? The possibility of presidential resignation seems so remote as to be almost unimaginable. Reasonable Democrats admit privately that Trump has a decent shot at re-election, almost no matter what he is ultimately shown to have done. Comeuppance for Trump is far, far away – if it ever arrives at all.
When the #MeToo bombshells began to go public, the process wasn’t so well-defined – and it often took a while to play out. The accused often began with denials, each presumably hoping that he would be the one to get away with it. Then, institutions had to be pressured, which took more time. Sometimes firing was necessary to force a quick separation. 1
Now, the accused tend to realize that it’s extraordinarily unlikely that they will escape some kind of accountability. Their goal is therefore to get out of the public eye as quickly as possible. Schneiderman, with his experience in criminal law, knew that the best thing he could do was to appear contrite while formally denying any criminal conduct. Extended public denials, he knew, would make him look guilty – and make his story far more salient nationally than it had to be. Schneiderman’s best option was to seek a future in which he’s simply forgotten.
The same is true for corporate masters like the ABC executives who canceled the second season of Barr’s highly-profitable show. The last thing the network wanted was to find itself in the middle of a prolonged national fight over race, politics and accountability. Delay would have brought out the boycotters, which would have scared away the advertisers. The brass understood faster than anybody that Roseanne’s show would have a lot of trouble getting sponsorship after her tweet. The whole thing was a total loss, so they moved swiftly to a show of indignation and moral condemnation.
The explanation for why the same thing isn’t happening with Trump is complex, to be sure. For one thing, he has no boss except the American people, and we don’t get to vote on him directly until 2020. For another, the firing process for the president is specified by a constitutional process that was designed precisely to protect the president against rapid removal. Whatever its merits, it’s cumbersome at best and capable of being fully thwarted by political partisanship. The voters who believe Trump is fit for office and indeed is a good president are for now sufficient in numbers to prop up Republican senators who protect him.
It’s also the case that, when Trump was elected, his attitudes on race and sex were already well-established by his own words and actions. In that sense, unlike most of those who have resigned or been fired, he got the job only after some basic facts that would be considered disqualifying in others were already known of him.
The bigger question for America is whether Trump’s remarkable ability to distance himself from consequences will spread to the broader political culture. The example of Eric Greitens, who just resigned as governor of Missouri, suggests that Trump really may be unique. Greitens was accused in January of conduct that allegedly took place in May, 2015. For the last five-and-a-half months, he’s tried to Trump it out, issuing denials and resisting intense pressure to step down, including a criminal charge.
Yet eventually Greitens had to give in to the comb4ination of forces demanding his resignation. Those forces certainly included the national Republican Party that worried his recalcitrance was endangering their candidate in the Missouri Senate race. It took a while for Greitens to realize he wasn’t Trump — and in retrospect, he should have gotten out right away.
So the timescale disparity may be Trump-specific. We’ll find out, soon enough..
- Criminal charges, like those against Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, necessarily take longer to play out, because there is a complex institutional process be follow because those accused have constitutional rights. I’m talking here about cultural condemnation and moral responsibility, for the most part.
~Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University.