How the big one could go down.
If you have seen the 1995 movie Casino, the fate of Joe Pesci’s character gives a fairly good sense of how Donald Trump might eventually be impeached and removed from office. If you haven’t seen Casino, Pesci’s character, Nicky Santoro, is basically the same as his GoodFellas character: a mobster so violent and erratic he scares the other mobsters. Throughout the film, the narrator tells us that the Mafia bosses disapprove of Santoro’s out-of-control behavior but let him operate anyway because he keeps sending suitcases full of cash back home every month. Their tolerance appears to be infinite, until eventually they reach a breaking point and bury him in a cornfield.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, I’ve dismissed the possibility that he could be removed from office. In all likelihood, the Senate will come nowhere close to mustering the 67 votes needed to do so. But over the past few weeks, the outline of a removal scenario has begun to take shape. The prospect is no longer a fantasy.
The Republican Establishment has largely submitted to Trump, and its acquiescence has come to seem like an immutable fact of this partisan age. But the alliance between Trump and the Republican Congress has visibly fragmented in recent weeks. Last week, the House voted 354-60 to condemn Trump’s Syria policy. Mitch McConnell has promised an even stronger resolution of disapproval in the Senate. Internal pressure from Republicans forced Trump to reverse his plans to hold the G7 summit at a Trump property, a crushing defeat for a president who despises both outward signs of weakness and missed chances to profit.
Senate Republicans may both fear Trump and use him for their own ends, but they have very little love for him. Almost all of them would privately vote for an act-of-God scenario where Trump drops dead — not violently but peacefully, without suffering, ideally surrounded in his bed by a loving retinue of Fox News personalities, Ivanka, and perhaps a tasteful array of magazine covers bearing his likeness. The trouble for the Republican Senate has always been how they get from here to there.
The near-certainty that the House will vote to impeach Trump this year sets in motion events that could lead to removal. Initially, many analysts predicted the Republican Senate would either do nothing in the face of an impeachment vote or hold a perfunctory vote to dismiss the charges. But McConnell has, somewhat surprisingly, announced his intention to hold a real trial. Either McConnell takes the charges against Trump seriously or, more likely, his hand has been forced by a small number of vulnerable or dissident members who are demanding serious proceedings. Whatever the explanation, McConnell is not going to simply ignore impeachment like it’s a Merrick Garland nomination.
As of now, Mitt Romney is the only Republican senator making a case for conviction. But his colleagues are mostly refraining from defending Trump’s behavior outright or echoing his ever-shifting lines of defense. McConnell has blasted the House investigation as a partisan process. “I don’t think many of us were expecting to witness a clinic in terms of fairness or due process,” he complained, “but even by their own partisan standards, House Democrats have already found new ways to lower the bar.”
Yet for all his typical disingenuous smarm, denouncing the process in the other chamber is much weaker brew than defending Trump’s conduct, which he has largely failed to do. Indeed, McConnell’s argument opens the door to finding guilt through a “fair” process McConnell runs. Even the sycophantic Lindsey Graham left the door open more than a crack when asked by Jonathan Swan if he could imagine voting to convict. “Sure. I mean … show me something that … is a crime,” he said. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.” A “very well-connected Republican in Washington” estimated to Chris Wallace that there is a 20 percent chance the Senate votes for removal.
And what if it did? The power dynamic between Trump and Senate Republicans is oddly asymmetrical. Trump has the power to end the career of dissidents, and he has flaunted it, forcing once-safe figures like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker to retire when they defied him. But his power lies only in the ability to pick off heretics one by one. The Senate Republicans can band together to vote him out, and Trump would have little recourse.
Trump would, to be sure, rage furiously against a party that betrayed him and try to whip up his followers against them in 2020, perhaps even running an independent campaign. But his power relies on the support of the conservative media apparatus, which is loyal to the Republican Party. Fox News fell behind Trump because his interests dovetailed with those of the GOP as a whole. If the two began to work at cross-purposes, it would likely turn on him as rapidly as it fell in line after he won the nomination. The cult of personality around Trump is a creation of the party-controlled media. To assume Republican voters would remain loyal to a Trump who has turned against the party extends them too much credit. They will follow whomever they are told to follow. If that leader is Mike Pence, they will learn to adore his steadfast qualities of leadership, steely devotion to the timeless principles of Reaganism, and weird shoulder fetishism.
To be sure, throwing out Trump entails a lot of risk. To date, Republicans have taken the safer course of sticking with him despite all his counterproductively repellent behavior. To outsiders, their alliance with Trump appears immutable. But on the inside, the picture may be more fluid. The Republican Establishment took great comfort in the presence of John Kelly, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and other staid figures who quietly assured official Washington they could restrain the president’s destructive impulses. Their departure has given Trump a freer hand to seize the powers of his office and act out in ways that evade any means of control.
The Syria debacle is genuinely alarming to the party, because it shows Trump unleashing a strategic catastrophe, leading to thousands of escaped terrorists, through a simple phone call the implications of which he seems not to have understood. The up-front costs of ripping off the Band-Aid and removing Trump might seem less risky than allowing another year of a completely unconstrained toddler president.
In Casino, the bosses accepted a lot of erratic and risky behavior from Nicky Santoro because he was ultimately a useful ally. They didn’t care that he was a violent criminal — they were violent criminals, too. But they eventually decided that his flamboyant and uncontrollable behavior put their whole racket at risk. And when their calculation of his value tipped from acceptable risk to unacceptable risk, the end came swiftly and unexpectedly.
The Republican Establishment doesn’t have hit men, but it does have a constitutional process at its disposal that is being helpfully initiated by House Democrats. That its members would band together to cast out a president adored by their party’s base seemed until recently unthinkable. Now it is not.