As President Trump spent the week flailing in a web of his own contradictions and half-hearted retractions in his handling of the deaths in Charlottesville, the question of his survival in office inevitably began creeping into the political dialogue. Official betting odds that the president would be gone from the White House before the end of his first term spiked on Monday when he memorably blamed the deadly violence on “many sides,” and by Thursday had settled at near even money. That same day, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said he planned to introduce articles of impeachment, an idea that has also been floated by some high-profile Democratic legislators including Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But Cohen’s justification — “President Trump has failed the presidential test of moral leadership. No moral president would ever shy away from outright condemning hatred, intolerance and bigotry” — suggests that his effort is, at best, premature. There is no “test of moral leadership” in the Constitution, and failure to condemn bigotry, however reprehensible, wouldn’t seem to rise to the level of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Founding Fathers set as the bar for removal from office.
Impeachment (in the House of Representatives) and conviction (in the Senate) require a legal basis, and it’s not clear that one exists yet; it is most likely to arise out of the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Trump’s business dealings or his handling of the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election. But it is also a political process, and the political climate is moving in that direction. Political not just in the narrow sense of which party controls Congress, but in a broad sense that embraces the media, public opinion and the much-reviled (by Trump) “establishment.” It goes sometimes by the term “body politic” — and like the human body, it has a mechanism for protecting itself by rejecting what it perceives as alien or harmful. And that, clearly, is what is happening to Trump.
To be sure, Trump’s background in real estate and entertainment made him less than a natural fit for the presidency from the outset, and it was only to be expected that the inhabitants of what he likes to call the “swamp” would regard him with suspicion. But the past several weeks have seen an extraordinary effort from many sides to marginalize and isolate the president, to seal him off where he can do the least damage to the institutions of American democracy. Trump calls for one last effort to pass a health care bill, and the Republican-led Congress ignores him, with a pointed observation from Mitch McConnellthat the president doesn’t understand the legislative process. Trump equivocates on denouncing neo-Nazi and white supremacist marchers, and senators, including many from his own party, do it instead, in some cases specifically and personally calling him to task. Trump tweets out a policy change to dismiss transgender servicemen and -women; the Pentagon says it doesn’t know anything about it, and weeks later the military brass have taken no action to implement it.