The Department of Justice appointed a special prosecutor on Wednesday night, and President Trump is suddenly in very real trouble.
The past few days have made it extraordinarily clear that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice. On Tuesday night, it was revealed that former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo detailing how Trump asked him to stop the investigation into then-National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. In Comey's reported recollection, Trump used an instantly iconic phrase: "I hope you can let this go."
Now, for the first time in Trump's presidency, there are small cracks in the wall of Republican denial about Trump's corruption. Several Republican congresspeople expressed concern or outrage — John McCain directly compared it to Watergate. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chair of the House oversight committee, has announced he will invite Comey to testify before Congress.
It's anybody's guess where this will all end up. But one thing can be clearly seen: The Republican engine of deception that has powered them into near-total control of American government is starting to come apart.
It's almost impossible to exaggerate the extent to which Republican politics has recently revolved around lies and deceit. Trump successfully ran for president lying that he would protect Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The party as a whole lied to the public (and themselves) about why it opposed ObamaCare (namely, because it raised taxes on the rich, and because Obama did it) and lied that their alternative would provide better, cheaper coverage.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the party's forward-facing "policy expert," built a public image as an anti-poverty crusader through equal parts operatic pity for the poor and lying about his actual policy agenda — namely, slashing programs that help the poor. Ryan, together with Trump's Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, are now selling the American Health Care Act, which would catastrophically worsen both the extent and the quality of health insurance in the U.S., by lying about what it does and lying about what nonpartisan analyses say about it.
Finally, the party has long been engaged in a systematic effort to subvert American democracy by preventing liberals from voting, disenfranchising them by district boundary-cheating, and justified it by lying about an epidemic of voter fraud.
Republicans have lied about what they want, lied about why they want it, and cheated to get into a position where they could get what they want.
But like some criminal conspiracy falling apart under police grilling, Trump's presidency is starting to crack the facade of deception with which Republicans have protected themselves. Trump is crooked to the bone (a single minor story on Wednesday — which would have been a weeks-long media feeding frenzy under any other president — revealed deeply suspect ties between Trump and a Russian national bank), he keeps doing horribly unethical and arguably illegal things, and his administration leaks like a rusty colander. The leaking happens, says conservative Erick Erickson, because Trump pays more attention to the media than he does to his advisers — so they leak to get him to listen to their arguments. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, speaking off the record with White House insiders, says they "they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor."
As a result, devastating, bombshell stories are being churned out almost as fast as they can be written — "the best reporters of their generation are participating in the journalistic equivalent of a dunking contest," as The Atlantic's Peter Beinart says.
All this is causing a sort of nervous breakdown in the conservative movement. One could almost hear the rivets straining on Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night, as he desperately lurched around for something to cover on his Fox News show other than the Comey/Flynn scandal. Sean Hannity, meanwhile, promoted a deranged Pizzagate-style conspiracy theory that elite Democrats were somehow involved in the murder of a DNC staffer — against the wishes of the person's family, and long after it had been conclusively debunked.
Typical Fox News agitprop — but for the first time I can remember, there was a palpable sense that even the hosts were straining to believe it. The viewers are also demoralized — stunningly, the liberal hosts on MSNBC have started roundly beating the Fox News conservatives in the ratings.
Even for a deeply terrible person, a lie can become too big to swallow, and corruption too huge and glaring to ignore. And if any hearings get going, it is virtually certain that further damaging revelations will spill out by the score. Trump is a guy who is openly using the presidency to enrich his family, and whose entire business model for the last couple decades has relied on shady or known criminal sources of foreign financing. Simply cataloging all the corruption is going to take several book-length reports.
For the last 20 years and more, one would rarely have gone wrong betting on Republican perfidy. Ultimately, I simply can't bring myself to believe that more than a handful of Republicans will vote for impeachment, let alone the large numbers of GOP senators that would be needed to convict and remove Trump from office. It's not impossible, but the weight of history is against it — and they are so close to their long-cherished dream of snatching health care from tens of millions of poor and working-class people (still very much a live possibility).
But an investigation with teeth will still badly harm a great source of the GOP's political strength: their zealotry. It's hard to work oneself into a froth about supposed liberal crimes against liberty when it is simply beyond debate that the president and leader of one's party is an addle-brained, corrupt liar.