How will the Russia scandal end?
One thing's for sure: It won't end well for Trump and Co.
The eldest son of the president of the United States is in some real trouble.
After a series of lame and shifting denials, Donald Trump Jr. on Tuesday published a series of June 2016 emails in which he was offered "official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia," documents that were cast as full of "obviously very high-level and sensitive information" that was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Did Trump Jr. refuse such an untoward offer and immediately alert the FBI? No.
"If it's what you say I love it," Trump Jr. gleefully replied.
But the son of the president isn't the president. And neither is the president's son-in-law or the other Trump campaign loyalist implicated in what may well prove to be the biggest scandal in American political history. Even if we assume that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort end up indicted for violating federal election laws (if President Trump doesn't pardon them, of course), where does that leave the president himself?
What comes next? And how does it end?
I'm on the record as an impeachment skeptic. The party that refused to move against Trump through the primaries, the convention, the general election, and a thousand acts of offense and stupidity since Nov. 8, 2016 is not going to take the political risk of turning on him now. This GOP will not become the first party in American history to vote in favor of impeaching and removing a president who comes from within its own ranks. You'd have to be out of your mind to predict that.
But ... by now we've all gone a little out of our minds — and things are really just getting started. If The New York Times had the information that has led to its string of incriminating blockbuster scoops over the past several days, you can bet that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will end up in possession of far, far more by the time his investigation is complete (many months from now). That's why it's increasingly hard to imagine the Trump administration not ending up completely engulfed and brought down by scandal.
But what would that mean in concrete political terms? Here are some possibilities.
1. The damage is contained to top advisers and close family members.
It says a lot about how far the story has moved within the past week that it now appears that the best-case scenario for the Trump presidency may be for the president's oldest son, son-in-law, and one-time campaign manager to take the fall, plead guilty, or contest likely indictments without implicating the president himself. Could it happen? I suppose.
It's possible, for instance, that when British music publicist and former tabloid journalist Rob Goldstone ended his initial email to Trump Jr. by writing, "I can also send this info to your father," the then-candidate's son responded by phone, in person, or in a different email chain that he wanted the future president kept ignorant of the campaign's efforts to gain an advantage against Hillary Clinton with help from the Russian government.
Is it likely? Not very. But we don't yet know for sure.
2. The president gets accused of indictable crimes but remains protected from prosecution by his office.
If it turns out that there is credible evidence that the president himself knew his campaign was colluding with the Russian government, that could well be sufficient to warrant indictment on any number of charges, from violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to obstruction of justice to treason. Yet the prevailing view among constitutional scholars is that a sitting president is immune from criminal prosecution. That would put matters in the hands of Congress: If they impeach and remove him, he could be indicted; if they don't, he could be protected from criminal charges until he leaves office.
Would House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) allow President Trump to turn the White House into a safe house? The answer will depend on several variables, including: Trump's approval numbers, especially among Republican voters; the related issue of his support in the right-wing media; and whether the scandal crests before or after the 2018 midterm elections, with the months immediately following the vote, when the 2020 presidential election is still a full two years away, being Trump's moment of maximal vulnerability.
Note that neither the good of the country nor the moral reputation of the GOP is likely to play much of a role in the decision. And yes, this means that if Ryan and McConnell thought the party could continue to thrive at the ballot box while behaving like a treasonous criminal syndicate, they might well go along with it.
3. The game is on for impeachment, removal, and indictment.
If Fox News and Rush Limbaugh turned hard against the president, the chances of the House passing articles of impeachment would surge, and so would the likelihood of eventual conviction by the Senate. But that's nothing compared with the chances of that happening if the Democrats take one or both houses of Congress in the midterm election 16 months from now. And that's why the most likely scenario of all may well be the president and his party facing a tidal wave, as 468 campaigns converge on a single, unifying message that could prove fatal to the Trump administration.