How to make Trump leave office peacefully
For most of the last year it has seemed like the impeachment of President Trump, if it ever happened, would be an exercise in futility. The Democrat-led House would vote to impeach him. The Republican-held Senate would almost certainly vote to reject the impeachment charges. Trump, having survived a serious threat to his presidency, would ride into his 2020 re-election effort on a wave of martyrdom.
As they say on Twitter: Life comes at you fast.
The latest Fox News poll — Fox News! — suggests that most Americans want to see Trump impeached and removed from office. And Trump's stalwart Republican allies are looking a little bit less stalwart since he gave Turkey the green light to invade northern Syria. Suddenly, there are cracks in the armor that has protected this president for so long. Is it really possible Trump could be forced from office before the end of his term?
Maybe. But it might take a deal to get there. Perhaps letting Trump exit office of his own accord rather than allowing the impeachment process play out to its natural conclusion is both preferable and possible.
Trump has long fancied himself the ultimate dealmaker, and while that reputation is almost certainly overblown, appealing to his vanity might actually benefit the republic. Given a choice between being removed from office and a deal that lets him save face — or, at least, stay out of jail — there is a good chance that Trump could take the latter option, then proclaim victory in public.
Given the growing mounds of evidence against him, however, Democrats probably won't want to let Trump off the hook so easily. Trump's critics will want him to pay, legally and socially, and understandably so.
But it still might be better to make a deal.
Remember: No president has ever been removed from office by impeachment. Two presidents — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — were impeached but survived their Senate trials. Another, Richard Nixon, resigned from office just ahead of an impeachment vote he knew he would lose. America has never seen the presidential impeachment process all the way through. That path is uncharted, and possibly treacherous.
The indications are, after all, that Trump will do everything he can to make impeachment a costly and painful process for the country. He has instructed his aides — even those who don't work directly for the White House — not to cooperate with House inquiries. On Tuesday, his lawyer sent a letter to congressional leaders, rejecting the legitimacy of the impeachment effort entirely.
That raises questions about the impeachment endgame. Who is to say that Trump would even accept a Senate vote to remove him from office? And if he didn't, what would happen then? Nixon left office, in part, because he saw the writing on the wall — but also because he believed doing so was best for the country. "As president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress," Nixon said in his resignation speech. It's difficult to imagine Trump acting so selflessly. What happens to America's democratic self-perception if the president — hypothetically speaking — has to be literally dragged from the Oval Office, kicking and screaming? Could our system of governance survive such a scenario?
It might be better for America not to find out the answers to any of these questions. It might be worth a deal just to short-circuit the trouble Trump can make in the normal course of events. As TPM's Josh Marshall suggested, Trump's recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria and allow Turkish troops in will have deadly consequences, and it was "about lashing out over impeachment and the president proving he has the power to inflict harm. It's only the beginning."
Right now, Trump has every incentive to fight to hold office, no matter what. Staying in office keeps federal prosecutors at bay, and it creates opportunities for his business. From his point of view, there are probably no incentives to leave honorably or peacefully, even if it is clear that his support has evaporated completely. A deal would probably look a little bit like the pardon Nixon received from his successor, President Gerald Ford, that shielded him from prosecution from his presidential crimes.
Ford paid a political price for issuing that pardon, losing the next election to Jimmy Carter. Any congressional leader cutting such a deal with Trump might pay a similar price, as they should. It wouldn't be right for Trump to escape punishment for his wrongdoing. But it might be preferable to letting him continue to unleash chaos from the Oval Office.
It is too early in the impeachment process to try to cut a deal with Trump, and if Senate Republicans do stay united, as originally expected, then this speculation is all for naught. But it's never too early to start thinking about the endgame — and to be ready, when the time comes, to make a deal.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.