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Finding the right exit door for Trump

Donald Trump has attacked his own people again, criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for having recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and suggesting he might find a new AG. He's sore because Jeff Sessions is no longer in a position to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who seems to be closing in on him.

Day after day, news reports come in on Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who faces a long trial in Washington, D.C. on serious charges including conspiracy, money laundering $30 million in Russian money, false statements, and failure to disclose foreign assets. Whatever the verdict in this trial, he faces another trial in Virginia about tax, financial, and bank fraud charges. Or he could decide to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, along with his junior associate Robert Gates. 

The first few days of Paul Manfort trial have revealed his defense strategy -- blaming his associate Rick Gates. Gates has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy and false statements charges and agreed to cooperate with Mueller 's investigation, in exchange for other charges being dropped. Four other indictments have already led to convictions: Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos (also cooperating), Alexander van der Zwaan, and Richard Pinedo.

Even if Manafort is convicted, the president may pardon him. Trump tweeted in June that he has the authority to pardon anyone, including himself. At about the same time, his attorney Rudy Guiliani was telling a TV interviewer that such a move would be "unthinkable."

No wonder Trump's perpetual petulance is rising towards panic. The Mueller probe's indictments and convictions have risen to 191 criminal charges against 32 individuals and three companies, with more subpoenas issued every week, if not served. Until now, the president has called the idea of collusion a hoax. Lately, his people have suggested that collusion might not be so bad.

Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has been warning since February that "The U.S. is under attack," and that Russians and others "are likely to pursue even more aggressive cyberattacks."

Indeed, we have gone beyond incredible to unthinkable. Mueller is building the foundation for the kind of case that brings down whole Mafia families and networks. The $30 million Manafort's charged with is small potatoes in the global money laundering trade, estimated at $2 trillion a year.

While it seems likely that Paul Manafort will be convicted of Russian money laundering, the other shoe will fall when Mueller is able to show a connection between the money and the Russian fake news and election hacking that U.S. and other intelligence agencies identified during the 2016 election. Although the outlines are damning, much more needs to be documented.  
 
Now what? A whole spectrum of possibilities lie ahead. At one extreme, Trump could resign any day, pleading incapacity due to health issues, and few would object. But that's not probable. At the other extreme, many people fear he could start a war as a distraction. That's been blocked. In 2017, Republicans cooperated to pass Democratic Representative Barbara Lee's motion and repealed a 9/11 Act that gave the president to declare war without Congressional oversight. 

Probably the best result for the country would be if the president would co-operate with the Special Counsel. When Robert Mueller threatened to subpoena him, Trump first agreed to meet for a talk. Now he's stalling, on advice of his legal counsel. 

Let's define some terms. The U.S. Constitution's reasons for impeachment include treason (defined as helping a wartime enemy), bribery (corruption), and "other high crimes and misdemeanors." Obstruction of Justice would qualify as a crime, a felony, carrying a penalty up to 20 years. 

Article I of the Constitution says that only the House can impeach, and only the Senate can try the case and reach a verdict. Article II, Section 4 says: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Also in Article 1 is the "emoluments clause," which reads: "And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State." A federal judge just ruled that Maryland and Washington, D.C. are sufficiently harmed to have a case against the president for violating the "Emoluments" clause, by personally profiting when foreign states' officials stay or entertain at his hotels. He's the first president to encounter this question of profit, but then he's the first to maintain his business connections while serving in office.

Most legal experts say that impeachment is the only legal way to lay charges against a president. Robert Mueller may choose to indict Trump like a common criminal, anyway, either openly, or implicitly, by naming the president as an "unindicted co-conspirator," as Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski did with Richard Nixon. Trump has to leave office sometime. There's consensus that, once a president steps down, charges could laid and the former president could be brought before the courts.

Partisan loyalties will determine whether impeachment succeeds, which is why the upcoming November elections are so important. All the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of 100 Senate seats are up for (re-)election. Fifty-seven incumbents will not be seeking re-election, including 38 Republicans and 17 Democrats. Two seats are vacant already, one from each party.

Currently, the Democrats seem likely to win control of the House. More, they seem to be gaining voters in key states like Wisconsin and Michigan. Whether they will win control of the Senate is still uncertain. Remember, the House can impeach, but then the Senate tries the official and votes on the verdict. In the only two prior impeachments (presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), the Senate vote did not find the accused guilty.

Another possible exit strategy is the 25th Amendment, passed after President John F. Kennedy 's assassination, which allows the "Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide," to notify the Senate and the House Speakers that the president is unable to discharge his duties, whereupon the Vice President becomes Acting President.

Would Mike Pence ever make this move? Only if his own shirttails are clean. Very little has emerged that links Vice President Mike Pence with any of Trump's scandals. Pence has been loyal so far, even praising the president's performance at the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin. However, Pence is close and longtime friends with Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who, since the 1980s, have supported libertarian candidates and funded national networks of right-wing think tanks and astroturf groups.

Grandsons of a 1930s political operative, the Kochs have generations of political savvy and subterfuge. They reportedly poured almost $1 billion into the 2016 election, supporting dozens of candidates, but not Donald Trump. They have opposed him on policy, speaking out strongly against his Muslim travel ban. 

So there are already divisions within the Republican Party. Quartz Magazine adds two more Republican power donor families to the mix. Robert and Diana Mercer, and their daughter Rebekah (known as "The First Lady of the Alt-Right") who burst onto the scene in 2016, backing Ted Cruz and then Trump. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson started out by supporting Newt Gingrich in 2006 and donated $83 million to Republicans in 2016 -- but not to Donald Trump, says Quartz.

After 19 months of sowing discord and acrimony, Donald Trump finds turmoil coming home to roost. As with his other resources -- banks, lawyers, construction companies -- the president may be running low on loyal Republicans in Congress. Dozens are bailing out. Senator John McCain has been using his last few months to oppose Trump with all his might.

His distress is the world's distress, though. The president has done nothing to protect the U.S. voting system from more hacking, despite state election officials' reports of finding Russian hackers in their electronic voting systems. Just as he breaks down public confidence in news media with his constant "Fake News" allegations, so he also swore not to accept the 2016 election results if he didn't win. A breakdown in the voting system could cause riots. Questionable election results could cause a full-blown Constitutional crisis, augmented (let's say) by a president who refused to obey a court order to testify at his own impeachment.

The U.S. is fractious and fragile, deeply polarized along class, regional, religious, and racial lines. So says an Intel Briefing from Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence and security company. In "What Happens After the Next Terrorist Attack?" the agency notes that U.S. physical and service infrastructures are crumbling, making urban areas far from resilient in emergencies. Without a common belief or even consensus on facts, there's some question whether the nation has the spirit to pull together in the face of a major terrorist attack, or other emergency. Worse, one-third of the population has three hundred million guns, and they're not all on the same side.

On the other hand, there has been some good news. Women represent 40 percent of Democratic candidates in the mid-term election, 10 percent of Republicans. Some 468 women are running for the U.S. House and 51 running for the U.S. Senate. One pundit called 2018 "The Year of the Angry College-Educated Female."  Leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Castro, Bernie Sanders, and four other Democratic Socialist-backed candidates are actually discussing universal health care and the importance of unions publicly and in the media. Court challenges have overthrown some of the 2016 voter suppression measures, and the Wakanda and March for Our Lives voter registration drives may have mitigated some of the damage.

These are perilous times for U.S. democracy. Let us all hope that careful, thorough, scrupulous Robert Mueller has a comprehensive strategic plan to clear out as much corruption as possible, without triggering riots and armed confrontations in the streets. And let us also hope that every eligible U.S. voter who abhors authoritarianism will make time to cast their ballot in November.

As the Washington Monthly warned a year ago, "Remember that the American president isn't being accused of just any crime: he is being accused of a criminal conspiracy with a hostile, kleptocratic foreign power to subvert the foundations of our democracy. He is being aided and abetted by a Republican Congress that has not only failed spectacularly to do its duty, but has actively assisted in the cover-up." In short, the upcoming midterm elections may well be the most important elections in U.S. history.

Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

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