Is this the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency?
On Friday, federal prosecutors dropped two bombshells. First, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a sentencing memo regarding Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal lawyer, stating as a fact that the president himself had been involved with hush-money payments to two women with whom he'd allegedly had affairs. And second, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's office issued a document saying Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had lied to prosecutors even after agreeing to cooperate.
For administration-watchers hoping to watch the administration fall, the documents added to the mounting pile of tantalizing hints at that possibility. But it is still a very long way from these documents to the president's door, and the journey is likely to be perilous for all involved.
The danger to Trump is obvious: that prosecutors will tie him to offenses serious enough to warrant impeachment – and that the Democrats who will take control of the House in January will quickly oblige. Even if Trump manages to hold on to enough Republican votes in the Senate to avoid being removed from office, the process is likely to be humiliating.
Impeachment would also be dangerous for Senate Republicans. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is a wizard at using Senate procedure to protect his caucus from hard votes. But if the House impeaches the president, McConnell can't simply refuse to hold a trial. Which means that if Trump is impeached, each Republican senator would ultimately have to justify either voting to get rid of a president still popular with much of the Republican base, or endorsing whatever transgression had put him in the dock.
Some of these senators, such as Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., would be haunted by their comments advocating President Bill Clinton's impeachment two decades ago. Many others would be haunted by the nation's suburbs, where voters have been swinging more firmly toward Democrats with every obnoxious @realDonaldTrump tweet; they would probably react badly to any offense that plausibly spurred the president's impeachment. Few Republican senators would want to anger those voters by defending the president's behavior. But they would be equally loath to infuriate Trump's rural and exurban base by throwing the president to the wolves.
But the greatest danger may be the one facing Democrats: that the investigations end up with not quite enough evidence to justify impeachment – and the Democrats nonetheless go ahead and impeach Trump anyway. If the Mueller investigation ends without a credible, direct link between the president and Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Democratic base would still clamor to impeach him over the campaign finance violations that prosecutors have connected to the hush-money payments. If the activists clamor loud enough, impeachment may well happen simply because no one in the Democratic caucus wants to be the one who breaks the bad news to them.
The result would be a replay of the Clinton impeachment, only with each team taking the other side of the field. Democrats would have their own Lindsey Graham problems – Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., trying to explain why Trump's behavior is worse than a president having sex with a 22-year-old White House intern and then concealing the affair with a spot of perjury. But those arguments, no matter how ingenious, wouldn't travel well outside of the left's ideological bubble. Explaining that everything has changed since the #MeToo movement arrived wouldn't be much help.
If the push for impeachment is about the legal violations involved in covering up some sexual impropriety instead of Russia's election interference, it will probably backfire, just as the Clinton impeachment blew up for Republicans. Democrats can piously intone that they're worried about campaign finance, not sexual misbehavior, but in the public square the debate will be over the sex. And while #MeToo may have changed the calculus in Washington, there are still millions of less politically engaged voters across the country who don't necessarily thrill to the call of identity politics or want Congress to undertake a forensic investigation of the president's sexual history. If that's where all this ends up, Democrats are likely to regret it.
Yes, this is a lot of "ifs" all strung in a row. Unfortunately, none of them can be resolved until Mueller speaks, revealing the extent of the possible allegations. About the only thing that's certain right now is that the next year is going to be one of the uglier, angrier entries in the annals of American history.
Megan McArdle is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.