There are news alerts, Amber alerts, emergency alerts — and then there are push notifications about James Comey. In the last 12 months, Comey notifications have often heralded turning points in world history. But the notifications giveth, and notifications taketh away. Tuesday’s alert, which informed the smartphone-wielding public that Comey had been fired, may turn out to be nearly as consequential as the infamous showstopper of October 28, but instead of moving the Doomsday Clock a minute closer to midnight, as Trump might have planned, the alert instead compels us to begin monitoring a different timepiece: the Trump impeachment clock.
Donald Trump now stands a very good chance of becoming the third president in American history to be impeached. For a while on Tuesday, things were looking okay for him. On MSNBC, Greta van Susteren was covering for the Big Guy in her bizarre, craggy way; Lindsay Graham, suddenly transformed into a gnome version of Pollyanna, released a statement saying he looked forward to “a fresh start.” Dianne Feinstein, ever tone-deaf, essentially said “good riddance.” Trump had evidently made a couple of calls before dropping the hammer on Comey — including to Graham and Feinstein — but more calls were needed: An hour in, the tide began to turn.
On CNN, Jeffrey Toobin called Comey’s ouster “a grotesque abuse of power.” Richard Burr, a callous conservative who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and who was apparently not called ahead of time, used the word “troubling.” Carlos Curbelo, a South Floridian who recently torched his re-election prospects by casting a pivotal vote for Trumpcare, called the firing “extraordinary” and demanded transparency. Democrats used words like “coup” and “Nixonian,” and demanded a special prosecutor be appointed to continue the Russia investigation without White House interference.” This morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected calls for a special prosecutor, but Democrats have little reason to weep: by keeping the Russia investigation in the hands of Congress, McConnell is guaranteeing that it will continue to consume oxygen on Capitol Hill, probably well into next year.
The decapitation of Comey may push Trump over the edge in the eyes of the press and certain key Republicans, but it’s not the most important reason Trump now faces a serious risk of impeachment. The most important reason is that House passed TrumpCare, the most unpopular piece of major legislation in modern American history. TrumpCare, if it were enacted, would reapportion vast amounts of wealth from the poor to the rich, something unprecedented in modern American history. To find an antecedent of corresponding magnitude and ugliness, you have to travel across the pond and relive the nightmare of Margaret Thatcher’s 1990 poll tax, which triggered massive riots and led to her resignation later that year. If Trump thinks his rural supporters are going to sit back and watch their premiums surge by a thousand percent without bringing guns to town hall meetings, he doesn’t know America.
Trump now faces a serious risk of impeachment, but not for the reasons you think.
Even if it dies in the Senate, TrumpCare poses a mortal threat to the Republicans’ congressional majority. If Democrats retake the House, as seems increasingly likely — just last night, a state House race in Oklahoma registered a 48-point swing against the GOP — they will gain the power to launch unlimited investigations. By that time, Russia might be old news and Roger Stone and Carter Page may already be in jail. But that’s when all the other investigations will commence: into emoluments, corruption, conflicts of interest, and whatever unforeseen breaches of law and protocol that are surely taking place behind the scenes. When you’re as powerful as the president, breaking the law doesn’t require malice or premeditation — though Trump lacks for neither — it only requires carelessness. Trump isn’t a competent enough manager to avoid breaking the law. Even if we only consider what has been made public up to now, Trump and his retainers have already provided more than enough rope for a hanging.
We won’t need to rely on existing scandals, though. Once armed with subpoena power, House Democrats will have a whole new buffet of delicious options to choose from. Without ever needing to consciously plan for impeachment, and perhaps without wanting to, investigative committees led by Democrats will trigger a sequence of events whose logic and momentum will hurtle almost inevitably towards high crimes and misdemeanors. The question isn’t so much whether Democrats will have the will to pursue impeachment, but whether they’ll be able to resist calls from donors and activists to initiate such proceedings, given all the shocking things they are likely to uncover once they have the power to subject Trump to Benghazi-level scrutiny.
Just because Trump is likely to be impeached doesn’t mean he’s likely to be removed from office. “Impeachment” is something that happens in the House of Representatives—it just means charging the President with a crime. Removing the president from office is something that happens in the Senate, and it requires a ⅔ majority. Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson both survived their Senate trials, and Trump — barring truly extreme revelations — is likely to do the same. Impeachment might not even turn out so badly for Trump. If Bill Clinton’s experience is any guide, it could lead to a boost in his approval ratings, especially if the economy is booming and especially, in Trump’s case, if the scandals involved are complicated or uninteresting.
Regardless, we’ve gone through a very long period in American history where the only criticism that has really counted is criticism from the right. Right-wing critics have consistently wagged the dog, and the wagged dogs include not only figures like Paul Ryan and Donald Trump, but also establishmentarians like James Comey, media institutions like The New York Times, and even tech giants like Facebook. The lopsided asymmetry of political anger in the U.S. has meant that those in power, for many years, have had far more to fear from the Right than from anywhere else.
TrumpCare poses a mortal threat to the Republicans’ congressional majority.
Since Trump’s election, though, the ground has shifted. The women’s march that took place the day after his inauguration was the largest protest in American history. Political anger is no longer a right-wing monopoly. People in power may not believe it yet, because they haven’t had to suffer the consequences. Judgment day will come, though. Depending on what happens to health care in the Senate, it could be far more cataclysmic than most people realize. Political violence has been rare in the U.S. since the Vietnam war, but we've never had huge numbers of people see their insurance premiums climb from $1,200 to $11,800. Forget Ammon Bundy: If AHCA becomes law, people aren’t going to occupy government buildings, they’re going to burn them down.
If Trump understood the danger he has put himself in by ramming TrumpCare through the House and firing James Comey, it’s hard to believe he would have pursued either action. Why did he? Well, some reports suggest that Trump’s advisers have a single-minded focus: preserving their jobs through next week. They’re not thinking about protecting the president’s long-term interests, with the exception, perhaps, of Ivanka, who has a material interest in the Trump name. This short-term-ism, presumably fostered by Trump’s impulsive management style, undoubtedly explains some of the bungling we’re witnessing out of the White House. To explain the rest, we might need to wait for the first round of White House memoirs, a glorious bounty that could be our only reward for surviving Trump.