Since the day he was sworn in as President, whispers have circulated in Washington that Donald Trump won’t run again in 2020.
The logic goes like this: Trump can’t stomach losing, or even the prospect of losing. Given where he is – and has been – in national polls, losing is a very real possibility. Faced with such an unacceptable rejection, Trump will walk away – proclaiming that his work as President is fully accomplished – after a single term.
I’ve never, ever believed that theory for a simple reason: Trump has spent his entire life clamoring for the limelight and the recognition – grudging or otherwise – that being president affords him. Why would he EVER walk away from that?
Now, after the events of last Friday, Trump has even more incentive to stay in office: Because a sitting president can’t be indicted.
Here’s what we learned on Friday:
1) The Southern District of New York made clear that they believe Trump directed and coordinated, during the 2016 campaign, two illegal hush money payments to women alleging him of conducting extramarital affairs with them. Ex-Trump lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen has already pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations tied to these payment directed to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. It’s clear from the filings last Friday that prosecutors believe Cohen.
2) In November 2015, a Russian national spoke with Cohen and attempted to offer “political synergy” with the Trump campaign (Mueller’s office said Cohen didn’t pursue the outreach).
3) One-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort broke his plea agreement by staying in touch with White House officials long past the point we knew prior. According to CNN’s write-up of the Manafort allegations, “[special counsel Robert] Mueller can show, including with text messages, that Manafort was in contact with Trump administration officials early this year – even after he was indicted in late 2017.”
“My takeaway is there’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him, that he may be the first President in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time,” said incoming House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, on Sunday.
The key in Schiff’s statement – at least at it relates to Trump and 2020 – is this: “My takeaway is there’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office the Justice Department may indict him.”
“On the day Donald Trump leaves office.”
Why does that matter? Because it comports with established Justice Department guidelines that say that a sitting president cannot be indicted. “All they get to do is write a report,” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN about Mueller’s team. “They can’t indict. At least they acknowledged that to us after some battling, they acknowledged that to us.”
The guideline dates back to Richard Nixon and was solidified during Bill Clinton’s presidency. It’s possible that if Mueller found criminal wrongdoing directly tied to Trump that he might challenge those rules, but it seems very unlikely at the moment.
All of which means that the safest place for Trump – even as the walls continue to close in around him and it becomes clear just how many people in his orbit had interactions with Russian officials during the campaign and the transition – is in the White House. He is, again if longstanding guidelines apply, in a legal safe space as long as he is President.
The danger for Trump then – at least in the near-term – is if House Democrats, soon to be in the majority, use the findings of Mueller’s report to pursue impeachment charges against him. New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the incoming head of the Judiciary Committee, already believes there is enough evidence in the public domain to consider impeachment.
Of the allegations that Trump purposely skirted campaign finance laws in making hush money payments to Daniels and McDougal, Nadler said Sunday on CNN:
“They would be impeachable offenses. Whether they’re important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question. Certainly, they’re impeachable offenses, because, even though they were committed before the President became President, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office.”
But if House Democrats did go the impeachment route – and incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has warned against doing so – there is no guarantee that would knock Trump out of office. Why? Because the Senate’s job in impeachment is to try the case. Republicans control 53 Senate seats and – as Democrats did after House Republicans voted for Bill Clinton’s impeachment – could simply vote down the House measure, assuming they all stayed united.
What’s Trump’s best way to ensure that he has an open channel to Senate Republicans? Stick around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Simply put: There is every political and legal reason for Trump to stay right where he is – for as as long as he possibly can.