On Jan. 20, 2017, Donald Trump swore to “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States … [and] preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Presidency scholars will admit readily that this oath is full of ambiguity and that many of our past presidents crossed constitutional boundaries and engaged in morally untenable behavior, such as lying, scapegoating and staging cover-ups.
Still, no president has come close to President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE and the volume and scope of his behavior.
Last October, Harvard law professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow Jack Goldsmith described Trump as “a Frankenstein's monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity and indifference to law; and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.”
Trump did not take an oath to protect himself at all costs. But neither he nor his ardent supporters are wont to admit this. They say it’s a “witch hunt,” or only campaign finance.
Yet, despite having only limited information about special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation, the long arm of the law looks like a gigantic octopus at the moment.
With tentacles running in every direction, all parts of the Trump brand — his presidency, his business, his foundation and his family — are imperiled. If Trump had one iota of sense, he’d resign (via Twitter?). Then again, since many of his legal troubles in New York would persist even if a newly-installed President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally The Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out 'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE were to grant him a pardon, he may perceive the Oval Office's Resolute Desk as the far better perch from which to defend himself.
In addition to obtaining a guilty plea from Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, the prosecutors working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York have made immunity agreements with David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, and Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. In a possible violation of federal campaign finance law, money was given to Stephanie Clifford and Karen McDougal to keep stories about their alleged extramarital affairs with Trump out of the news prior to the 2016 election.
Cohen’s plea is only one small piece of the legal puzzle Trump faces. First, along with suing the Trump Foundation, the attorney general for the State of New York has notified the IRS and the Federal Election Commission about additional possible campaign finance violations. Second, Cohen was subpoenaed by the New York Tax Department for information related to the foundation. Third, the Manhattan District Attorney is looking into criminal charges.
Another lawsuit against the Trump Organization is in the U.S. District Court for Maryland; it alleges that the president violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution because he remains involved in his business. While the Justice Department has filed an appeal, attempting to stop the lawsuit from moving forward, there is a question about the legality and profitability of the Trump hotel in Washington.
Then, of course, there is the Mueller investigation into meddling by Russia in the 2016 election and the possible collusion of Trump and his campaign. Prosecutors have secured guilty pleas from Michael Flynn, former Trump national security adviser, and George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosTrump supporters show up to DC for election protest Trump pardons draw criticism for benefiting political allies Klobuchar: Trump 'trying to burn this country down on his way out' MORE, a former Trump campaign adviser, for lying about their Russian contacts, and have indicted 13 Russian nationals, 12 Russian military intelligence officers, and three Russian companies. And there are more who have been charged or pleaded guilty.
Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDOJ investigating one-time Trump campaign adviser over alleged ties to Qatar: report Foreign lobbyists donated over M during 2020 election: report Former Mueller prosecutor representing Donoghue in congressional probes: report MORE, was convicted last week on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. His next trial for unregistered lobbying for foreign interests is scheduled in mid-September in Washington.
Still more questions surround many of Trump’s former advisers, including Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneRoger Stone served with Capitol riot lawsuit during radio interview Lawyer for 17 Jan. 6 defendants says he's been released from hospital Democrats' Jan. 6 subpoena-palooza sets dangerous precedent MORE and Donald Trump, Jr. There can’t be this much smoke without a fire, one might think.
And none of what is detailed above even takes in the thousands of Trump’s lies, which have potential to irreparably damage the institution of the presidency.
Congress always should broach the prospect of a presidential impeachment with caution and circumspection, and much about this investigation remains a mystery. Yet, Republicans might ask themselves one question before the election (because waiting until after it will look even more craven than it does now): If the totality of Trump’s not just alleged wrongdoing but also his actions in the face of these inquiries don’t rise to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” would anything — ever?
Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, and formerly was an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. She frequently appears on TV and radio programs as an expert on American political history, party development and national elections. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.