The Trump team has established a consistent pattern when confronted with evidence of their own wrongdoing. The strategy involves not just lying and denying, but also trying to kill—politically speaking—the messenger. The New York Times reports that Trump’s lawyers are currently on a mission to dig up old dirt to smear special counsel Robert S. Mueller and others on his investigative team. Coupled with the research into the scope of Trump’s pardoning powers his legal team is investigating, per the Washington Post, it’s hard to see how this president will actually have any accountability for wrongdoing.
In other words, if you’re hoping to see Trump—or his sons or associates—in prison stripes any time soon, you should know just how unlikely that looks.
Here are five reasons Trump will get off scot-free after all is said and done.
1. He may obstruct the investigation by firing Mueller.
Trump told the New York Times that were Mueller to go digging around in his personal finances, it would cross a “red line” and be a “breach” of his charge. “I think that’s a violation,” Trump told Times reporters. That aspect of the investigation is well underway, according to reporting by the Times and others, as Trump is certainly aware. Based on the retaliatory nature of this president, and recent presidential history (i.e., Trump’s firing of FBI head James Comey as the Trump-Russia investigation gained momentum), it’s not unlikely that Trump would attempt to oust Mueller to hamper the investigation.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who hired Mueller, would necessarily also fire Mueller on Trump’s orders. He could refuse that order, and then be fired, or less likely, resign. Which would leave Mueller’s firing up to Rachel Brand, the associate attorney general. Or Trump could just decide to work around the whole chain of command and fire Mueller himself.
2. He may begin issuing pardons—for himself and his family.
The president’s pardoning powers would allow him to ensure that those who may be implicated in this investigation are let off the hook. That includes not just members of his inner circle but also family members—Don Jr. and Jared Kushner come to mind. And he wouldn’t have to wait for charges to emerge, because presidents can issue preemptive pardons.
Whether or not Trump can pardon himself largely depends on who you ask, at least at this stage. Salon’s Angelo Young refers to memos drafted by Richard Nixon’s legal team which conclude the president “cannot pardon himself,” but “a president could come up with a reason to temporarily step down under the terms of the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, allowing the vice president to step in as acting president to issue the pardon.” Insanely, they add that once that’s all wrapped up, “the president could either resign or resume the duties of his office.”
Elizabeth Holtzman, who sat on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate years, writes that the vagueness of the Constitution’s pardon provision—which has no language or “explicit prohibition” on self-pardoning—may offer the kind of wiggle room Trump and his lawyers are looking for. But Holtzman notes that to take advantage of that ambiguity would “violate the basic structure of our Constitution, and the whole history of the pardon power.”
“A presidential self-pardoning power would seriously undermine the rule of law,” Holtzman warns. “If presidents could self-pardon, they could engage in monstrously wrongful and criminal conduct with impunity. That would utterly violate the framers’ belief in a limited presidency and in the idea that no president is above the law.”
Yeeeup. That’s about where we’re at. The only thing standing in the way of Trump and a self-pardon is political fallout. Which brings us to the next point.
3. He has a complicit Republican party.
As Brian Beutler at the New Republicnotes, if the loss of political capital is all Trump has to lose, that’s not much to lose. He notes if Trump fired Mueller, a majority-GOP Congress won’t step in because “Republicans have given every indication over the course of the past several months that no malfeasance, no matter how naked and severe, will impel them to rein in Trump or impeach him.”
Realistically, it should be apparent that the GOP won’t do anything to stop Trump, no matter how low he sinks or awful he is. If you are holding your breath on this, exhale.
4. Ditto the DOJ and FBI.
Jeff Sessions is pretty loyal to his boss, however unrequited the sentiment may be, and he has no desire to step down or see Trump’s presidency end. (“Sessions is living his best life destroying minority communities,” Beutler notes.) There’s also this:
Rosenstein was complicit in Comey’s firing. He resisted pressure to appoint a special counsel for more than a week after Trump fired Comey, and only relented after Comey seemingly forced his hand. More recently, Rosenstein appeared on Fox News and issued a less-than-full-throated defense of the special counsel investigation that he oversees. “At the Department of Justice, we judge by results,” he said, “and so my view about that is, we’ll see if they do the right thing.”
There’s no way to know from this far out how Chris Wray, Trump’s nominee to replace Comey, would handle the situation. But the thumbs up from Trump himself doesn’t bode well—particularly now that Trump knows to ask the questions about loyalty during the interview process.
5. Trump believes laws are for the little people.
All politicians lie and obfuscate, but it’s rare to see an operator who cares not one whit about the appearance of impropriety. Ryan J. Reilly at the Huffington Post offers a laundry list of ways Trump ignores the laws that bind the rest of us, and presidents who came before:
Examples abound. Does Trump have massive conflicts of interests? Well, the president is exempt from conflict-of-interest laws. Do officials think Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, shouldn’t be given permanent security clearance? Well, Trump has the power to grant him clearance anyhow. Does someone want to sue Trump for his actions before he became president? Well, his lawyers say they can’t (a questionable claim). Did Trump violate the law? Well, the sitting president is immune from prosecution.
This is not a president who abides by the law or thinks it applies to him. So much investigation into pardons and mudslinging at this stage of the game suggests a tremendous wrongdoing may be revealed. It’s just unlikely we’ll be able to do much about it.
Written by: Kali Holloway.
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.