If everything in the world were normal right now, Donald Trump would be toast. The events of the past 24 hours alone signify checkmate for the president.
But everything in the world is highly abnormal and it’s still unclear whether Trump will suffer the consequences of this galactic mess he created for himself. A major loophole in holding Trump accountable is the reality that his supporters, as well as too many Republicans in general, don’t care. They don’t care if he lies or if he’s brutally incompetent. As long as he’s trolling liberals, he’s doing what they want him to do.
Nevertheless, if the integrity of the system endures long enough to judicially act upon this checkmating of the president at the hands of former FBI director James Comey and the president himself, it’s difficult to foresee him wiggling out of it.
Soon after Comey’s firing by Trump, the president tweeted about the possible existence of a secret tape proving Trump’s side of the story about one of nine meetings with Comey in which the president, Comey alleges, asked Comey to let go of the investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. Trump reiterated in a Friday press conference that he’ll talk about the tapes: “I’m not hinting at anything, I’ll tell you about it over a very short period of time.”
Ultimately, Trump is screwed if there are tapes, and he’s screwed if there aren’t tapes. He’s screwed if he lies under oath, and he’s screwed if he tells the truth. Let’s take a look at the extent of his checkmate.
1) The tape exists.
If the tape exists, Trump, of course, will have to produce this tape and make it available to investigators, including the special counsel. But will it exonerate Trump or Comey? In all likelihood, the tape will have been edited by Trump staffers to exclude anything incriminating about Trump. Prosecutors, however, should ask for the original file, still held on whatever electronic recording device was used. If it’s a copy, though, it’s well within Trump’s capability to have someone creatively edit it — not unlike the scam editing of Fox News hero James O’Keefe’s videos. Editing, by the way, would constitute destruction of evidence. All in all, it’s possible there’s a tape, and it’s possible Comey misremembered the content of the meetings, but it’s highly unlikely given Comey’s reputation as a boy scout. But the most likely outcome is the tape will vindicate Comey, not Trump.
2) The tape doesn’t exist.
If the tape is what we think it is — a figment of Trump’s twisted imagination — and if Trump’s tape is subpoenaed by one of the several investigatory bodies, he’ll have to produce the tape or admit it doesn’t exist, otherwise it could be a matter of contempt or obstruction of justice. Also, if the tape doesn’t exist, he’ll have no way of disproving Comey’s testimony. Meanwhile, Comey possesses contemporaneous documentation of the meetings, and could produce corroborating witnesses who Comey told about the meetings shortly after they happened.
3) Trump testifies under oath, verifying the existence of tapes.
During Friday’s press conference, Trump said he’d be glad to testify for Robert Mueller’s investigation. If so, he’ll open himself up to perjury charges — unless he produces the tapes that probably don’t exist.
4) Trump testifies under oath that Comey is lying about the meetings and Flynn.
Once again, if Trump lies under oath, he’ll be on the hook for perjury on top of obstruction of justice. It won’t be strictly his word versus Comey’s word. It’ll be Trump’s word versus Comey, Comey’s documentation, and Comey’s witnesses.
5) Trump testifies under oath that he did, in fact, ask about letting Flynn go.
Not only will Trump have lied to the public about Comey, about the tape, about Flynn, about Russia and about asking for Comey’s loyalty, but this would also easily confirm obstruction of justice. Trump is, to repeat, toast.
6) Trump testifies under oath and denies everything.
If Mueller, or whichever prosecutor is responsible for the testimony, has further evidence corroborating Comey’s testimony, then Trump will be charged with perjury. I’m unsure whether Comey’s testimony and documentation is enough, so further corroboration can’t hurt.
7) Trump stonewalls all investigations and congressional Republicans ignore findings of the special counsel and investigatory committees.
Who knows what happens then, but Trump will likely serve out the rest of his first term. This could be his only way out, though if a Democratic president takes over in early 2021, there will be zero chance of Trump being pardoned, allowing a criminal prosecution of Trump as a private citizen.
Trump’s best bet — though he’ll never do it — would be to confess to everything today. Right now. A prime time televised address to the nation perhaps. Lay it all out. His supporters will go along with him and much of the fire surrounding Trump’s mendacity would almost immediately dissipate. But, again, he’ll never do that.