My six-year-old son and I have been reading Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. His books are a kind of atheist antidote to CS Lewis’s delightful Narnia series. Central to the plot is the idea, derived from modern physics, that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes and there could be wormholes that connect one universe to another.
Pullman’s Oxford appears in two versions: one the Oxford we know, still charming but increasingly blighted by modernity’s ugliness, and another — in a world where far less has changed since the 17th century.
Perhaps there are multiple universes. Perhaps there is a planet Earth where, two years ago, about 39,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump. What might that planet be like today? The obvious answer is that the impeachment of the president would have begun a year and a half ago.
Trump’s tweets on Friday amounted to a garbled charge sheet, listing all the political detritus Republicans would have packaged as “high crimes and misdemeanours” if Clinton had won the election. He urged the attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, to “look into all of the corruption on the ‘other side’ including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr, FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems — and so much more”.
If the names McCabe, Strzok, Page and Ohr mean nothing to you, you haven’t been watching nearly enough Fox News. Andrew McCabe was — until he was sacked in March for allegedly leaking information to the media — the deputy director of the FBI. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were the romantically entangled FBI agent and lawyer respectively whose pre-election tweets included a pledge to “stop” Trump becoming president. Bruce Ohr was, until late last year, an associate deputy attorney-general; his wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS, a research and intelligence firm, where she collaborated with former MI6 officer Christopher Steele on the notorious anti-Trump dossier.
Had Clinton become president, Trump TV would be vying with Fox to convince viewers that all these individuals were part of a deep state conspiracy to rig the election against the Republican candidate. I have little doubt that the House Republicans would have begun impeachment proceedings against Clinton soon after her inauguration.
America can seem like a madhouse these days, but I am not sure it would be much less mad if Clinton had won. It might even be madder. After all, Trump’s victory was a cathartic moment for the millions of people deeply disaffected with the political establishment personified by the Clintons. They are now living through the slow, creeping disillusionment that nearly always follows a populist victory. If there had been no catharsis, think how readily they would have accepted the rigged election story. Think how much more toxic the political atmosphere might be.
Yet the argument “Clinton would have been as bad, or worse” doesn’t get us far. It is intriguing to contemplate that parallel universe in which she’s the one facing impeachment, but it doesn’t tell us what will happen next in this world where Trump is the one on the hook.
I am not a lawyer. On the other hand, Michael Cohen is — or was — a lawyer. It’s a devalued currency these days. Anyway, no one can say definitively if the action of which Trump was accused by his former attorney last week qualifies as a high crime. Alan Dershowitz — the brilliant law professor who has dismayed many of his Martha’s Vineyard neighbours by sticking up for Trump — says there’s no crime at all “if, as a candidate, [Trump] contributes to his own campaign” by giving hush money to Stormy Daniels.
So maybe it wasn’t a high crime, but it was certainly pretty low conduct on Trump’s part to pay off his porn-star former mistress during an election and disguise the payment as a tax-deductible business expense. In any case, Cohen’s lawyer said last week his client has more dirt to dish; dirt that is supposedly relevant to Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the election.
Whatever the charges against Trump, of course, the question of whether or not he is impeached lies in the realm of politics more than the realm of law. It depends on whether the Democrats win back the House of Representatives in November. It depends on whether their leaders in Congress decide to go for impeachment. As a profession, journalists would like nothing more than to re-enact the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. But Watergate would’ve been slightly easier to replay with Clinton as president because, in that parallel universe, the opposing party would control both House and Senate. Even so, getting a two-thirds majority in the Senate seems unattainable by either party in our time. That means any impeachment of Trump is much more likely to lead to a rerun of Bill Clinton’s failed impeachment than to a Nixon-style resignation.
Two variables in the coming months will be Trump himself and Republican voters. The president is a reckless man who has repeatedly made matters worse for himself. The denouement of his presidency may resemble a gangster film in which the bloodshed escalates exponentially as the forces of law close in and the goodfellas lose their heads.
The other key question is whether or not Republican voters will stick with Trump through thick and thin, regardless of what is revealed about his conduct and character. The author and journalist Salena Zito has been far and away the shrewdest observer of Trump supporters. Her view is that Trump’s base may cleave even more closely to their man if impeachment happens.
“These voters knew who Trump was going in,” she wrote last week. “They knew he was a thrice-married, Playmate-dating, Howard Stern regular who had the morals of an alley cat. They were willing to look past all of that because of how institutions had failed their communities for three consecutive presidencies. Right now [Trump] . . . is all that stands between them and handing the keys to Washington back over to the people inside Washington.”
There are, to repeat, other universes.
Somewhere out there, no doubt, a parallel universe exists where the American colonies did not revolt against Britain and what we call today the United States is more like south Canada. In that universe Americans have the same constitutional arrangements as Canadians and Australians — a system in which prime ministers have to be party leaders and their powers are more circumscribed than a US president’s.
There are of course populists in that other world, just as there are populists in Canada and Australia today, but no one as powerful as Trump. Instead, I can report, Paul Ryan has just been forced to step down as “prime minister”. Boring, I know. So count yourself lucky to be living in much the most interesting of all the possible universes.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford