The past two weeks have effectively shattered any hope that the floundering Trump administration would eventually settle into the daily grind of "politics as usual."
First, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey after the bureau requested extra resources from the Justice Department to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential elections.
Then, as everyone was processing the fact that a U.S president had apparently just impeded an ongoing FBI probe for the first time since Watergate, it was revealed that Trump had disclosed highly classified material — "code-word information" — regarding the Islamic State to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador one day after Comey's firing.
Multiple sources subsequently confirmed that it had been Israel that originally supplied the intel to the president, with the understanding that it would not be shared with any other U.S allies, much less Russia. (Trump himself on Monday seemed to confirm that Israel had been the source.)
The Wall Street Journal reported that this source was instrumental in warning the intelligence community about Islamic State plans that led the United States to ban carry-on laptop computers and other consumer electronic devices from ten airports across the Middle East. By the time news surfaced last Tuesday evening that Trump had reportedly asked Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn back in February, the epiphany almost seemed anti-climactic.
If all this happened as reported — and, judging by the White House's tortured evasions, it very well may have — there is now a case for impeachment. That such a case exists does not, of course, guarantee its prosecution. Until now, few Republicans have had the temerity to challenge Trump's flagrant assault on democratic mores and values — the mistreatment of the press, the haphazard executive orders, the compulsive disregard for the truth.
Barring an unlikely departure from this deferential pattern, the GOP will continue to abet the most dysfunctional administration in modern American memory, portraying calls for accountability as liberal hysteria run amok. In the event that Trump does manage to avoid impeachment, last week's scandals will be just another anchor weighing down a half-drowned presidency.
The incompetence will persist, the embarrassments and pseudo-crises will resume, and the republic will remain on the brink of disaster. Whatever safeguards survive the next three years will be the product of partisan gridlock, with Democrats desperately trying to arrest any and all initiatives Trump might cook up. Above all, the political atrophy of our present moment will accelerate toward a graceless, enervating denouement as polarization and social fragmentation continue to undercut our vital center.
This scenario is no doubt frightening. But more frightening still is what could happen if Trump is impeached.
To be sure, a President Mike Pence would restore some semblance of normalcy to American politics. There would be no self-inflicted intelligence leaks, no 3 a.m. Twitter storms. He'd protect classified materials, uphold the Constitution, and staff his administration with responsible career Republicans. Just as important — especially for America's allies — Pence would close down the circus show that currently occupies the Oval Office, allaying the perception that American politics have gone off the rails.
Impeaching Trump, then, would constitute a re-normalization of public affairs. And that is precisely the problem.
Mike Pence is a Republican's Republican. He believes in trickle-down economic policies and welfare roll-backs, a hawkish American policy abroad and a liberal immigration regime at home. In short, he represents the GOP establishment that Trump so consistently mocked to the thunderous applause of the "forgotten man."
While conservative elites waited in vain for their base to come around to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, white working-class voters found in Trump an antidote to the cocktail of pieties that had for so long characterized the Republican establishment. A tired combination of handouts for the rich, bromides for the middle class, and ill-conceived wars abroad had failed to address Trump voters' true social and economic concerns for decades, softening the 2016 primaries up for a populist insurgency.
Just over 100 days into Trump's troubled tenure, the GOP establishment has already demonstrated its political tenacity. From health care to tax reform to rumors of a renewed surge in Afghanistan, business as usual has largely resumed in Washington for the Paul Ryan wing of the party; Ann Coulter has already fumed about how little progress Trump has made on immigration, his signature issue.
Against such a backdrop, it is almost certain that a Pence ascendancy would spell a return to the tried and tested GOP platform of old. An organized White House, with a new "100-day window," could exert its muscle to ensure that the most cherished policies of Republican elites would see active and early legislation.