President Should Come Clean

If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be now: President Donald Trump is in an impeachment fight.

It hasn’t fully ripened yet. That won’t happen unless Democrats take the House and do so with a healthy margin in the fall. But Michael Cohen’s statement that he committed campaign finance violations at the behest of Trump makes it that much more likely Democrats will impeach him once they have the power and the votes to do it.

This means Trump is in a political fight more than a legal one. His concern shouldn’t be the Southern District of New York — current Justice Department guidance says a sitting president can’t be indicted — but the House Judiciary Committee. His strategy shouldn’t be aimed at convincing prosecutors that he stayed on the right side of the law, but the broader public that he deserves to stay in office.

The most powerful tool that he has in that effort is telling the truth, exactly the approach most uncongenial to him.

The American public has a nearly boundless ability to forgive. Wayward politicians have fallen back on it throughout our history, from Alexander Hamilton to John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton.

It is in this spirit that Donald Trump should confess his affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, admit he wanted to keep them quiet for a variety of reasons (sheer embarrassment, the potential political fallout, and the emotional effect on his wife and youngest son), and apologize to the public for his deception. Then he should say that he’s directing his lawyers to approach the Federal Election Commission to negotiate a large payment for any violation of its rules.

There are several advantages to this approach. First, Trump doesn’t lose anything in terms of his reputation because literally no one believes his denials of the alleged affairs.

Second, it gets his story on a much more believable footing. The idea that Michael Cohen paid off women who were making up stories, and Trump knew nothing about it in real time — despite a tape suggesting otherwise — and then happily ponied up from his own funds as soon as he learned about it is otherworldly.

Third, it would be a shock to the system like few other things he could do in office. Such is his reflexive aggression that a little contrition would play as big as the firing of James Comey.

Fourth, there’s a good chance that Democrats will seem petty and vindictive for impeaching him over the payments if he’s really tried to put the underlying conduct behind him (this certainly didn’t work out well for Republicans in the Clinton impeachment).

His lawyers might not like his coming clean, but Trump has to decide whether he’s going to worry chiefly about fighting off an impeachment push and winning again in 2020, or forestalling the threat of getting indicted sometime in 2021 should he lose his re-election.

There’s no guarantee, but if he is seen as dealing with the issue forthrightly now, it makes it harder for prosecutors to go after him in another three years because there’s a norm against further pursuing defeated politicians (one that he would be wise to stop eroding, by the way).

Of course, all of this is fantasy, given Trump’s natural instincts. A pugilist who never wants to admit error, he surely believes that he can bluff and improvise his way out of the mess, and wait to abandon elements of his current version of events until strictly necessary. He thinks that he can continue to make his investigators the issue, and that so long as he has the vast majority of his party with him, he has a brake against a removal vote in the Senate.

He might be right. This is what he’s done his entire adult life. But the stakes are larger than ever before, and even a moment’s reflection on how he got in this fix would suggest perhaps giving forthrightness a try.