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Is This the Endgame for Trump?

There's plenty of evidence to suggest Trump won't just survive Michael Cohen's testimony—he'll thrive.
President Donald Trump arrives for a political rally at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia, on August 21st, 2018.

President Donald Trump arrives for a political rally at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia, on August 21st, 2018.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohenpleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws by paying off two former dalliances "at the direction" of Trump "for the principal purpose of influencing the election." Cohen's admission is a clear violation of federal law. The plea deal, an extraordinary blow to the president, came just before his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convicted of financial fraud. The two of them now join former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and deputy campaign manager Rick Gates in the Trump campaign's pantheon of convicted criminals. Some have suggested Trump is likely to be named an unindicted co-conspirator to a federal crime. The last president to earn that mark was Richard Nixon—and current polling suggests Trump is just as unpopular as Nixon was before his resignation.

But history seems a poor guide for the Trump presidency. In fact, there's plenty of evidence to suggest Trump won't just survive this scandal—he'll thrive.

Impeachment, the actual mechanism by which Nixon was forced from office, arises from the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a majority but also face major pressure heading into the mid-term elections. Now would seem to be the time, following months of tacit support for the president, for House Republicans to break rank and embrace the prospect of impeachment (assuming Democrats bring up the issue, of course).

But that line of thinking also doesn't take into account the power of partisanship. While, the revelation that Nixon kept tapes detailing his involvement in the Watergate cover-up helped trigger a collapse in support among lawmakers for the then-president, the fact is, this is not Nixon's era. The country is more divided by political lines than it's ever been. As FiveThirtyEight found in a large-scale analysis of post-scandal congressional behavior, partisanship "still matters. And in a big way ... [and] when defections do come, they're more likely to come from the centrist wing of a party."

The problem, of course, is that the quagmire of Trump's criminal associations, within the context of his presidency, is unlike any scandal that came before it for one simple reason: Americans live in a fragmented media landscape, one dominated by echo chambers that accent political partisanship, shrink those centrist wings, and crank up the paranoid style of American politics. More importantly, Trump has waged a concerted campaign over the last two years to exploit the media landscape to sow confusion in anticipation of a moment like this. "Fake news" wasn't just a rallying cry; it was a preemptive defense, months in the making.

Indeed, when it comes to party die-hards, crying "fake news" is a far more politically effective response than an admission of guilt. And there's little reason to think the "fake news" response will land on deaf ears. Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe that major broadcast and print outlets report fake news "at least occasionally," according to an April poll from Monmouth University, up from 63 percent in 2017. What's more, the Monmouth poll found that the most significant increases in skepticism regarding conventional media since Trump entered office came from Independents (16 percent) and Democrats (18 percent)—not Republicans (10 percent).

Trump's impulse to attack the media isn't just about finding a scapegoat; the fake news canard hinges on epistemic chaos, on taking Americans' already-fragile trust in public institutions and driving a stake through whatever remains. Trump's assault on the media as "the enemy of the people" has always been built "on an assault on reality, a national gaslighting that has wrought epistemic chaos among what was supposed to be an informed citizenry," as I wrote back in April. "No society works if people don't speak the same moral and ethical language, if they can't find a way to communicate—and, more importantly, if they don't trust each other." Trump's immediate comment on Manafort's conviction—"this is a witch hunt and it's a disgrace"—reveals a long-term strategy to effectively gaslight his way to innocence in the eyes of his base, despite a mountain of evidence.

This, then, is the core question: Can Trump convince the American people that the same courts capable of taking down Manafort and Cohen are in fact rigged? Maybe.

After all, Trump's been attacking the courts (and their judges) for some time, a line of assault seen by many as a way of steamrolling judicial independence and effectively undermining America's confidence in the justice system. When Trump tells reporters that the Manafort trial "has nothing to do with Russian collusion" despite evidence suggesting some wrongdoing, it's almost as though he's hoping the message is lost by virtue of the media delivering it.