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'Get used to it': Professors dissect Trump's legal drama, say polarization is here to stay

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty Friday to two conspiracy charges, in addition to previous convictions against him. As a part of the plea, Manafort agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. 

In doing so, Manafort joined four other former Trump campaign aides—including Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer—in agreeing to cooperate with the special counsel's investigation in exchange for reduced charges. 

Although guilty pleas from President Donald Trump's ex-ancillaries may influence his presidency, Duke professors hesitate to compare the scandal to Watergate. 

Despite the guilty pleas, David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science, remarked that there has not been any concrete evidence that Trump's colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. Although many compare the ongoing Mueller investigation to the early 1970's Watergate investigation, which led then-President Richard Nixon to resign, the two incidents are in many ways distinct, he noted. 

“What we know for sure about Watergate is a lot different from what we know for sure about [the Mueller investigation] now,” Rohde said. “‘Not just ‘we’ in terms of you and I, but the American people.”

Lisa Griffin, Candace M. Carroll and Leonard B. Simon professor of law, said in an interview with The Financial Times that Cohen’s testimony that Trump had “committed campaign finance violations in co-ordination with and at the direction of the president . . . brings the president perilously close to being an unindicted co-conspirator engaged in criminal wrongdoing.”

“Whether or not the Cohen plea ultimately adds to the president’s legal jeopardy, it should be damaging politically,” she added. 

To William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin professor emeritus of history, impeachment is hard to imagine.

“First of all, you need two-thirds of the votes for the Senate to convict the president,” Chafe explained. “Second of all, there will be a lot of people that will just not turn against him.”

Chafe added the best situation Democrats can expect is to win a majority in Congress in the upcoming elections and impede some of Trump’s political acts. 

Rohde also noted that Trump's approval rating has remained relatively stable, suggesting the recent investigation and convictions have not threatened Trump’s presidency in any substantial way. 

In contrast, by the time the Watergate investigation concluded in 1973, officeholders of the Republican Party were convinced that Nixon was guilty and knew–if the impeachment trial went head–he would be convicted, compelling Nixon to resign, Rohde added. 

“We are just a long way from that—in terms of the doubt,” he said. “At least that is what the poll shows.”

Rohde said that the Watergate investigation was politically devastating for the Republican Party. Republican senators believed the Nixon's conviction would both harm the country and the GOP because a significant proportion of the party had turned against Nixon. 

“That, as well, has not yet been reached at this point,” he added.  

Rohde did note one similarity between the two scandals: both started with convictions of the president’s ancillaries. While the Watergate scandal later spread to the president himself, it is too early to predict how the Mueller investigation will develop.

Chafe said that without having devastating information on Trump's former aides—such as Cohen and Manafort—Mueller would not be able to achieve their cooperation. 

“I think we don’t know all the things Mueller has in his files, and we are not going to find out probably until a couple of months from now,” Chafe noted. “But, I do think he probably has a fair amount.”

Almost all the recent national congressional polls indicate Democrats are enjoying a significant advantage against their Republican counterparts, Rohde said, citing a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that showed Democrats favored on a generic ballot by as many as 14 points.

“Things could get worse for the Republicans if [we see] ‘more shoes dropped,’” he added. 

Rohde also noted that Trump’s remarks on judiciary decisions could generate negative trends in public opinion. 

For example, in a Sept. 3 tweet, Trump condemned Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his recent indictments of Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA)—Hunter for misappropriation of campaign funds and Hunter for insider trading. Trump argued that these decisions hurt Republicans’ chances to win the upcoming midterm elections. 

Thus, there is reason to judge the assertion as a criminal act, Rohde said. 

“That in itself could be argued to be an obstruction of justice—which has nothing to do with the Russian investigation at all,” Rohde added. 

According to the Cook Political Report, there are roughly 90 Republican House of Representatives seats that are not safe. That was roughly the same estimate it made in February 2010, months before the Democratic Party lost over 60 House seats in the midterm election, the biggest lost in a House midterm election since 1938.

“So [the result of the midterm election] could be not pretty,” Rohde added. 

Yet, evaluating the current situation from the perspective of precedents in the American political history has its limits, Rohde said. It’s still hard to predict how Trump’s presidency will be affected. 

“We base our estimates of the effects of [the recent investigation] on our experience from the past,” Rohde said. “But the present is not always identical to the past.”

He added that, for example, it’s hard to tell how much Trump voters will be tolerant of Trump’s behaviors, which makes it hard to determine how much the Mueller investigation will affect the presidency. 

As the midterm election grows nearer, nevertheless, the prediction is getting increasingly accurate, he added. 

“In the past year and a half, journalists and political scientists have kept saying that this or that could have a large impact but the election is still a long way away,” Rohde said. “But the election is not such a long way away.”

Chafe added, compared to the time of the Watergate investigation, the American society is much more divided and polarized. In fact, more than any other time since the Civil War. 

While 1968 also marked a time of great division, the division was more fragmented, featuring the emergence of diverse civil rights movements, including the Black Power movement, a new feminist movement, the student revolt of the late 1960's, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the anger of “middle America” at all the assaults on traditional American values, he explained.

“There were many more factions [in 1968] while now there are basically just two factions, one denouncing everything that anyone says that is critical of Trump and the other concerned we are losing all our values, etc.,” Chafe noted. 

In a letter addressed to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Chafe expressed his concern over the fact that Trump supporters do not communicate with Trump critics. A lack of conversation may significantly deteriorate American politics. 

Rohde said even if the Democrats are able to win the majority in the Congress in the midterm election, or are able to impeach Trump, or to control the Senate, the House of Representatives and the presidency at the same time in the 2020 election, it is not likely that American politics will return to how it operated 20 or 30 years ago. 

He added political scientists generally agree the U.S. political polarization at the elite level is massive. Although analysts disagree about the degree of polarization at the mass level, he personally thinks it is also increasing and hard to reverse.  

“Even if things were to start reversing in some magical way, to carry us back to a ‘better time,’ it will take about as long as for [the polarization] to develop, which is about half a century,” he said.

To Rohde, the future of the American politics is rather dark.

“If you think the situation is bad, get used to it,” Rohde said. “Because I think it will persist for fifty years, at least.”


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