Washington DC is fixated this week not on the US Capitol, or President Joe Biden further down on Pennsylvania Avenue, but on the island of Manhattan, where a grand jury appears poised to indict Donald Trump over a hush money payment to a porn star.
Mr Trump himself ignited the latest firestorm when he sent out a furious message over the weekend predicting his imminent arrest in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation into the former US president.
It is somewhat fitting that Mr Bragg – who came into office last year and immediately faced criticism assuming that he would not go after the former US president – now has the attention of Washington because, if he does indeed indict Mr Trump, he will have done what few in Washington could muster: actually hold Donald Trump accountable.
June will make eight years since Mr Trump threw a molotov cocktail into US politics. Everyone knew the former president would sow chaos for the GOP. Kevin McCarthy, then House majority leader, joked that Vladimir Putin paid Trump. Senator Lindsey Graham warned that his party would get destroyed if its voters nominated a “religious bigot” and a “kook” and “we will deserve it.”
But to borrow a phrase from pro wrestler Ric Flair: to be the man, you got to beat the man. The only way to rid the party of Mr Trump is to forcefully stand up to him. But no Republican had the courage to hold him accountable. If Mr Trump’s exorcism would be good for the country, it simply cost too much for any elected official individually.
As longtime Trump chronicler Maggie Haberman of The New York Times says, Republican leaders and presidential candidates, as well as Democrats, hoped “someone else will take care of this”. That exercise in cowardice allowed Mr Trump to conduct a hostile takeover of American politics from which it will likely never recover, and we have each elected official who refused to do so to blame.
This was the calculus when few Republican presidential candidates would attack him head-on in the 2016 primary, when they had every opportunity to do so. In one of the first debates, when Mr Trump didn’t know about the nuclear triad – the United States’ ability to launch weapons from air, land and sea – Senator Marco Rubio avoided direct confrontation with him.
Similarly, Senator Ted Cruz, largely hoping to eventually lap up Mr Trump’s voter base once he eventually flamed out, refused to throw a punch at him. Rather, he said Mr Trump “is terrific”. Republican presidential candidates knew that Mr Trump could cost them future elections, but they also knew attacking him meant angering the base upon which they relied. So they threw up their hands and hoped someone else would deal with it.
Only once Mr Trump started to pose a real threat to their prospects – when Mr Trump dubbed Rubio “Liddle Marco” and called the wife of “Lyin’ Ted” ugly – did they offer mealy-mouthed barbs against him.
The same can be said for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Rather than try to quash Mr Trump early on, the Clinton campaign and Democrats hoped to elevate him, assuming he would be easier to beat than a more polished candidate like Jeb Bush. The Clinton campaign said in a memo: “We don’t want to marginalise the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party.”
All the while, Senator Chuck Schumer made clear he would not fight for the voters whom Mr Trump would eventually win, saying: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Mr Trump would go on to win three of those four states and make Ohio a reliable bastion of the GOP coalition.
Of course, few Republicans or Democrats found the wherewithal to take on Mr Trump once he came to prominence and won the White House. Rather, throughout his tenure, most Republicans such as Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, Cruz and Rubio ran interference for him even after he fired FBI Director James Comey and raged about the impending Robert Mueller investigation. And why would they challenge Mr Trump? He nominated cherry-picked conservative judges and signed sweeping tax cuts into law.
But for all their talk of opposing Mr Trump, Democratic leadership often hesitated to use their power to hold him accountable. Shortly after Democrats took back the House majority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “He’s just not worth it.” She refused entreaties from her caucus to push for impeachment and only did so when it became impossible to ignore his blatant attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which looks worse every day as Putin continues his bloody assault.
Even after the former US president incited a riot at the US Capitol, Republicans and Democats couldn’t find it in them to put Mr Trump away once and for all. Mr McCarthy reportedly said Mr Trump bore responsibility for the violence and told other Republicans privately: “I’ve had it with this guy.” Mitch McConnell privately said: “The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a b**** for us.”
Of course, both men lost their nerve and Mr McConnell only delivered a scorching exegesis after the impeachment trial ended with Mr Trump’s acquittal. Democrats didn’t necessarily cover themselves in glory either.
As Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian reported in their book, Democratic leaders wanted to cut short efforts to call witnesses in Mr Trump’s second impeachment trial because they wanted to focus more on passing Mr Biden’s agenda. Senator Chris Coons reportedly said: “Everyone here wants to go home. They have flights for Valentine’s Day. Some of them are already missing their flights.”
This is not to say elected officials do not have good reason to fear political ramifications. All but two Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach Mr Trump have left the House, either losing their primaries or retiring early. Two Republican senators who voted to convict Mr Trump and could have run for re-election in 2022 opted to retire. Another, Senator Lisa Murkowski, avoided a rocky primary because of Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system.
Politicians respond to incentives and there is no clear incentive to stand up to Mr Trump. Senator Mitt Romney seems to be the only Republican to have suffered few consequences and he is in the twilight of his career.
All of this means that if Mr Bragg decides to go forward with an indictment, he will have shamed all of Washington. To be fair, Mr Bragg won his elected office in liberal Manhattan, and a Trump indictment would probably prove salutary for his future political prospects.
His actions come with huge risk for him personally and if he fumbles the case, it may well spell the end of his political career. But if he succeeds, it will have revealed just how hollow Washington was in its warning cries about Mr Trump.