Will Trump ever face a tipping point?

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday April 14, 2019.

Among watchers of the Trump White House, it has become this season’s party game to speculate whether the latest reason for outrage will be the final straw in this quixotic presidency — something akin in significance to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, or the Supreme Court decision compelling Nixon to turn over Oval Office tapes.

History now teaches us, clearly, that both instances helped accelerate the end of Nixon’s presidency, gradually in the case of the Saturday Night Massacre and then suddenly with the judgment pertaining to the Oval Office tapes.

But would it be President Trump’s not-so-coy flirtation with white nationalism (née white supremacy) when in the aftermath of Charlottesville, he declared there were “some very fine people on both sides?” That incident was so outrageous senior Jewish staffers, including Trump’s former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, reportedly drafted letters of resignation, and yet nothing came of it.

Or would it be his attempt to fire Robert Mueller, which was ordered and then retracted when Donald McGahn, White House counsel at the time, threatened to resign?

Perhaps it would be the president’s negligent response to Hurricane Maria and the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans in Puerto Rico. His chumminess with authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Kim Jong Un. His violation of the Emoluments Clause.

Or maybe even his ownership of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

In every instance, the pattern has been the same. The president simply carries on, while congressional Republicans express concern or consternation, sometimes going so far as to contemplate resignation, but all the while never actually taking any concrete steps toward meaningful oversight.

Now with the U.S. confronting a manufactured crisis at its southern border, news comes that it could take up to two years to reunite children separated from their families under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Pile on the resignation of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and the subsequent purge of officials within the department as Trump and his hardline immigration adviser Stephen Miller seek a bureaucrat sufficiently compliant to carry out an anti-immigration agenda of questionable legality.

And the question again becomes has Trump’s presidency reached a breaking point?

It has been eight weeks since the president declared a national emergency, unrepentant about using the proclamation as cover to divert billions of dollars towards a border wall that Congress had already pointedly declined to fund.

That the “emergency” was in fact a sham has always been clear, but it was crystallized even more so with Nielsen’s resignation — even as the country remains without a confirmed secretary of defence.

Nielsen, who oversaw the brutal and inhumane policy of family separations, has been hounded from office after she reportedly resisted Trump’s orders to close ports of entry along the border and illegally turn away asylum-seekers. Nielsen had also been backing the nomination of Ronald Vitiello as the new director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a nomination which Trump withdrew as, in his view, the role needed a more intense hard-liner.

Trump’s announcement (by tweet, of course) that Kevin McAllenan would take over as acting secretary of Homeland Security skirts a law requiring Nielsen’s existing undersecretary from filling the role — she too is reportedly skeptical of Trump and Miller’s approach to managing the so-called crisis, and the White House is now heavily pressuring her to step aside to allow McAllenan to step fully into the position.

Were this an ordinary administration in ordinary times, any of these incidents would have been enough to trigger the denouement of a presidency.

The hollowing out of the executive branch of government, by all the president’s yes men, bears a striking resemblance to the Saturday Night Massacre. The president has clearly signalled his intent to fill his cabinet with people who will act in his way, saying, “I like acting. It gives me more flexibility.”

And so the question remains: Given this unique combination of the president’s shamelessness and the Republican Party’s craven desire to maintain its hold on power, will there ever come a tipping point? Those waiting for Trump’s Nixon moment may well be waiting a long time yet.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt