General David Petraeus’ famous question to a journalist about the Iraq war can also be asked of the Trump presidency. There are four broad options.
1. Normalization/January 2021. Many supporters and opponents of the president just hope he settles down, stops tweeting, makes reasonable even if dull speeches, and works with the Republican Congress to enact the Republican program of tax cuts, smaller government, and increased military spending. By the way, this change of behavior could even lead to Trump’s reelection, continuing his presidency until January 2025.
2. Impeachment/March 2019. Democratic leaders don’t want to talk about this because they know it can’t happen until enough Republicans turn against Trump, for whatever reasons. That could happen if Trump alienates congressional Republicans by opposing some of their key initiatives or if he loses so much public support he drags down their candidates. If Democratic gains in the 2018 elections are enough to give the party control of either house of Congress, the investigative subpoenas will fly like snowflakes and multiple scandals will be broadcast around the clock. If Republicans won’t defend Trump, it won’t matter what his own defenses are.
3. Paralyzed presidency/sometime after summer 2017. Any of several possibilities could isolate the president from all but a residual 35% or so public support – faltering economy, terrorist attack, poorly handled foreign policy crisis, disclosures of presidential lies or misbehavior. Imagine nearly simultaneous events like a sharp recession, a war in Korea, and a terrorist attack on the DC subway – and then add leaked presidential tax returns. The best case is political gridlock; the worst case is armed partisan bands fighting in our cities and normal government services disrupted.
4. Resignation in frustration/sometime after mid-2018. Trump could decide to leave office, either declaring victory – that he had accomplished all he could, given the political and media opposition – or declaring war against his political enemies and rallying his supporters for the 2018 elections. He could still hold his head high – he had been president – and he could still blame others for his shortfalls.
The Trump presidency seems so chaotic and unstable at the moment that something has to change, and only one possible change leads to a calmer America. The others portend political and economic turmoil, with few incentives to unify for solutions.