BuzzFeed News dropped a bombshell this week: On Thursday night, the site reported that President Trump personally ordered his then-attorney Michael Cohen to lie to congressional investigators about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Russia. He also reportedly instructed Cohen to organize a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the presidential campaign where the two men could begin negotiations on the tower, telling Cohen to "make it happen."
"Cohen's testimony marks a significant new frontier," reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier wrote. "It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia."
If the story is true and backed by evidence — BuzzFeed cited "two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter" who in turn said their account was based on witness testimony, Trump organization emails, and text messages — then two things are now apparent: First, Congress will have no choice but to commence impeachment proceedings, and soon. Second, America might be on the cusp of something bigger and scarier than a mere constitutional crisis. We're about to risk a full-blown civil crisis.
As to the first point: This moment has come sooner than Democratic leaders probably expected. It's been barely more than a week since party leaders distanced themselves from freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib's (D-Mich.) exclamation that "we're going to impeach the motherf---er." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) probably was hoping for some extra time — to do things like re-open government, maybe pass a Democratic bill or two — before turning to the problem of Trump. There are also practical reasons for the slow-walk: As The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum wrote in his new "Impeach Trump" cover story for the magazine, Democratic leaders have been worried that — like Bill Clinton before him — Trump might come through an impeachment process more popular and empowered than before. "Pelosi and her antediluvian leadership team served in Congress during those fights two decades ago," Appelbaum observed, "and they seem determined not to repeat their rivals' mistakes."
If the BuzzFeed News report is true — and God help the entire journalism profession if it's not — the matter has pretty much been taken out of Pelosi's hands. Political calculations will wither in the face of concrete evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors by the president.
That doesn't mean the danger is lessened, however.
Thanks to Fox News, Breitbart News, and other Trumpist media, there are potentially millions of Americans who think that the critical political scandal of the day is that the president is even being investigated at all. The FBI's approval rating among Republicans, for example, has plummeted during the last two years. Those audiences have been assured that the FBI-media-deep-state cabal is about to collapse of its own internal rot. They won't be happy when they find out reality conflicts with the stories they've been told.
Just how unhappy? In his Atlantic essay, Appelbaum raised the possibility of political violence, only to immediately dismiss it: Trump, he wrote, would be too busy managing the scandal to play demagogue. "If impeached, Trump would lose the luxury of venting his resentments before friendly crowds, stirring their anger," Appelbaum wrote. "His audience, by political necessity, would become a few dozen senators in Washington."
That doesn't sound like Trump, though. His greatest successes — and, apparently, greatest joys — have come when he treated Washington as an audience secondary to his fans on Twitter, talk radio, and at political rallies. That approach allowed him to defy the odds and unexpectedly win the presidency. Why would he abandon it in his moment of greatest political danger? It's possible we have not yet seen the president at his most rabble-rousing extreme, and that's a terrifying prospect. Even more terrifying is that we don't know how that anger might play out in the streets and communities of America. Keeping the peace may well become a challenge.
This country has never been all the way down the path of impeaching and actually removing a president from office. The efforts against Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson fell short in the Senate; Nixon bailed before Congress could formally vote to impeach. It seems unlikely Trump would spare the country a divisive impeachment trial — unless, perhaps, he can put his vaunted dealmaking skills to use in order to save himself and his family. We haven't reached that endgame yet.