If There’s No “Smocking” Gun, Why Is Trump So Terrified?

The honorific changes hands with the speed of the news cycle, but for the time being, the title of “Smartest Person In DC” belongs to a 36-year-old Republican operative from Georgia named Nick Ayers. Currently serving as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Ayers’s name was all over the news this weekend after President Trump announced the at-long-last departure of his own chief of staff, John Kelly.

Ayers was a shoo-in to replace Kelly, most everyone agreed. Those who considered him a good fit for the spot pointed to his youth and vigor — Ayers looks a fair bit like the cherubic mass-murderer from the second half of “Breaking Bad” — and his deep connections with the Freedom Caucus wing of Congress. Both would serve him well in the storms to come, but for one problem: Turns out he is actually too smart to take the job.

Ayers took a long look at what was a supremely bad weekend for the White House and said, “Check please.” On Sunday afternoon, he sent his official regrets at turning down the chief of staff position with a tweet:

Translation: “Thank you but nope nope nope nope. I’ll be over there doing MAGA things but nope nope nope, no way, no how. #nope”

It really was a bad weekend for the White House. The Robert Mueller team dropped the sentencing paperwork for Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen on Friday. While the redacting pen was as busy with these documents as they were with Michael Flynn’s on Tuesday, there was enough bleeding meat on the bone to send Trump into a weekend-long, terrified Twitter frenzy that was precisely as fact-free and frightened as his last Twitter frenzy about whatever it was about.

The Friday documents had two significant thuds buried within. The first was that Manafort lied like Jeff Lebowski’s rug about his contacts with various Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign, and after Trump took office in 2017.

This was combined with the revelation that Trump personally approved a plan to have Cohen reach out to Russian government contacts regarding the construction of a new Trump Tower in Moscow, a fact Trump denied multiple times both before and after the campaign. All the various Russia-related interactions, by Manafort and others associated with Trump, were weaved into a thick rope by The Washington Post in its Sunday edition.

The second thud was unrelated to Russia specifically, but may come to be equally damaging to Trump. In his plea, Cohen admitted to breaking a pair of campaign financing laws — giving $130,000 to Stormy Daniels and directing publisher AMI to pay $150,000 to Karen McDougal — at the direct bidding of the president. In his own words, Cohen told Mueller that payments made to McDougal and Daniels were done “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” also known as “Individual 1,” also known as Donald Trump. “I participated in this conduct,” Cohen continued, “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”

Trump reacted to being directly implicated in a pair of impeachable felonies with his usual measured calm:

“Smocking Gun” is what makes it art.

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will be sworn in a scant 23 days from now. “There’s a very real prospect,” soon-to-be intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff told The Chicago Tribune, “that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him, that he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.”

“On the day he leaves office.” Interesting choice of words there. Impeachment, long seen as a fool’s errand with the current Republican majority in the Senate, seems to feel more real with the arrival of each new damning chunk of evidence. Schiff’s line about “On the day he leaves office” suggests Trump’s resignation would serve as a ready solution to this swelling calamity… except that, even if Trump does step down, Schiff expects law enforcement will still want a word with him anyway.

Campaign finance felonies. Brazen abrogation of the emoluments clause. Myriad tax investigations into the Trump Organization and the so-called “nonprofit” Trump Foundation. Broad daylight obstruction of justice in the firing of James Comey. Oh, and look at all those Russian connections.

Ayers gets to hang on to that “Smartest Person” title for a good while, I think, like the bandleader who turned down the Titanic gig. Unsinkable, indeed.