The two biggest disasters in Trump’s presidency have both been cases where these guardrails collapsed, and the president actually got his way in full. He actually fired James Comey, setting in motion the probe whose workings dominated his first term, and his Homeland Security apparatus actually separated thousands of migrant children from their families, creating the biggest moral scandal of his presidency.
But in other cases he has been protected by the “don’t-give-him-the-alligator” operations all around him. Indeed, the ultimate fizzle of the Mueller report was possible because that report ended up documenting a president whose staff let him rant about obstructing justice, but then — in Mueller’s own words — mostly “declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
With the Ukraine scandal, though, this protection has broken down again. (Not least because in Rudy Giuliani, Trump found an adviser even more enthusiastic about alligators than his boss.) The quest to get Ukraine’s government to reopen an investigation that would touch the Biden family wasn’t just a wish that Trump expressed; it was a policy objective that, however reluctantly and haphazardly, the U.S. government seems to have pursued. Trump’s now-publicized conversation with the Ukrainian prime minister was itself an act of foreign policy, not just a spitballing conversation, and, whatever its intentions, so was the delay of military aid. We can’t see the full body of the alligator, but you can see it moving in the water; it’s right there.