The President of the United States is in trouble. It’s just a bit hard to figure out what that trouble is.

That’s not unique to Donald Trump’s unfolding scandal. Remember, the scandal narratives of Richard Nixon’s Watergate crimes; Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra subterfuge; and Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky affair only grew clear over time—as did their relative severity, and the potential price each President might pay.

Where we stand with Trump’s still-unnamed Russia scandal compares to public knowledge and conjecture in those previous media-swarmed Presidential sagas, before the various smoking guns, shocking testimony, and special counsel reports filled in key pieces of those stories.

We’re not there yet with the current affair—as some senior Democrats are trying to impress upon their more excitable colleagues. Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed gave a cautious response to former FBI director James Comey’s testimony last week, while Massachusetts congressman Michael Capuano chastised a fellow member for publicly raising the possibility of impeachment, according to a report in The Hill.

They are correct to tone down the rhetoric until we know the facts—which might not come until special counsel Robert Mueller completes his work, potentially many months from now.

Still, we have moved passed a tipping point where it is clear that the President’s actions will deserve and require some form of punitive response. Trump badly wanted to end the investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 U.S. election process, particularly as that investigation concerned his campaign confidant and national security appointee Mike Flynn. His inappropriate attempts to shut that investigation down ranged from downplaying and even disputing the attack itself, to firing the FBI director.

He has even sent out signals that he might attempt to fire Mueller and quash the investigation.

All of this is enough to merit censure of some kind, even before discovering what the investigation might find.

Impeachment is indeed a fantasy. Congressional Republicans would need to take the lead for that process to even begin, and they have made a political calculation that they need to defend Trump, not condemn him.

That equation was only strengthened this week, with a stunning near-upset in the Virginia gubernatorial primary. Republican political powerhouse Ed Gillespie only narrowly defeated a Trumpian candidate who ran on defending confederate monuments and other vestiges of, as he put it, “our culture, our heritage, and our country.”

That unexpectedly close race will heighten the fear of Congressional Republicans, who worry that turning against Trump will enrage those same voters in their own primaries.

They also know that impeachment, even with the cooperation of Republicans, would alienate independent voters, turning them off the GOP. The fallout could depress and enervate Republicans for years.

A similar political analysis applies to other potential ways that congressional Republicans, and other party leaders, could attempt to reprimand or penalize the President.

Adding further to the GOP’s quiescence is the connection of many of its leaders to the subjects of the investigation—the Trump campaign and administration.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a top inner-circle member of the Trump campaign. He chose to voluntarily testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in defense of Trump this week, but to hold back from discussing anything potentially damaging to the President or himself. His argument, that he can’t reveal matters on which the President might theoretically later invoke executive privilege, is meritless and contemptuous from the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Likewise, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers improperly refused to reveal information about Trump when they testified before that committee.

Meanwhile, top campaign personnel including Newt Gingrich and Corey Lewandowski were out publicly defending Trump and criticizing Comey and Mueller. And Trump’s cabinet members staged a shocking televised display of subservient praise for the President.

Above It All

Even if political actors find the will to act, it’s unclear whether Trump is susceptible to the traditional forms that such action would take.

Presidents are constrained in this country—by design—less by legal and formal consequences, and more by political pressures that encourage adherence to norms and expectations. Congress, voters, party leaders, the bureaucracy, the press, and others can deliver pain to a President who strays from those norms in a variety of ways, from stalling his legislative agenda to dragging administration officials into depositions and trials.

Those informal or indirect political pulleys and levers have generally worked pretty well to rein in the worst tendencies of those who reach our most powerful office. They are far less likely to work with this President, who seems unconcerned with norms and expectations, and as a result may be indifferent to those pressures.

Trump seems perfectly willing to throw loyal staff, friends, and even family to the wolves when necessary, so prosecutors hounding them won’t likely change his behavior. He has little, if any, interest in or commitment to policy, so he won’t really be moved by failure of his agenda. Disapproval from a majority of Americans—Gallup’s tracking poll has him barely receiving approval of a third of the electorate—has been a fact of his political life since he declared himself a candidate, and has yet to modify his behavior.

Prosecuting Trump while he holds the office is likely unrealistic. The potentially disruptive consequences of legal cases against a President virtually immunizes him, realistically, unless Mueller finds evidence he poses an extraordinary ongoing threat—in which case impeachment will likely come quicker.

Again, we don’t know how serious Trump’s misbehavior is. But it is serious.

The overused axiom that the cover-up is always worse than the crime was borne of the Watergate scandal, and applied to Iran-Contra and the Lewinsky scandal; it will surely be said of Trump’s Russia scandal once the details are discovered.

But it’s a misleading notion. In truth, the two go hand-in-hand: those in power abuse it because they believe they can also use that power to escape the consequences.

That’s why it’s so important both to discover the truths that Mueller’s and Congress’s investigations are seeking, and to take seriously the attempts of Trump, Sessions, and others to prevent those investigations from doing that work.

Because if Trump doesn’t face meaningful trouble, then we do.