What A Mess
The Republicans’ Trump Problem—And Ours
So far, there’s no sign at all that they’re willing to put America’s ahead of the Donald’s—but Trump’s plummeting popularity could change their math.
It’s the question of the hour, every hour now: What has to happen to make Republicans, even a few of them, put country before party and do what needs to be done about Donald Trump?
That something serious needs to be done is clear. Trump has arguably been impeachable since the day he took office, over his clear flouting of the emoluments clause and anti-nepotism laws. But I get that those weren’t big enough deals to light up public opinion. And maybe the Comey firing isn’t either, even after it came out Monday evening that Trump had shared our friends’ best, biggest and most secret secrets with the Russians right afterward. The recent rash of polls, before this latest news, on the matter tend to show pluralities disapproving of the firing, but the usual Trump die-hard group of about 30 percent supporting, with a frustratingly high “don’t know enough to have an opinion.”
But it has enraged informed opinion, and it’s no mystery why. If you are a Republican or conservative who has concocted in your brain some justification for what Trump did, consider this hypothetical. Imagine Hillary Clinton had won. She became the president. James Comey was investigating her campaign. And she fired him. After asking him to dinner and trying to exact a pledge of loyalty from him.
You wouldn’t be able to see straight. The House Judiciary Committee would without any doubt have already started drawing up articles of impeachment. Fox News would have started running a “Hillary Clinton days remaining in office” chyron.
And your outrage would be justified. It would have been intolerable for a President Clinton to have done that (and I would not have defended it, but I’m also certain she never would have done such a thing). And it’s intolerable for President Trump to do it.
Republicans know this. They know that a special prosecutor is not only justified but necessary, even though only two of them that I’m aware of (House members Walter Jones and Justin Amash) have joined the call for one. Those two, at least, see—finally—how dangerous Trump is. They understand that they can’t control him the way they once thought.
Yet the overwhelmingly majority of them, led by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, persist in obsequiousness. As I wrote Friday, “If they can pass their tax cuts for the rich, end Obamacare, and put conservative judges on the Supreme Court and the federal circuit courts, they’ll let Trump do what he wants.”
So, back to the question: What has to happen? One of two things.
First, there does exist a chance, however slim, that something substantive that Trump says or does—volunteering our allies’ secrets to the Russians, for instance!—or some substantive revelation, will be too much even for Republicans. Hard to know what this would be. It would have to be something with dead-obvious constitutional ramifications. In other words, this eliminates a lot of things. They impeached Bill Clinton over lying about blow jobs. But a woman or ten could come forward with explosive sexual allegations and the tapes to prove it, and if it didn’t involved Trump’s comportment as president I don’t think the GOP would budge.
But let’s say, for example, that Trump did reinstitute taping in the Oval Office, and did have tapes of his chats with Comey—but destroyed them. Those tapes would be, would have been, the property not of the president but of the government of the United States. The Presidential Records Act requires that any tapes be preserved.
If that were to happen, that just might do it. We’re probably about to watch some version of this play out before us. It seems pretty clear, from the way Trump and Sean Spicer have talked, that he was indeed taping. Will Republicans demand the tapes? Lindsey Graham has, although he also gave Trump the out of saying that he (Graham) doubts they really exist. But if they do exist, and if they would prove (as everyone assumes) that Trump is lying, then who could put it past him destroying them?
But we’re still only at “might,” which brings us to the second thing that may flip Republicans. And it’s really the only thing. Self-preservation. Let’s say my destroyed tapes scenario turns out to be true. Then there will be multiple calls for impeachment and/or resignation, from nearly every Democrat, from most important newspapers, and even from a few Republicans.
Then Trump’s polling numbers go down below 30. And 30 percent is a crucial benchmark because that’s about the percentage of Americans who are loyal partisan Republicans. If he’s down to 25, that will mean he’s losing even Republicans in fairly large numbers. That, in turn, will mean he’ll start to be a liability to Republican House members in swing districts. And if gets down into the low 20s, that will mean Republicans are really jumping ship.
The Cook Report currently rates six Republican-held House seats as toss-ups, 18 as leaning Republican, and 19 as likely Republican. If Trump’s ratings tumble, Cook will start shifting some likelys to leaning, and it will come clear to Ryan that his majority is seriously at risk.
In other words—and this is the hard political point—it doesn’t have to be that the GOP House members in the deepest-reddest districts feel that Trump threatens their hold on their seats. That won’t happen until Trump gets down to the single digits. But if the 43 Republicans Cook rates as representing potentially vulnerable districts sense that Trump is going to bring them down, then essentially the whole party will abandon Trump if the leaders decide it’s what they have to do to keep the House majority. The House majority is more important to them than Trump for a host of reasons. Trump’s just useful to them, for now.
Now that I think about it, the scenario above won’t really count as putting country ahead of party, will it? It will merely constitute putting the congressional Republican Party ahead of the presidential Republican Party. So the real answer to the question that opened this column, about when Republicans will put country ahead of party, is never.
But you knew that already.