Maybe it was my last post that did it. After waiting all year for Democrats to open up impeachment hearings over a clearly lawless president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally decided to open impeachment hearings, or rather an impeachment inquiry, which amounts to the same thing.
It sure is curious though. Mueller’s report has been out since March and it documented ten episodes of obstruction of justice by Trump. The report technically wasn’t needed. There was plenty of impeachable conduct prior to its release that was illegal if true, along with a trail of Trump detritus-charged or convicted of crimes committed at Trump’s behest.
Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen is sitting in jail right now for his offense, but his un-indicted co-conspirator “Individual-1” isn’t because, well, he’s the President of the United States, and the U.S. Justice Department has decided justice is deferred for presidents until they are out of office. Impeachment though is a political judgment, not a criminal one. There was no reason to wait other than cowardice, unless you believe in game theory.
Why is it that Trump’s attempt to strong arm Ukraine to help his reelection seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? After all, during the campaign Trump invited Russia to hack the Democratic Party, and they thoughtfully obliged. But our political wags didn’t see this offense as impeachable. It’s clear that Trump has crossed many big blue lines. I just thought any obstruction of justice allegation would be a big blue line too.
While no one is breathing a sigh of relief, this is the first truly hopeful sign that Trump won’t finish his term. It suddenly feels different, simply because it’s causing quakes in Congress that weren’t manifested before, mostly among Republicans.
Pelosi probably would not have opened an impeachment inquiry at all had it not been for these whistleblower’s charges, which we can finally read online. I’m convinced though that Trump feels truly victimized. He has no idea that his conduct could be illegal because, well, he is profoundly ignorant on matters of the law and avoids being educated. As far as he is concerned, ignorance is an excuse. Moreover, when his people tried to make him act adult-ish, he fired them. So now he has an administration full of sycophants.
He spent his life breaking the rules and largely getting away with it, so this is normal for him. You can often do that if you can afford to throw teams of lawyers at your problems. It’s the way he has always done business: running them like a criminal syndicate and ripping off anyone foolish enough to partner or work with him. He must have figured Republicans in Congress would keep him from facing any consequences. When Democrats won the House in 2018, that illusion was shattered. But he still has the Senate, its Republican majority and control of the 67 senators he needs to avoid conviction.
Is this still true? The Senate has 53 Republicans so at least 20 would have to be persuaded to convict him for him to go. I certainly thought so in my last post, but political friends are rarely true friends. Basically Trump has no friends. I don’t believe there is one Republican senator that wakes up and thinks, “Gosh, Trump and me have so much in common. I wish I could spend more time with Donald Trump.” He certainly has plenty of sycophants like Lindsey Graham that are ready to kiss up to him. Graham used to hate Trump until it was in his political interest to like him, i.e. when his voters voted for Trump. It’s an open secret that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dislikes him. He’ll join Trump to advance goals of mutual interest, like getting more conservative jurists on our courts. I don’t think he has ever joined Trump for eighteen holes of golf.
Impeachment and conviction then are ultimately political decisions. That’s how it worked for Richard Nixon. So if a senator up for reelection determines he will pay a political price for not convicting Trump, he might bale on Trump. Trump’s running in 2020 is supposed to help his reelection, not hurt it.
As I noted though, Trump’s approval rating in many red states are tipping negative. Those senators up for reelection that clearly affected by Trump’s unpopularity include Susan Collins (ME), Joanie Ernst (IA), Thom Tillis (NC), Martha McSally (AZ) and David Purdue (GA). Right there that’s five seats that could go to Democrats, which would give Democrats the majority in, even if Doug Jones (AL) loses.
There are a number of red states where Trump’s net approval is at zero or only a few points above. I am using a Morning Consult Poll to track Trump’s approval by state, which is about a month old. This is potentially a concern for Steve Daines (MT, +0 Trump approval), John Cornyn (TX, +4), Ben Sasse (NE, +2) and Pat Roberts (KA, +4). If Trump turns toxic in these states, rather than riding his coattails, they could be pulled down with him.
There are other Republican senators up for reelection who are unpopular but haven’t gotten the memo. Take Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Just 18% of Kentuckians approve of the job he is doing, so he has less than half the national approval rating of Donald Trump. In a wave election, and with a good Democratic challenger, next year could be his last in the Senate, not to mention as majority leader.
Trump’s impeachment will be the dominant story for months, and probably all of 2020. If it goes to a trial in the Senate, each senator will be making their own political calculation and may decide they have better prospects if they vote to convict him. The Ukraine evidence is damning. There is no way to say it isn’t. All senators can say is that although it’s damning, they won’t convict Trump anyhow.
Still, getting 67 senators to convict is a huge problem. But will a vote ever be taken? Republican consultant Mike Murphy says 30 Republican senators would vote to convict Trump if the vote was secret. It’s not hard to see Mitch McConnell going to the White House to tell Trump that the votes to convict him are there, so he should resign. That might do it. It worked with Richard Nixon. More importantly, for Trump, resignation would be preferable to actual conviction, a distinction Donald Trump’s fragile ego could not endure.
But there’s another reason Trump should prefer to resign. Presumably Trump would require some conditions for his resignation: a promise from Vice President Pence to pardon him for all related crimes. Because what Trump is scared of the most is not his impeachment, or losing his reelection, but going on trial for his crimes. When he is out of office for any reason, at least before 2023, he’s fair game for prosecutors.
If he wins reelection, he’s golden: he can wait out the statute of limitations. But this is a huge and problematic bet for him, particularly with his unfavorables, a recent impeachment dogging him and a possible recession arriving. Doubtless there is some thought that by being exonerated by the Republican Senate he can claim innocence and ride that to a reelection victory. But look at it from Trump’s perspective: do you want to hope you can win reelection despite the unfavorable odds? Or do you want some assurance that you won’t ever go to jail, if you can be assured of a bunch of Pence pardons? Trump is mostly bluster. I think he’ll go with saving his own skin.
Ultimately, he’ll prefer the golden prison of Trump Tower to the bare metal one with cinder blocks in a federal penitentiary.